The Forgotten Conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh
Nagorno-Karabakh is a “De Facto” Republic located in South Caucasus: it is an independent but not recognised autonomous region and an inactive war zone. Internationally considered part of Azerbaijan, its existence is the result of the war that started when the population of Nagorno-Karabakh requested to be annexed to Armenia. The struggle ended in 1994 but a ceasefire was never reached. In the western world we patronisingly call this a forgotten conflict, that is a conflict that makes no headlines in our press. However, it is not forgotten. Here traveling photographer Marco Barbieri recounts his journey through Armenia to a place that technically does not exist.
The Language of War
To me, nationalism is a divisive notion that lingers on differences between people to define a so called “identity”.
In Armenia I saw it as the result of two forces. The heavy burden of the 1915 genocide perpetrated by Turkey, when more than one million people died, is one. The tense political relationship with both Turkey and Azerbaijan is another. Together they make common struggles and religion the main motivations for self determination.
War and the memory of it are often apparent through the monumentality of sculptures commemorating past and present conflicts. Mother Armenia is towering over Yerevan, where once a gigantic statue of Stalin was located.
Armenians are proud to be the first nation to embrace Christianity as its official religion more than 1700 years ago. It is what makes it different from its neighbouring countries and what unifies its 3 million inhabitants with the 8 million diaspora Armenians living abroad. It is also one of the reasons that condemned the population to the 1915 genocide.
The only Christian country to share borders with Armenia is Georgia. Armenians like to say that they are the only neighbours they can joke about.
Churches are crowded in Armenia.
Off the Map
You will not find Nagorno-Karabakh on a map, but you will find its Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The area can only be reached via road from Armenia. The capital airport is currently unused as there has been repeated criticism from other nations that consider the start of commercial flights to Armenia a potential blockage to the peace process with Azerbaijan.
The airport stands shiny in the distance, but there are no white trails in the sky.
Access is usually via Gori, the closest Armenian city and usually a stop on the way to Tatev monastery, a main Armenian tourist attraction.
The border with Azerbaijan is closed. Under Azeri laws, entry to Nagorno-Karabakh is strictly prohibited and evidence of a visa on a passport can lead to imprisonment. While Armenia, a UN member, officially does not recognise Nagorno-Karabakh, it is obvious that military and economic help is provided by the government of Yerevan. Armenians have no doubt that this is the missing part of their nation.
The currency in Karabakh is the Armenian Dram.
“We had a tourist here last year and she was very happy, she ended up meeting the president three times!”
There is a President, a parliament, a capital called Stepanakert (Xankəndi for Azerbaijan) and an army, but only 150.000 inhabitants located in remote villages in a 4.000 square km area. It’s a micro-nation.
Nagorno-Karabakh is only recognised by 3 nations that share the same “unrecognised” political status: Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria. Just like their conflicts, these autonomous republics are also “forgotten” by the Western media.
During the Soviet period, Moscow took actions to increase the number of Azeri inhabitants in this area. Nowadays, almost all of the population is ethnically Armenian. The Azeris, who used to represent 20% of the population, moved away during the war that finished in 1994. Depending from what side you look at this, it was either ethnic cleansing or re-appropriation of Armenian territories.
“When I see soldiers, I am so happy I cry”
Here soldiers are not seen as the consequence of a problem but rather as the solution to an issue. Just as I recently saw in “The Holy Land,” the presence of weapons on the streets is not considered a threat, but something that makes citizens feel safer.
It is difficult not to empathise with these guys during the military parade for the anniversary of the Nagorno-Karabakh independence. They are funny, they are 18, they want to be my friends on Facebook and they wear incredibly big hats.
The anniversary of the Nagorno-Karabakh independence is held on the 2nd of September.
On that day a number of activities take place in the capital: from children coloring artefacts in the national colors in the main square to a night concert under the National Assembly building.
In the morning I find myself walking around Stepanakert with a flower in my hand. It is for the commemorations of the fighters who died during the war. People come and pay their respects under the monument dedicated to the war.
Dead soldiers rest in the cemetery behind the monument.
A Micro Society
There is a lavish concert on the first night of celebrations. Given the size of the area, the happening resembles a small town festival with one difference: both the presidents of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh are sitting in the front row. There is a strangely elitarian feel to it.
The second day is dedicated to a pop festival for everyone else. The visuals on the two screens around the stage are mainly related to war and religious themes: soldiers and Jesus Christ feature heavily. There is an incredible video featuring a child popstar singing in the midst of a visually gruesome battle.
It all ends with an almost surreal crowd of children waving the Nagorno-Karabakh flag on stage.
The Landscape of War
Stepanakert is not that different from any European small town. It is developed, organised and clean: not exactly what you would expect in a contended territory. On the other hand, the area around it is a close reminder of the fact that peace with Azerbaijan was not reached. Ceasefire was broken on a number of times during the years. Just a couple of weeks after my stay, 4 soldiers were killed on the border.
The town of Shushi was heavily bombed and is now a strange mix of new developments and destroyed mosques and buildings. As usual, the first thing to be rebuilt was the cathedral.
Agdam on the other hand was completely destroyed and is now a waste area on the border with Azerbaijan. The site is used for military exercises and is legally off limits; apparently land mines are still present here.
In one way or another, life goes on as usual.
While a knowledge of these places is almost non existent for most Europeans, the concept of memory is crucial in this area. It is a part of everyday life. Statues of national heroes in Shushi are covered with flowers while Vank, a little town in the North of Nagorno-Karabakh, has one of the quirkiest and most unsettling monuments I ever saw:
A wall of number plates supposedly owned by Azeri people who escaped the conflict.
Forgetting implies the notion of knowledge. In most cases, when it comes to South Caucasus, it is our lack of it that makes things unintelligible.
I met a man on the way to the border between Georgia and South Ossetia, another “De Facto” Republic just like Nagorno-Karabakh. He spoke an unintelligible language while pointing at the inaccessible border: the only words I understood were “South Ossetia, demokracia”.
I have no idea on what side was he standing or what was he trying to say.
Words and photos by Marco Barbieri