Northeast of Stepanakert, on the de facto border with Azerbaijan, lie the ruins of the city of Aghdam (also known as Agdam and Ağdam) which once had a population estimated at up to 50,000 to 150,000, depending on whose numbers you believe. Aghdam used to be a part of Azerbaijan, but ended up on the front lines of the Nagorno-Karabakh War before ultimately being seized by Armenian forces. It remains under the control of the The Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army to this day as a buffer zone.
The battle for Aghdam took place in the summer of 1993. Taking advantage of a power struggle in Baku (the capital of Azerbaijan) that led to many Azerbaijani forces being pulled from the front, Armenian forces advanced on Aghdam.
Azerbaijanis in Aghdam and Armenians in Stepanakert had already been exchanging heavy artillery fire for much of the war. However, on 12 June, Armenian forces launched an assault on Aghdam from the north and south as well, using Grad multiple rocket launcher systems, additional heavy artillery and tanks.
The first assault on Aghdam was repelled by the Azerbaijani defenders. However, Armenian forces destroyed a dozen villages around Aghdam and as they encircled the city itself, many of the residents of Aghdam fled, joining hundreds of thousands of earlier refugees in Azerbaijan.
When Armenian forces launched a second assault on Aghdam, they successfully captured the city on 23 July, denying (at least temporarily) the Azerbaijanis a base from which to mount a counteroffensive against the Nagorno-Karabakh capital of Stepanakert.
Over the next few weeks Armenian forces systematically looted and burned the city and surrounding villages. This looting and burning of the Azerbaijani city and villages was a well-orchestrated plan. The justification given now is that at the time of Aghdam’s capture, the battle situation was uncertain and the military decided to demolish the entire city rather than to risk it being recaptured and immediately used as a base of attack just kilometers from the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh.
According to the United Nations, during the summer offensive and capture of Aghdam, Armenian forces committed several violations of the rules of war including arson, hostage-taking and ethnic cleansing. Some Azerbaijani soldiers who were captured by Armenian troops in Aghdam were shot on the spot.
These actions led the UN Security Council to pass on 29 July 1993, Resolution 853 reaffirming Resolution 822 and condemning the seizure of Aghdam and other areas of Azerbaijan. However, these measures were ignored by the Armenian forces and no consequences resulted.
Aghdam is one of those places that is officially off-limits, but unofficially there is no one to stop you from exploring the area. So, we did.
On the drive to Aghdam, the number of ruined buildings starts growing quickly as you make your way through the villages destroyed in the war:
There are a number of signs in the area that warn of minefields past and present as well… I’ve become more sanguine about crossing minefields if I want to get somewhere interesting or capture a good picture. However, I discovered that my Italian interpreter does not share my feelings on this matter, which slightly hindered my exploration of the area:
Entering the outskirts of Aghdam:
It looks pretty barren for a city of up to 150,000 people less than twenty years ago, no?
As we discovered, the city is completely destroyed, with not a roof remaining and every building burned, blown up and looted. Every piece of wood, all doors, every windowpane and fence post — anything of value has been systematically stripped. Today, with not much left that is movable, the city is still being used as a building material depot as even the bricks many buildings are constructed from are slowly being carted away.
One thing that captures your attention before long is the scale of the destruction. Every time you think you are near the edge of the city or the end of a road, you go over another hill or around a bend and a whole new field of destruction opens up in front of you:
This is what the city of Aghdam used to look like:
Prior to the Nagorno-Karabakh War, Aghdam was known for its port wines, “Agdam” and “777”, as well as for its factories and railway station.
And this is what the city looked like even just a few years ago… So, if you compare the scene below with my pictures above, you can see how quickly nature is now reclaiming Aghdam:
Some Azerbaijanis speak of returning to Aghdam, but there isn’t much to return to… Even Pripyat is in better shape.