In Nagorno-Karabakh, Land Mines, Bulldozers and Lingering Tensions – The New York Times

Despite the hurdles, territory seized by Azerbaijan from Armenia in last year’s war is being transformed with breathtaking speed.

KELBAJAR, Azerbaijan — The medieval monastery walls are masked with camouflage netting. Machine-gun nests line the courtyard under a fluttering Russian flag. Cannons mounted on armored vehicles guard the mountainside where tour buses used to park.

The two black-cloaked clerics who emerge are among this region’s last Armenians.

“We don’t leave the gate without the peacekeepers,” said one of them, Archimandrite Mkhitar Grigoryan, referring to the stone-faced Russian peacekeeping soldiers the holy men now live with.

Thousands of Armenians fled and thousands more died last fall in Azerbaijan’s fierce war against Armenia for the disputed mountain territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and its surroundings. The Dadivank Monastery, a tourist magnet a year ago, now sits on a slope of burned houses, and is the only place retaken by Azerbaijan where Armenians are known to have remained.

Straining to contain his anger over his locked-in circumstances, Archimandrite Grigoryan went on: “You can’t live like this — like wild people — in the 21st century.”

A four-day journey across Azerbaijan’s recaptured lands — visiting some sites not seen by Western reporters since last year — revealed a region still defined by enmity even as it is rebuilt with breathtaking speed.

The ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts, together covering an area the size of Lebanon, had been controlled by Armenia since the end of a yearslong war in 1994, even though they were all legally part of Azerbaijan. But with last year’s war, Azerbaijan recaptured all of the surrounding districts and part of Nagorno-Karabakh, touching off a new exodus in one of the world’s most explosive ethnic conflicts.

In the hilltop town of Shusha, the crown jewel of Azerbaijan’s victory, the photographer Sergey Ponomarev and I followed a British architect hired by the oil-rich country as he examined homes still strewn with Armenians’ clothes and family photos. In the region’s outlying districts, from which Armenia expelled hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis in 1994, we navigated through minefields to ghost towns that Azerbaijan promises to resurrect.

In Kelbajar, it was sometimes hard to tell which ruins were houses abandoned by fleeing Azerbaijanis in the 1990s, which ones were abandoned and burned by fleeing Armenians last November, and which were both. But I recognized a boxy, white, one-story building in the town center. Last year it was a bank branch where, just before the territory’s handover, I witnessed Armenians carrying out what they could salvage and breaking down the walls with a mallet.

When I walked in this time, industrial-size ovens hummed where offices used to be. Bread rolls rested on rolling racks. Zokhra Akhmedova led me into the old bank vault, past a steel door. She had laid a sheet of linoleum on the floor and made it her bedroom, and had turned the safe into her dresser.

“Let me die in my hometown,” she recalled telling her daughter before returning to her native land to help start a bakery.

When I came to Nagorno-Karabakh after the war last year, the sight of a hillside Armenian military cemetery brought to my mind the layers of tragedy embedded in this land.

After returning in June, I left wondering just how much heartbreak a patch of earth can bear.

In Shusha last October, I stepped into the concrete basement of an apartment block, where Armenian women were sheltering on flattened cardboard boxes. They thought they had known what war was like, one said, recalling the 1990s conflict. But the enormous firepower of modern weapons was different, “a horror, a horror.”

Back then, as Communism collapsed, the former Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war over Nagorno-Karabakh — an area mostly populated by Armenians within the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan. Armenia won that war, leaving about one-seventh of Azerbaijan’s territory under Armenian control.

As international efforts to mediate the conflict failed, and Azerbaijan’s oil and gas riches boomed, the country invested in modern drones from Israel and Turkey. By the time Azerbaijan attacked last September, its military, supported by Turkey, was overpowering compared with that of poorer and smaller Armenia.

When I returned last month to the Shusha apartment block, it was gone, razed to bare, brown ground. The area will become part of a new “streetscape,” the British architect, Adrian Griffiths, told me.

Rather than allow the Azerbaijanis to simply return to their homes, President Ilham Aliyev, the country’s authoritarian ruler, wants to rebuild Shusha as Azerbaijan’s cultural capital. About 15,000 people, mainly Azerbaijanis, lived there before the 1990s war; until last fall, there were roughly 5,000 Armenian residents.

The striking hilltop city was a cradle of Azerbaijani music and poetry in the 19th century, though Armenians also see it as core to their historical identity.

Clutching an oversize map and a red pen, Mr. Griffiths, of the London firm Chapman Taylor, tramped through weed-grown alleyways, past discarded Armenian military uniforms. He marked an “x” on his map for houses that could be demolished, and a check for those worth keeping.

