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“War is expensive”, says Saro casually in the car, while he is guiding us around the city of Stepanakert. He knows, what he is talking about, being a refugee from Baku, a former soldier of Soviet army and veteran of Nagorno Karabakh war. Now living back in Karabakh, he offered himself to be our guide guiding us around the cities and villages of this self-proclaimed country, which wasn’t officially recognized despite its long struggle for independence. Saro pays most of his attention to famous places and buildings and words about war come out of his mouth almost accidentally, uttered in a matter of fact tone without any kind of emphasis, yet they stay with me the most. War is expensive. And in this small country of about 150 000 people, it is visible at every step.

Nagorno Karabakh is located in Southern Caucasus and already its name implies some kind of discrepancy. „Nagorno“ is a Russian word which means Mountainous while Karabakh comes from Turkish „Kara“ (black) and Persian „Bakh“ (Garden). The name describes quite well the situation of the land which is claimed by two conflicting sides – Armenians and Azeris – and also hints at the important fact that often it was the intervention of the third party by which the decisions about this area were made. That’s probably why locals prefer it’s Armenian name – Artsakh – the name of this province during the era of Greater Armenia. Thus, in February 2017 they renamed The Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh to the Republic of Artsakh. And search for the area in Google maps will only heighten the confusion since you will find it as a part of Azerbaijan. Yet you won’t be able to get there from Azerbaijan, nor will you find any Azerbaijanis living there. For us to get there we had to start in Armenia, taking the flight to Yerevan, its capital, a stone circle designed in monumental communist style, sitting deep down in its valley and forever longing after the heights of mountains that surround it.

In Yerevan, we rented a car and soon we were heading south towards the forbidden land of Nagorno-Karabakh. Ararat was guiding our way, seemingly so close you could touch it, but in reality completely of out of the grasp – ours and more importantly Armenian, because this national symbol of Armenia doesn’t lie on its land and due to the closed borders with Turkey they are not even able to visit it. And the reason for that is again the black garden of Karabakh. A strange thing that even after the Armenian genocide at the beginning of the 20th century, during which around 1,5 million of Armenians perished by the hands of Ottoman Turks, relationships were still maintained, only to be finally broken and closed down because of the consequences of Karabakh dispute. And so the Ararat stands there, a high reminder of injustices, either justified or alleged. Sometime after it finally stepped from our way we arrived into mountains which give the name to the region, we passed Wings of Tatev, a city of Goriz, few more mountains and soon the road led us into a little valley with small outpost next to the road. Soldiers took our papers, asked us for a reason for our visit and gave us a stamp on a piece of paper inserted in our passports.

 

We first went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where were to get our Visa and meet the official press team, which was going to provide for us the official information and contacts. We were met by a calm, pleasant and well-conducted young man named Artak. When we presented the purpose of our visit, his face darkened.

“Is it human for somebody to break into someone else’s bedroom and murder him with an ax while he sleeps? And not even that he didn’t go to a prison, after coming back to his country, he was honored as a hero by their president!” Referred Artak to the incident in which an Azerbaijani officer killed an Armenian one during a peace conference in Hungary. “Or in April, some old people stayed behind in their village when they attacked us. And when their neighbors came back, they were dead and their ears and noses were cut off. Tell me, what kind of person can do something like this?”

This time he meant an April War, four days long escalation of violence between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan in April 2016, which marked a significant turn for worse in relationships between both countries and pushed the peaceful solution of the conflict again little further into a realm of wishful thinking. Talking about these events you could feel the emotion swelling turbulently deep inside him with the intensity that only calm, collected men are able to produce. It was clear that even well educated, intelligent journalist, is not able to maintain his impartiality or at least a little more reserved approach. We were curious about what we will discover talking with the regular residents of the country.

To find the roots of the present conflict isn’t an easy task. Although the religious context of Armenian Christianity versus Azerbaijani Islam could be the first to come to mind, that is not necessarily the case, as one of the foremost experts on the area – Thomas de Waal – asserts. During the Soviet Union era, of which the republics – Soviet Socialistic Republic of Armenia and the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan – were both parts of, their people used to live together peacefully. But then again it is precisely the Soviet Union with its strict and rigid structure that gave rise to the hatred between both nations.

