Article and video by Daniele Bellocchio
The Ashes of Nagorno Karabakh
A checkpoint manned by soldiers of the Armenian army and Russian peacekeeping forces marks the border between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. The small border post where they would stamp an entry visa on travelers’ passports no longer stands in the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh. All the flags of Karabakh have also been lowered, only the emblems of Moscow and Yerevan stand on display.
After Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan signed the trilateral ceasefire agreement with Russia and Azerbaijan on 9 November, the face of the disputed South Caucasus region changed forever. The agreement, as well as prescribing that the seven districts occupied by the Armenians at the end of the 1990s war should be returned to Baku and that the city of Shushi should once again be put under Azerbaijani control, also provides for the deployment of a force of more than 2000 Russian soldiers, as a five-year peacekeeping force, along the main streets of Artsakh. Moscow’s soldiers check the passports, it is they who decide who enters and leaves, and it is now they who stand guard over all the villages on the road to Stepanakert.
Less than ten kilometers away from the capital, a detour leads to the historic city of Shushi. It is the Jerusalem of the Caucasus, a thriving cultural center in the past and a symbol of national identity for both Armenians and Azeris. Where the road climbs upwards and the curves that follow the walls of the old city begin, today there is a checkpoint. Azerbaijani and Russian soldiers stand on guard and two flags fly: the flag of Azerbaijan and that of Turkey, hoisted to remind to all those travelling through the main artery of Karabakh, always and forever, who the winners of the conflict are. The crescents also soar impressively from the ramparts of the walls of Shushi. The crescents of the Sublime Porte and of Baku dominate the city towers and oversee the valley below where, surrounded by mountains, by peacekeeping forces and Azerbaijani troops, Stepanakert appears, wounded and imprisoned.
A final checkpoint leads us to the capital of Artsakh. The bombings are a vivid and dramatic memory in the capital which is now, slowly, staging a faint return to life. Part of the population has returned to their homes; the city market, hit by Azerbaijani missiles during the conflict, has reopened; fruit and meat have reappeared on the stalls, school buses are taking children back to school and over three hundred buildings have been rebuilt and repaired by Russian engineers as planned by the Moscow trilateral agreement of 11 November. However, some wounds will never heal: those inflicted on and relived, day and night, by the thousands of citizens who experienced the conflict on their own skin.
Valeri is 23 years old and during the war he was sent to fight on the southern front, in Hadrut, where he fell into an ambush and was captured by Azerbaijani soldiers. After 56 days in solitary confinement, during a prisoner exchange, he was freed and returned to his family in Stepanakert. At home, where he lives with his parents, the young soldier says: ”After I was captured I was taken to prison. I don’t know exactly where I was because I was transferred four times and I was kept in a cell alone for the entire period of incarceration.’ His eyes do not express the joy one would expect to find in a man in the prime of his life who has just been freed. They have the melancholic and fatalistic gaze of an elderly survivor whose incessant and merciless memories are those of past tortures. ”Beaten? Yes, I was beaten. But that is normal. We are at war and we must be realistic, that always happens to prisoners of war. But the worst part were the psychological violence and humiliation. All of us Armenian soldiers had a cross with us: some around their necks, others on their wrists, or in their jacket pockets over their hearts. The first thing the Azerbaijanis did was take our crosses, then they separated us and no one knew anything about the others. I kept wondering if I’d ever get out of that hell alive.’
Valeri does not want to go into detail about what he saw and experienced and ends by saying: ”There are no words to explain how I felt when the Russian peacekeeping flight took us to Armenia. But though I am incredibly relieved at having been freed, at the same time, since my return, I haven’t for a single moment stopped thinking about the young men who were in prison with me and I keep wondering what will become of them and when they will be able to embrace their parents again.’ At home his father opens a bottle of brandy to toast his son; his mother, with tears in her eyes, before raising her glass, confides that she still cannot believe her son is there with her and that she is still tormented by what he has experienced. Then they raise their glasses to a toast, the brandy warms their throats and Valeri and his parents finally let themselves go in smile; for a moment the nightmare of what happened seems to fade and is replaced by the joyous and intimate feelings of a family, once again reunited in their home.
Some parents will never see their children again. There will no longer be hope and expectations, no toasts and no hugs, only a void to be filled, if this could ever be possible, with memories and prayers. In Stepanakert Cathedral on New Year’s Eve, hundreds of people light candles for all those young people who died in the 44-day war. Parents, siblings and friends lay photos near the lights and then head to the Monument to the Fallen in Karabakh’s capital.