On the north side of Stepanakert is the statue, pictured below, which has become the unofficial symbol of Nagorno-Karabakh (it was even on my visa)…
This creation by the sculptor Sargis Baghdasarian in Soviet times, is called We are our mountains. Supposedly looking like an elderly couple with peaked skulls, the statue is intended to symbolize the unity of the Karabakh people with their mountains. However, it is universally referred to as Mamik yel Babik (Granny and Grandad):
Stepanakert, (Khankendi to Azerbaijanis) is the largest city and capital of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic with a population of approximately 50,000 ethnic Armenians.
During the Nagorno-Karabakh War, Stepanakert saw heavy fighting and was besieged by the Azerbaijan army. And for years, Stepanakert received heavy shelling from Azerbaijani artillery situated in the strategic heights of Shushi. By the end of the war, there was scarcely a building in the city that had not been damaged or destroyed by shellfire.
But, you wouldn’t know it now… Financial support has poured in from the Armenian diaspora and Stepanakert has been rebuilt.
Unless one has a 4WD, the only way to enter Nagorno-Karabakh is through Armenia on the main road from Goris. That road crosses the Lachin corridor before passing through Shushi and dropping down in to Stepanakert. Driving down from Shushi, this is one’s first view of Stepanakert:
This is the main square in Stepanakert:
A view down to the lower section of the city, with Shahumyan Stadium in the background:
This park, just across from the main square, is a very popular spot for people to congregate in the evenings. The statue is of Stepan Shahumian from whom the city takes its name:
Another popular spot to gather in the evenings, just down Azatamartikneri Avenue:
This is the main boulevard in Stepanakert:
This is Tigran Mets Street leading down to Victory Square:
Once one is away from the center of the city or off of the main boulevard, one encounters a swirl of residential areas:
Of course, tucked away in all of these neighborhoods are small shops that sell the essentials – such as this herb bread:
Despite the reconstruction of the city, reminders of the war and the militarized status of Nagorno-Karabakh are never far away…
A photograph from the war that was hung up on Yerevanyan Avenue:
However, despite the militarization of their society, the people of Nagorno-Karabakh are some of the nicest people that I have encountered on my travels.
For example: At the hotel where we stayed – the Hotel Heghnar – the owner, without any prompting, gave us a discount because we were young and even threw in free breakfast each day.
Then, for the second time in less than a year, our rental car broke down due to a faulty car battery. You know, as a side observation, Eastern European car rental companies seem to have some issues with maintaining their vehicles. Not that I’m thinking of
Europcar in the Sofia Airport in Bulgaria any company in particular, I’m just saying…
Anyway, as I was describing, the rental car broke down due to a defective battery and the Hotel Heghnar staff member pictured below stayed for hours after his shift ended to get the car fixed and running again. Of course, I tried to compensate him, but he resolutely refused and did all of this for free. He wouldn’t even accept a ride home.
Many of the nicest people I have met on my travels have been in places that have been the hardest hit by war, such as Afghanistan. Explanations?
It’s interesting to contemplate the fact that just miles away, the Azerbaijani refugees from the empty villages and cities surrounding Stepanakert are thinking of nothing else but taking back what they believe belongs to them – by force if necessary.
Armenians, by contrast, still talk of the Turkish genocide of Armenians in 1915 as if it were yesterday. And Azerbaijanis to the Armenians are indistinguishable from Turks.
As it was described to me…
“There is iron in the soul of the Armenians of Karabakh, and not without reason. When the Azeris had the upper hand, they showed no mercy. In fact, at times they behaved with sickening cruelty.
So perhaps there is little wonder that compromise is not part of the Armenian Karabakhi vocabulary.”