In 1923, Stalin placed Нагорно-Карабахская автономная область (Autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh) under the jurisdiction of Azerbaijan SSR overlooking the fact that its population was mainly Armenian and that Armenians and Azerbaijani already fought for the territory previously. Had he wanted to resolve the enmity, he would probably let prevailing Karabakhi Armenians with Armenia SSR as they requested. But he didn’t. He gave Karabakh to Azerbaijan, hoping that with this gesture he will befriend Turks (who share common roots with Azerbaijanis), possibly even turning them towards communism. But that didn’t happen and he managed to plant a seed of discord, which slowly started to sprout. Armenians, of course, felt wronged and periodically asked Soviet leadership to be transferred under the jurisdiction of Armenian SSR. And with the same periodicity their pleas were ignored and rejected, as the Soviet leadership had more pressing matters to attend to.

 

Still, while the Soviet Union lasted, there were no real tensions, they came only after it collapsed, because at that time Armenians saw an opportunity to finally break away from Azerbaijan. As one of the architects of transpired events, Karen Ohanjanyan, told us: “After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan used a law which at that time existed in the union to declare its independence and we used the exact same law to declare the independence from Azerbaijan. From the point of the law, it was a brilliant move.”

What he didn’t mention was that the referendum, which took place in 1998 and in which Karabakhis unilaterally declared their independence, didn’t take into account some 40% of Azerbaijani population living in the country. Also, it cannot be said that the Armenians were suffering under the Azerbaijani yoke. They lived together and were similar in their customs to the point that it was sometimes hard to distinguish ones from the others. The regular people probably didn’t care that much under which government are they going to harvest their fruit and graze their sheep. Until they were made to care…

 

With the intellectual elite backing the separation, people soon followed, united under one case. They attended demonstrations in thousands. But with demonstrations came first clashes, when Azerbaijani citizens started to protest. Those clashes only heightened uncertainty and anxiety between both repeatedly alienated nations. And soon followed the expulsions. During the Soviet Union both people lived intermingled, but as the conflict escalated, both sides started to purge their land from newly alienated neighbors.

Soon there was no going back. In the Black Garden blossomed black petals and the Nagorno-Karabakh War was on.

The war took six years, from February 1988 until May 1994 and despite being heavily overwhelmed, Armenians won it. They managed to claim, or liberate, as they prefer to say, Nagorno-Karabakh and even extend its borders in a way that makes it well defensible. Thus they captured even some adjacent Azerbaijani regions they didn’t initially claim. In 1994 they won their freedom, but it was heavily paid for victory. As a country, Nagorno-Karabakh is not officially recognized and it and its big brother Armenia remains isolated by a Turkish-Azerbaijani blockage which followed after the war. Both Armenia and Karabakh are landlocked, they don’t have an open access to the sea and they are not particularly rich in natural resources. This isolation leans heavily on both countries and when we left Stepanakert, we were soon to see its effects.

Martuni, where we were heading, is located in the southeast of Karabakh, where the mountains slowly give way to the more flat terrain (which is also a case with Martakert and other regions to the east, the biggest mountains are actually on the border with Armenia and Karabakh is thus geographically more inclined towards Azerbaijan). It was getting warmer and sunnier as we left the highlands. That’s maybe why the people from here are more subtle, softer than weather-beaten warriors from the north. 

 

But still, they carry high pressure here because of the vicinity of the border and constant clashes that occur along its length. They call it “the line of contact”. Such a poetic name for this scar, carved in the land between both countries. There they watch in their trenches. They sit fortified against each other already for a quarter of a century with no sights of improvement for the future. For many voices, the only solution is another outbreak of war. Like the one that occurred last year in April.

At the time Azerbaijani forces attacked Karabakhis all along the border and in a full-scale combat were able to reclaim some parts of the territory. The Four Day War (or simply April War) claimed around 350 lives (exact numbers are again unknown because of the conflicting reports) and it was a cold shower for Karabakh army which it caught largely unprepared. It was the strongest escalation of violence since the cease-fire in 1994 and meant another worsening of the relationship between both countries. The message to all those who were hoping that the conflict could finally wither away and be forgotten was clear: “No, we haven’t forgotten and we still consider Karabakh ours.”

We came down to Martuni to ask about the escalation and life so close to the frontline. One of the women agreed to welcome us into her house. Her name was Hasmik and she was at home alone with her son. A motherly, simple woman with a shy, honest smile. She made us a tea and prepared some cookies and figs as a refreshment. She already got used to the life under constant danger, but during bigger escalations, it is hard to stay calm. She had tears in her eyes when she was talking about the last one when her husband didn’t show at home for almost a week and she didn’t know if he is alive.

