A burned-out armored personnel carrier on the front lines of the Nagorno-Karabakh War:
So, what was the Nagorno-Karabakh War all about? Below, I present to you…
A History Of The Nagorno-Karabakh War
Populated for centuries by Christian Armenian and Turkic Azeris, Nagorno-Karabakh became part of the Russian empire in 1805 when it was annexed from Persia.
During the 1917 Russian Revolution, Azerbaijan and Armenia each declared independence and sought control over Nagorno-Karabakh, despite Nagorno-Karabakh having a population that was 72% Armenian at the time. This struggle for control led Azerbaijan to side with Turkish forces, who continuing to persecute Armenians, destroyed hundreds of Armenian villages. Organized massacres of Armenians took place in Baku and what is today Gyandzha, culminating on the 28 March 1920 with the widespread slaughter of Armenians, accompanied by burning and looting, in Shushi, the then capital of Nagorno-Karabakh.
After Russian forces reasserted control over Nagorno-Karabakh later in 1920, the new Soviet rulers, as part of their divide-and-rule policy in the region, established the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region, with an ethnic Armenian majority, within the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan. Even though they chafed under Communist rule for seven decades, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh continued to consider their real enemy to be the Azerbaijanis (who are ethnic Turks).
You see, the modern Armenian character is forged by memories of 1915, when Turkey’s Ottoman Empire, embroiled in World War I, carried out the slaughter and mass deportations of Armenians. Hundreds of thousands — by some accounts more than a million — were put to death or died of starvation or exposure. The later coordination of Armenian persecution by Turkey and Azerbaijan that I described above, did nothing to dispel this Armenian mindset.
Gorbachev’s policy of openness, established after he came to power in 1985, served to bring matters further into the open. With a population that was about 75% ethnic Armenian at the time, the year 1988 became a turning point in the history of Nagorno-Karabakh. Utilizing their increased freedom of expression, mass demonstrations started in Nagorno-Karabakh on 11 February 1988 demanding union with Armenia. On 20 February, Nagorno Karabakh’s governing body voted to secede from Azerbaijan and join Armenia.
A violent mob attack on 28 February at Sumgait, Azerbaijan which was directed against ethnic Armenians resulted in around 30 deaths. Inaction from Moscow produced massive unrest with an estimated 200,000 Azerbaijanis fleeing Armenia and 260,000 Armenians fleeing Azerbaijan.
With the Soviet Union rapidly disintegrating by 1989, Azerbaijan started partially blockading Nagorno-Karabakh in September. Then with a remarkable disregard for the likely consequences, even considering the distractions faced by the Soviet Union at the time, Moscow abandoned direct rule of Nagorno-Karabakh on 28 November 1989 and handed control to Azerbaijan.
The year 1990 was to be one of conflict between Armenians and central Soviet forces with massive protests over the Nagorno-Karabakh issue and often brutal police and military repression: six Armenians were killed by troops in a confrontation on 24 May.
The failed coup against Gorbachev on 19 August 1991 led to the inevitable break-up of the Soviet Union at the end of the year. Azerbaijan’s immediate response on 27 of August was to annul Nagorno-Karabakh’s status as an Autonomous Region which then led, on 2 September to a declaration of independence from Nagorno-Karabakh and the formation of the independent Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh – the goal had changed and union with Armenia ceased to be the objective. A referendum on 10 December resulted in an overwhelming vote for independence.
Azerbaijan began a blockade of the territory (which it completely encircled) and launched military strikes using the equipment of the Soviet Union’s 4th Army stationed in Azerbaijan (Each side in the conflict seized what arms it could from the vast Soviet arsenals, but the Azerbaijanis had access to far more weaponry).
Meanwhile, reflecting rapidly shifting geopolitical currents, newly emergent Russia saw Armenia as a key ally against Turkey, a member of NATO. Most significantly for Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia agreed to sign a collective security pact with Armenia on 15 May 1992.
Azerbaijani military attacks made initial territorial gains, but by 8 May, 1992 they had been driven back from Martakert and Shushi. Two weeks after taking Shushi, Armenian forces seized, looted then burned Lachin, a mountainside Azerbaijani town just outside the enclave’s eastern border. Control of Lachin gave Nagorno-Karabakh a corridor to Armenia, over a twisting mountainous road, breaking the blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh by Azerbaijan.
This, however, was to be followed by a renewed Azerbaijani offensive which resulted in considerable Azerbaijani gains so that by the end of July they had taken the whole of the Shahumian region, a significant portion of the Martakert region and portions of Martuni, Askeran and Hadrut, controlling about 60% of the entire territory.
Russian support soon arrived, however, in the form of supplies and equipment. By March 1993 the Armenian army was able once more to go on the offensive and over the next few months it not only recouped all its losses, but gained almost all of Nagorno Karabakh and a considerable swathe of Azerbaijani territory.
