Show your passport and get your handwritten visa as you cross the border from Armenia to the Republic of Artsakh and discover this: some of humankind’s most hellish hating took place in some of the most beautiful landscape in the world.
We saw a cow cleaning her minutes-old calf in a field on a plain where thousands died not thirty years ago. “Hee” “Hoo” the two men securing hay on the back of a truck called to each other in the sunshine– easy, ancient cooperation where previously bullets and rockets had flown. Missile silos surround a 7th century limestone church on top of a steep hill. The bright green of a local lizard is not the only camo this countryside has seen.
If you speak of it all, you almost certainly call this part of the world Nagorno-Karabakh. In Armenia, they call it Artsakh-its name since the 6th century BC when its beautiful forests and mountains, rock formations, and plains were part of Great Armenia, a country stretching from the Black to the Caspian Sea. In Azerbaijan today, they call this disputed territory theirs.
Fast forward nearly two thousand years from the time of Great Armenia to 1918. Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent republics. Artsakh, which had also been part of the Russian Empire, and fought over for generations by Persians and Turks, was once again part of Armenia. It didn’t last of course.
In 1921, Stalin, then Lenin’s right hand man, gave Artsakh to Azerbaijan. So much for independence. No matter then, that the majority of the region’s people were ethnically Armenian, and Christian. The move was probably part of a bigger power play to bring the Turks closer to Stalin’s way of thinking.– though I for one am unclear what difference this might have made. No one really knows, for Stalin was not the confiding type. Not that it made much difference to Azerbaijan– its territory, like so many of its neighbors became subsumed by the Soviet Union. That is how things stayed for another 70 years or so.
With the collapse of the USSR in the late 80s/early 90s, the people of Artsakh thought it was time to let the Azeris know where they stood. They pressed for reunification with Armenia. That didn’t fly. The notion of independence was put to a territory -wide referendum in 1991. The ethnic Armenian/Christian population easily outvoted their minority Azeri/Muslim neighbors in the disputed territory. Independence was declared then using-ironically–the NK name which is Turkish in origin. The Azeris declared war. The Armenians fought for their kinsfolk.
If you look at a population map, it is hard to see how the tiny republic survived. Azerbaijan is a huge, oil-rich country. Artsakh at the time of the war had fewer than 200,000 people. Even with the support of every man fit to fight from next-door Armenia, the numbers didn’t look good.
The ethnic Armenians had a few things in their favor though. First, a passionate determination to hold out against the Azeris. And secondly and most importantly a strategic savvy honed by millennia-long mastery of chess. The landscape eventually worked in their favor too.
Today, the many deep gorges and ravines of Artsakh are all crossed by thin wires, threaded to thwart Azeri planes and helicopters carrying bombs, and men with loaded guns. The pilots couldn’t see the wire. When they hit it, it caused them to crash. Many of the pilots were Ukrainian– mercenaries trying to earn a crust after Soviet jobs disappeared. War does not discriminate.
There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that the Armenians flour bombed the Azeris. They, thinking they’d been hit by a chemical weapon, fled.
The city of Shushi is on a plateau at the top of a sheer wall of rock. At first it was held by the Azeris who lit truck tires on fire and rolled them over the cliff edge on to the Armenians living in villages below. From their vantage point the Azeris could also shoot people in their houses, firing through their roofs. The situation looked hopeless for the defenders of Artsakh. But the Armenians had a plan. Across a period of weeks, they ignited spats in towns and villages, drawing their enemy out of the strategic center. Meanwhile they assembled many thousands of their own troops to storm the city from the non rocky side. It worked. The city fell to the Armenians and the war was won.
We stood overlooking the gorge and admiring the cliff and the plateau. A cuckoo sang. An Azeri might consider this a metaphor, but there are no Azeris left in Shushi, Artsakh or Armenia.
In the capital Stepanakert, a delightful, clean, open, sunny, white-stoned city there are ancient mosques dating from the time when Persians were in charge. Today these are under renovation as historic sites. In the ancient capital of Tigranakert a partial excavation has revealed a Christian church dating from medieval times. In slightly more recent times, Azeri homes were built using the remains of the old church as a foundation. No one lives there now. The plain is no man’s land, stretching out to the border with Azerbaijan. There were deaths on that plain as recently as 2016, a four-day war between the people of the Republic, their Armenian kin, and the Azeris. Every day still there are incursions on both sides, sniper shootings and deaths. Total deaths are estimated at about 35,000 since the war in the 80s/90s. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced. Casualties are everywhere today.
Following the April war of 2016, the people of the Republic decided to revert to their old Armenian name. Nagorno-Karabakh is now the Republic of Artsakh. No one outside the South Caucasus much noticed. No one else much cares. Most of the world does not recognize Artsakh, however much they do or don’t know of the history. Azerbaijan has oil and gas, and that buys international friendship
Stepanakert is hosting CONIFA at the moment, a 10-team tournament for teams from unrecognized states. I can’t say I knew any of the team names. 3 of them– situated within territory you probably know as Ukraine– could not even turn up to play.
” Perhaps Northern Ireland should join the next tournament” said my Armenian guide. ” Northern Ireland is an unrecognized State isn’t it?”
“Maybe” I said ” but we have our own football team and we՚re able to compete in all the big tournaments”.
I thought Ara’s eyes began to glaze when I started to talk about the 1982 World Cup quarter finals. I expect if he ever has the chance to join me in Northern Ireland he will be glad our own vexed history is a great deal shorter than Armenia’s own.
Liz Barron finished her Peace Corps service before traveling independently to Artsakh in the company of an Armenian guide. Perhaps one day she will have the chance to visit Azerbaijan and hear their account of the last 2000+ years. That will not be possible however, while her passport bears an Armenian stamp.