When asked about what does her husband do, she replied laconically: “He is a soldier like the most of the men around here…” And truly, both Armenia and Azerbaijan count amongst the top ten militarized countries in the world. They say that if you want the peace, you should prepare for the war, but in these lands, this saying took entirely new direction. And there is not much left for the wives of the soldiers other than quietly waiting at home when, or whether their husbands come home.

Despite the danger, she didn’t want to leave. She considered this place her home, a notion we were to be met with again and again in many following interviews. Our last question was aimed at her son: “What would you want to be when you grow up?” His answer didn’t surprise us.

Agreements and arrangements can be made or broken, but to change the way of thinking takes a much longer time. If Thomas de Waal in his book Black Garden of Karabakh asserted that there is no natural enmity between Armenians and Azerbaijani, he was most likely right. But that generation of Armenians that used to play with Azerbaijani neighbors kids just across the street is slowly getting old. The generation coming of age today only knows them as enemies and it’s them who will decide the future.

Every young man has to serve on the frontline. Here, he will sit two years in the labyrinth of trenches, surrounded by mines and barbed wires with hanging metallic cans to warn about every incomer.

“You have to be careful here, not to step out of the path, these symbols here mean mines.” Warned us Gegham. Once I approached one of the posts to look at the opposite side and he curtly stopped me. “Don’t go there, because you can be shot.”

We at least wanted to see some of the soldier’s activities. He replied laconically: “This is their main activity. They have to stand on watch and look out for any movement from the opposite side.” That’s how it is. A long wait, painfully slow wait, interrupted at times by the outbursts of violence, danger, and fear. And waiting are not only the soldiers but their whole countries, already for a quarter of a century and it doesn’t seem that their patience will be rewarded any time soon…

Even after two decades, there are still remnants of the war, scattered around the ruins. Not only at the frontline but also further into the land it’s not advisable to wander too far from the road. De-mining processes are conducted by the British NGO HALO Trust. This organization focuses on de-mining post-war territories and works in places like Angola, Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and many others. Here in Nagorno-Karabakh it has been active since 2000 and houses an impressive vehicle park, deploying its jeeps and excavators all around the country. In their headquarters, they have a collection of excavated mines and also a map showing which places are already cleared and which are still contaminated by mines. Despite having claimed to clear 88% of the territory, the map is still visibly covered with smallpox of red dots (showing still dangerous areas).

One of those dots designates Agdam, the city of ghosts, as are these bombed ruins called nowadays. Agdam was originally mostly Azerbaijani city, but being a strategic threat to Stepanakert, during the war it was captured by Armenians and razed to the ground in order to prevent its original population from returning. The only thing that is left here is a great graveyard of houses that stretch from the grass like skeletal fingers.

Although this conflict threw Armenians into the isolation and poverty, they are not willing to let go of the land they claim is theirs. After so many years it’s unimaginable for them to leave it, but the conflict can also play into the hands of ruling elites because it gives them an explanation why the things in the country don’t always go as they should.

President of the Republic of Artsakh, Bako Sahakyan was in the year 2017 elected into his third presidential term. In the same year, the country controversially transferred into the presidential system. Bako Sahakyan is a veteran of the War of Nagorno-Karabakh but gained most influence as a leader of Karabakh’s security forces in between 2001-2007. In the year 2007, he became a president.

He maintained that his duties are not very different from those of a representative of a recognized country. Azerbaijan he sees as a threat not only to the peace and security of Karabakh but also as a threat to the international community. According to him, Azerbaijan is not ready for peaceful settlement and he condemned Azerbaijani and Turkish blockade of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. At the question of whether he sees peace in a recent future, he just sadly smiled. “Of course we want the peaceful settlement of the conflict and we will do everything to achieve it, but not everything depends on our side. We will do everything to achieve it, but it cannot be at the expense of our dignity and our values”.

Unfortunately, he didn’t say what exactly are Armenians willing to offer to improve their relationship with Azerbaijan and Turkey. After all, Nagorno-Karabakh kept and even expanded its territory after the war, it came out of it as a winner, Azerbaijan only lost and it doesn’t seem like it is willing to settle with it. If Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh finally want peace with Azerbaijan, the compromises they will have to offer will have to be quite significant. Although at the time, none of the sides is willing to step down, hopefully, some light is rising on the horizon. In the year 2017 many voices expected another serious escalation of the conflict. On the contrary, it was the most peaceful year in a long-term, Furthermore, the year 2018 should begin with renewed dialog between both sides.

One can only hope that the fights will finally run out of steam so that the garden could at the very least start bringing other fruits than only apples of discord.

The reportage was published in the magazine Na Východ.

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