A soldier kisses the young girl’s hand, smiles, waves and moves on.
A potent image of why, in April, the majority of able men made their way to the front line to support the regular troops. It was about defence, protection, safety, and most importantly family and children. It was about preserving a present day reality and not re-igniting a wish for a perceived past status that only lives in the minds of the Azerbaijani propagandists, and politicians, and which can only be created following significant misery, and blood-shed . The vast majority of the present-day citizens of Artsakh were born into families with long legacies in those lands with 40% of the population having been born there since the ceasefire in 1994.
In April, following the 4 day war, Talish, one of the largest villages in Artsakh was substantially destroyed and around 3000 people from that region were displaced. Many found temporary accommodation in Stepanakert after fleeing with no possessions. Others were housed within the Martakert region. Humanitarian aid was sent from Diaspora groups which assisted those who left only with the clothes they wore, and personal items they could carry. Those who struggled, financially, benefitted from a $75 per person cash grant from the International Commission for the Red Cross based in Stepanakert.
Talish is vulnerable, being in a basin below the high ground that is now within Azerbaijani control. Those who were forced to leave Talish cannot sensibly return and discussions are on-going about a long term re-location policy.
The new border is a dangerous place, and is worryingly close to Martakert. Tense.
Although it was clear that the Azerbaijani objective was to take Artsakh, documents retrieved from dead Azeri military showed plans for capturing Suynik, the southern region of Armenia. There are anecdotes that mercenary Islamic State fighters were engaged in the conflict, and that there were many dead bodies deliberately not recovered by Azerbaijan following the cease fire. A disengaged “army” fighting for a nebulous objective may explain why their success was nominal. Conversely on the Artsakh side, thousands of volunteers, including many veterans from the war in the 90s, and men from Armenia made their way to the front line, without hesitation – a totally formidable defensive capability.
In Stepanakert, in late July, everything, on the surface, was surprisingly normal. There was no obvious heightened military presence. People were going about their daily business without any sense of fear or trepidation. Below the surface there was widespread opinion, and attitudes. For some there was a view that the war will re-start with a sense of inevitability in just a few months. Others believe that there was a lesson learnt by the Azerbaijanis and that the warning signs that were present just prior to April were not evident in July 2016. How this plays out with Putin is another large roll of the dice. For those in the north-east, life will not be normal for a very long time.
In Yerevan, there were armed Artsakh war veterans holding hostages in a local Police building. The underlying issue was the belief that the “buffer zone”/”liberated territories” protecting the citizens of Artsakh had been negotiated away “behind closed doors”. For 21 years everyone in Artsakh was supremely confident that this was never a matter of discussion, it was totally non-negotiable.
President Sargsyan of Armenia, recently stated:
“I would like to speak about another issue, which we have spoken about on many occasions. It is about the Karabakh issue and so called “surrender of lands.” My personal statements with regard to our clear-cut position on that are probably numberless. I repeat once again: there will be no unilateral concessions in the resolution of the NK issue. Never. Nagorno Karabakh will never be part of Azerbaijan. Never.I repeat once again:it is out of question. I have given my entire adult life to this. To get to the solution acceptable for my nation, I have always been ready to sacrifice any position, and also my life. It is like that today, it will like that tomorrow.”
If President Sargsyan had said this a few weeks ago then 2 deaths would have been avoided…or is it that people don’t believe him? The people of Artsakh need clarity, reassurance and a positive position. It is clear for those who live in Artsakh, that the current borders are fixed – the April losses need to be recovered. No legitimate state should allow its land to be occupied.
The biggest city in the buffer zone was Aghdam. A place with a curious reputation for foreigners but which holds many riches for farming. The vast hot, flat plains are ripe for water melons, and other crops and July is a good time for picking.
Although Aghdam is within firing range of the front line, has some degree of military presence, and an uncleared minefield, there are always people passing through, carrying out business. Surprisingly, there are around 50 families who have moved to live in the area occupying very poor conditions. We were taken to one place, by a young lad on a horse ; Aghdam is impossible to navigate once off the main through-road unless in the company of an experienced local.
He took us to his parents “house”. It looked like an old civic building. One space was the marital room, with a corner reserved for make-up and toiletries, a “lounge” and then an outside room for the 6 children. Their washing facilities were housed outside in what looked like an old carriage dropped next to a green, pungent, stagnant pond, home to a wide variety of colourful insects. In Artsakh, any family with 6 children is entitled to a free property – although a formal commitment, they were still waiting for their new home. They originally came from Sisian in Armenia, and were now engaged in farming within Aghdam. In April, a bomb landed just a few yards from their house – but they have no choice but to stay there in the full knowledge that one day they may not be so lucky.
A few miles down the road is the new village of Vazganashen; prior to the end of the war this was an Azerbaijani village called Abdal-Gyulabli which was one of the places where some evacuees from Khojalu were taken in late February 1992. The village has been re-built to house local citizens. Further into the mountains, along a road which, 20+ years ago was a clear route to Aliyev’s (President of Azerbaijan SSR) leisure retreat and resort. The swimming pool was overgrown, the amenities suffering from 20 years of natural attack, and the main resort building disappearing in the undergrowth.
There is poverty in Vazganashen, and household conveniences are very basic. As clothes were handed out, I took the opportunity to look round one of the houses.
A young girl took me to their lounge and she was keen to show me her corner display that summed up everything that was important to them spiritually – the flags, the bible, a small replica of Tsitsnakerberd ( Armenian Genocide memorial in Yerevan) and a small model of Mount Ararat which she proudly presented in her hand.
Artsakh is never really about grand gestures for the occasional visitor, it is about these unplanned, hard-earned, gems, which just stop you in your tracks. Like the small gatherings of families enjoying the early evening in the side streets of Stepanakert welcoming you with fruit and coffee..
A wedding-couple at the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shushi
Birthday banquet in a rural village bringing all ages together for fun, food, music and dancing..
Life carries on despite the heightened intimidation from Azerbaijan and people maintain their resolve in some challenging conditions. It is not easy. But this is what the soldiers of Artsakh are fighting for…and dying for.
Despite the most recent flare-up I still see that this country is a safe place to visit. If you allow yourself to engage with the people, and open your mind and arms, they will be very warm towards you.
On the way back to Yerevan, from Stepanakert……we approached a truck full of soldiers, relaxing on their journey, perhaps going back to the front line. A honk of the horn, a thumbs up, big smiles….and we move on.