That seizure of Azerbaijani territory brought charges that Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh had turned into the aggressors, despite their inferior numbers, and resulted in the first international condemnation of Armenian aggression against Azerbaijan, summed up by United Nations Resolution 822, which demanded an immediate Armenian withdrawal.
Rather than comply, however, the Armenians continued forcibly depopulating areas of Azerbaijan to the north, east and south of the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Despite promises made by the political leadership in the Nagorno-Karabakh capital, Stepanakert, to abide by a series of internationally brokered cease-fires in June and July, the military leadership of Nagorno-Karabakh continued the campaign. In July, Armenian forces forced out the defenders of Aghdam, Azerbaijan, looting and burning the city. That created 100,000 more refugees.
Nagorno-Karabakh’s Defense Minister, justified the taking of the Azerbaijani territory on the grounds that it was a base for rocket strikes on Karabakh villages. Other military officers and a senior Government official in Yerevan claimed that it was done to force the Azerbaijanis to negotiate.
Finally on 5 May 1994, a cease fire brokered by the Russians went into effect and holds loosely (sometimes very loosely) today.
The final tally for the dead in the Nagorno-Karabakh war is approximately 30,000 (with some estimates running as high as 40,000).
The war also created more than a million refugees, mostly Azerbaijanis. But many Armenians fled Baku and other cities of Azerbaijan over the course of the conflict as mob violence and annihilation descended upon them.
Trying to give the war some perspective — recalling the vicious anti-Armenian pogroms in the Azerbajani town of Sumgait in 1988 or the crude Soviet-backed attempts to “resettle” the Armenians of Nagorno-Karbakh — is as useless when talking to Azerbaijanis as it is to present contrary examples to Armenians. For each such wrong to Armenians there is a counter-memory from the Azerbaijanis — the bloody storming of Baku by Soviet troops in January 1990, the massacre of Azerbaijanis in Khodzhali in February 1992, the desecrated mosques, the refugees.
A solution to the conflict looks as far away as ever…
The above was my version of events.
The official Nagorno-Karabakh Republic version can be found here.
If you are interested in more, a very detailed and lengthy history can be found here.
This is what the area is like today…
By the way, I should mention that we were not supposed to visit the area I present to you below. When applying for permission to visit Nagorno-Karabakh, one must specify exactly where they wish to visit and any areas that are controversial will be promptly crossed off your list. Supposedly, one will be stopped and asked for their list of permitted destinations before being allowed into sensitive areas.
When I was in Yerevan and requested permission to visit Aghdam and other controversial sites on the front line at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, I was curtly informed that this was “not possible” to do. However, I have learned that the situation on the ground has a tendency to be different than what an office bureaucrat tells you it is. So, with that in mind, once we were inside Nagorno-Karabakh, I decided to give a try to visiting the front lines.
The result? No checkpoints. No roadblocks. No one asked us for our papers. In fact, at no point in our entire visit were we stopped or questioned once we had crossed into Nagorno-Karabakh.
Now, as I was saying about what the area looks like today… One of the first things one will notice is a dramatic increase in all that is related to war. The number of ruined buildings increases. The number of soldiers out on patrol increases. The number of signs warning of minefields increases. The number of rusting, twisted machines of war that were left behind on the battlefield increases. The number of graves filled with war dead increases.
The distinctive graves of those killed in the Nagorno-Karabakh war become ubiquitous:
Along with the shells of bombed-out and burned-out buildings:
One explanation for this level of destruction was described succinctly by Nagorno-Karabakh’s Defense Minister during the war, Serget Sarkissyan, who told a reporter from the New York Times that, “When Azerbaijanis take Armenian villages, they want to be sure that Armenians don’t come back. It is the same for our side.”
Another sight one will soon become familiar with are signs such as this one:
Nagorno-Karabakh remains one of the most heavily mined regions of the world, guaranteeing work for organizations that clear land mines, such as the HALO Trust, for quite a while.
I have spoken highly of the HALO Trust before after observing their work in Afghanistan and my high regard for them and the work they do has not diminished after observing them at work elsewhere.
Trenches used to block advancing armored vehicles, and for cover during the fighting, still carve through the landscape:
After proceeding through the ruins of Aghdam, my Italian and I came to this sign:
I don’t know what the sign says, but I assume it says that bad things will happen to you should you choose to proceed to the de factor border with Azerbaijan which is a short distance past the rise in the background.
I chose to proceed.
My Italian, however, adamantly refused to do so and I was thus compelled to leave her behind.
I drove to the rise and then stopped the car and got out. Azerbaijan stretched before me. I savored the moment and took the picture you see below, but did not loiter as their are a number of Azerbaijani bunkers and trenches out there and the threat of snipers is a very real one as every year, snipers kill roughly 30 people on either side of the so-called line of contact.