Most received an “x.”

“We can make some very rapid, positive progress,” Mr. Griffiths said, when asked what it was like to replan a city with few current residents.

Of the roughly 500,000 Azerbaijanis expelled from Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding territory in the 1990s war, many lived in temporary housing for almost 30 years with the promise of someday being able to return.

Now, eight months after Azerbaijan regained those territories, the government is still not letting them return, citing land mines. But Gazanfar Dadashov, an entrepreneur in the capital, Baku, won a contract to set up a bakery for soldiers and others already in his native Shusha.

Mr. Dadashov and his business partner, Iftihar Aliyev, found an apartment in Shusha with a flat-screen television and a washing machine. They saw nothing strange about moving into homes where Armenians had been living just months earlier. After all, they said, Armenians did the same thing in the 1990s after they expelled Azerbaijanis.

“History is repeating itself,” Mr. Aliyev said.

Mr. Dadashov’s old house has crumbled, but amid the waist-high weeds he recognized the flowering lilies he had planted in his garden. When he saw his old metal crowbar, tears welled up in his eyes.

Family photographs littered the alleyway — children gathered around a dinner table, an infant cradled in a woman’s arms. Even as nature had reclaimed Mr. Dadashov’s house, an Armenian family had moved in next door.

East of Shusha, the land turns flat and parched. Armenia occupied the territory as a buffer zone, turning cities into ghost towns. Amid the anti-tank trenches, Soviet-era concrete vineyard poles still stand, like a skeletal forest, barbed wire strung across some of them.

The land now teems with backhoes and asphalt rollers and reeks of smoke. The grass is being burned to make it easier to clear mines. The new international airport’s runway is being paved.

Azerbaijan promises to make Aghdam, the region’s biggest ghost town, into a city of 100,000, with a memorial complex to evoke past hardships.

“It’s our strategic goal to make Karabakh a land of peace, a land of prosperity, a land of development,” said Hikmet Hajiyev, the foreign policy adviser to Azerbaijan’s president.

In Baku, on the gleaming Caspian Sea waterfront, the government has built a “war trophies park” of burned Armenian tanks, captured artillery and Armenian soldiers’ helmets hanging on chains. Life-size figures of Armenian soldiers have huge noses, fearsome eyebrows and bad teeth.

“They look like this,” said the park’s manager, Shahin Alakbarov, dismissing criticism of the Armenian figures’ distorted features.

But how is reconciliation with Armenians possible, critics say, when the government still appears to be perpetuating enmity?

“If you want lasting peace, if you want this conflict truly to be behind us, then you shouldn’t have done this,” the Azerbaijani historian Altay Goyushov said, referring to the park and to the country’s ruler, Mr. Aliyev. “For him, the priority is for this nationalist spirit not to fade, because it’s what keeps him in power.”

A lasting peace is far from secure. Deadly border skirmishes have flared up. Thousands of Armenians still live in the major city of Stepanakert, in a zone controlled by Russian peacekeepers. Azerbaijan says Armenians there must accept its rule if they want to remain long-term.

At the trophy park on a recent Saturday, an engineer, Adil Naqdiyev, 42, snapped a photograph of his 8-year-old son in front of an Armenian tank. The figure of an Armenian soldier is in mid-escape out of the tank’s hatch, gazing in terror up at the sky.

Mr. Naqdiyev is old enough to recall the Soviet era, when Azerbaijanis and Armenians lived together in Baku in relative peace. I asked him whether he thought that such coexistence could again be possible. His son broke in to say that it was not.

“The Armenians are insatiable,” the 8-year-old Alim declared. “They can’t just live on their own land.”

On Sept. 26, Ilham Abbasov, 20, came to his family’s one-story house in a village for displaced Azerbaijanis and said goodbye. He had joined the military, pledging his mother he would liberate her home village.

He was too young to have ever seen his ancestral home. But like other young Azerbaijanis, he was raised with a visceral sense of injustice.

When his older brother, Khalik Abbasov, saw him again, he was in a row of bloodied bodies in a video posted online. His unit had driven into an ambush, Mr. Abbasov later learned, on the first day of Azerbaijan’s offensive.

Mr. Abbasov checked the body bags arriving daily at the local mosque but received his brother’s body only after the war ended. The family received about $12,000 in compensation, most of which they spent on a lighted billboard in Ilham’s honor and a glassed-in structure over his grave. Ilham always wanted a house of his own, his brother said.

“The land has been returned, but now we don’t care so much who gets it,” said the brother’s wife, Aliya Abbasova. “We lost someone we love.”

Text by Anton Troianovski Photographs by Sergey Ponomarev The New York Times

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