The end of the line:
How intense was the fighting in this area?
Below are two excerpts from press reports filed by journalists during the fighting on the front line where I was standing:
“On a recent visit to the front, mortars and rockets whistled and thudded from morning till night. Karabakh’s surface-to-air missiles fired on Azerbaijani planes flying low to avoid detection. Firefights were so unrelenting that when there was a momentary lull, the silence was frightening.”
“Survivors who crawled through the woods outside the enclave [Nagorno-Karabakh] told of tank barrages, families destroyed by point-blank gunfire, of looting, rape and hostage taking. This is a plague of terrors heard as well from assaulted Armenian villages.”
The front line traces along the edge of the hills of the Karabakh Mountain Range, where they spread into the plains. The northern frontier is along the Mrav Mountain Range.
Moving parallel to the front lines provides a sense of just how heavy a presence the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic Defense Army has here.
If you look closely, you will notice that these hills are heavily embedded with bunkers:
And the military has set up combat outposts throughout the ruined buildings:
One question I have been asked several times is how the Nagorno-Karabakh forces, a ragtag militia with simple rifles drawn from a population of fewer than 200,000, transformed itself into an army that defeated an army from a country of 7 million?
Part of the answer, of course, is that they did so with the significant support of Armenia and Russia. Approximately 20,000 regular Armenian Army forces were fighting alongside the forces of Nagorno-Karabakh. Another part of the answer lies in the fact that about sixty percent of the Nagorno-Karabakh army — which probably numbered about 10,000 regular troops and that many more in village militia — served in the Red Army. The Azerbaijani forces were also former Soviet soldiers, but the Soviets discriminated against them because they were Muslims. Few became officers, while many Armenians were promoted and worked with missiles and advanced weaponry.
Nagorno-Karabakh’s successes can also be attributed to the ineptitude of many Azerbaijani units and their apparent lack of commitment. Many abandoned battles, ingloriously leaving their weapons behind – weapons the Armenians were happy to retrieve.
It’s hard to believe, but there are actually people that live here now:
This scene was bizarre… This woman was many miles from anywhere in the direction she was headed and she was struggling to push the stroller through the thick gravel. She also happened to be next to a significant minefield:
Of course, roads and infrastructure were heavily damaged (or just completely destroyed as the bridge below was) in the war and so getting around can be tricky at times:
I wondered what the residents along the front lines thought of living amongst the sea of ruins and the vast fields of graves such as the one below:
These lands do not just hold the remains of those from Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia or Azerbaijan, but also many Russian mercenaries (fighting for both sides) as well as those of Afghan mujahadeen and Chechens who were fighting for Azerbaijan.
Could war break out here again? As the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia demonstrated, frozen conflicts can turn hot very quickly.
For at least the last couple of years, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and some of his ministers have engaged in aggressive verbal exchanges with Armenia. Earlier last month, a spokesman for the Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense said that ultimately his country would “meet the expectations of the people, the government, and the supreme commander-in-chief and will liberate the occupied land from the enemy.” Here is a collection of such statements from both sides. And in a recent piece, the New York Times’ Ellen Barry said she found an antsy, pro-war mood in Baku.
But, I want to remain objective, so I’ll let a recent article in The Economist have the last word:
“Often described as “frozen”, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has been warming up. A recent report from the International Crisis Group says that ceasefire violations rose by 53% last year. At least 25 soldiers were killed in skirmishes. Hours before the Sochi talks began,reports emerged of the death of an Armenian soldier from Azerbaijani sniper bullets. In total, 3,000 people have been killed in skirmishes along the boundary line since the May 1994 ceasefire took effect.
Both countries have stepped up their bellicose rhetoric. Ilham Aliev, Azerbaijan’s president, warned of war in at least nine separate speeches in 2010, and has shown no sign of letting up this year. His Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sargysan, has strongly underlined his country’s readiness to repel any attacks. Recent military exercises in both countries suggest this is not empty bravado.
Moreover, both leaders are putting their money where their mouth is. In oil-wealthy Azerbaijan, defence spending has grown by an average of 50% every year since 2003. This year defence will account for one fifth of Azerbaijan’s total public spending, and more than the entire Armenian budget. But Armenia too has increased its weaponry, with help from its Russian friends.
Popular attitudes in each country are unforgiving, with commemoration of past injusticesat this time of year reinforcing hard-line attitudes. Azerbaijanis recently marked the 19th anniversary of the Khojali massacre, while Armenians mourned the 23rd anniversary of the anti-Armenian pogroms in Sumgait.
Neither leader appears minded to make concessions. Yet the status quo is unacceptable, particularly to Azerbaijan, which hosts over 580,000 displaced people and smarts at the occupation of 16% of its territory.”