Saturday, 13 June 2015

Among Armenians: Day 5: Sisian to Stepanakert and Gandazar

world-map yerevanGreetings!

This week’s post returns to an old favourite topic of mine and one that is, once again, in the news as I write: Unrecognised Countries.

The reason is that in today’s post I travel to Nagorno-Karabagh. Never heard of it? Well, looking on a map won’t help you because, (unless the map is Armenian), it’s not marked. But Nagorno-Karabagh is very much a real place, just as is Transdniestra is which I visited back in 2012 as part of my Missing Link expedition.

My V-log on Unrecognised Countries

There are currently six unrecognised/ partially recognised republics within the former Soviet Union. This post talks about Nagorno-Karabagh and we’ve also mentioned Transdniestria, officially in Moldova. There are also South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia and, as of 2014, the Donetsk People's Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic, both in Eastern Ukraine. In addition to these we should also mention Crimea which also broke away from Ukraine but then voted to become a part of Russia.

This post and subsequent ones explore issues pertaining to life in these unrecognised statelets so I shall not dwell into the matter here, except to say that this is a problem and it is one that is only getting worse as their numbers keep multiplying. Vladimir Putin may not be an angel but merely slating him and Russia as the Western media continually do will not provide a solution for the victims of these wars. A look at all of them clearly points out one root cause: aggressive nationalism on behalf of the official country which caused those regions who, ethnically, do not have room to live in that narrow vision, to declare independence. That is the problem and until that is addressed, nothing will be solved.

And so, if the EU or USA genuinely wish to help the people of Ukraine to be able to create a peaceful future for their children, then they could do far worse that teaching them the meaning of the word “pluralism” and treating the neo-fascist nationalists that sit in Kiev with the contempt that they deserve.

Some hope.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt


Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of this travelogue


Day 1: Tbilisi to Yerevan

Day 2: Echmiadzin and Yerevan

Day 3: Khor Virap and Yerevan

Day 4: Yerevan to Sisian

Day 5: Sisian to Stepanakert and Gandazar

Day 6: Stepanakert and Aghdam

Day 7: Stepanakert to Yerevan

Day 8: Lake Sevan

Day 9: Garni and Geghard

Postscript: A Georgian Minibreak

And also check out my 2010 trip to the lost lands of the Armenians in Eastern Turkey!


Day 5 – Yerevan to Sisian to Stepanakert and Gandazar

We awoke that morning knowing that, by the afternoon, we would be in a different country. That was a definite. What was less clear however, was which country that would be.

The visas in our passports declared 'Artsakh' which is the Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabagh. However, according to any world map, (or at least any map produced outside of Armenia), there is no such country as Artsakh or Nagorno-Karabagh and instead the city that we were headed for, Stepanakert – marked as Khankendi on most maps – is place firmly inside Azerbaijan. So, is it Nagorno-Karabagh or Azerbaijan, what's the difference and why was there so much fighting about it in the early 1990s?

The Armenians have lived in the region for millennia, but so have many other races such as the Azeris, Georgians, Kurds and several more. That's all well and good except that often one race did not dominate the entire region. Instead you might get one Armenian village, then a Kurdish one, then an Azeri one and so on. To see what I mean, take a look at this ethnic map of Nagorno-Karabagh prior to the conflict.


That said, by the start of the 20th century, the area that nowadays comprises Armenia was predominantly Armenian, that of Nakhijevan was largely Azeri and that of Nagorno-Karabagh, largely Armenian, which explains why the Dashnaks fought so hard against the Red Army to have both Syunik and Nagorno-Karabagh included within the new Armenian SSR, (but not Nakhijevan); after all, they'd just lost half their traditional homelands to the Turks who had ethnically cleansed the lot.

Under Stalin though, things were different and it didn't matter much which SSR you were in as everything was dictated by the centre. So it was that, almost immediately after defeating the Republic of Mountainous Armenia, Nagorno-Karabagh (but not Syunik) was given to the Azerbaijani SSR and then, two years later, given a special autonomous status within Azerbaijan, hence the Nagorno-Karabagh Autonomous Region was born, (a little like Kosova in Yugoslavia and we all know how that one ended up as well). The question begs as to why did Stalin renege on his deal with the Dashnaks and do this? The answer is a simple one, namely that it was entirely logical both in terms of internal economics and international relations. Internally, it meant that farmers could continue doing what they had always done and move their flocks between the plains of Azerbaijan and highlands of Nagorno-Karabagh according to the seasons, (Nagorno-Karabagh lies on the Azerbaijani side of the watershed). Internationally, the USSR were courting Kemalist Turkey at the time as a prospective ally, believing that Atatürk would turn his new republic into a communist state and the Turks naturally supported their Muslim Turkic brothers the Azeris over the old enemy, the Armenians who had no international friends.[1]

However, when drawing up the border for the new Nagorno-Karabagh Autonomous Region two years later, instead of keeping the pre-existing boundaries of the province, the Soviets redrew them to give the region an overwhelmingly Armenian population, with the city of Shusha being the only major Azeri enclave, (largely because its Armenian population had all been murdered by the Azeris in 1920). And the new autonomous region they kept permanently separated from the Armenian SSR by creating another autonomous region, Red Kurdistan, in-between the two. This was a short-lived attempt to inspire Kurdish loyalty to the USSR which failed largely due to there being virtually no Kurds – and precious few other people it must be said – in the inhospitable strip of mountainous terrain that the new autonomous region consisted of. Thus, in 1929 Red Kurdistan was abolished and Nagorno-Karabagh became an Armenian island marooned within the Azerbaijani SSR.


nagorno karabagh within azerbaijan

And thus things continued until perestroika and the gradual opening up of freedoms within the USSR during the 1980s. True, that in 1945, 1965 and 1977 the region petitioned Moscow to unite with the Armenian SSR[2] and there were rumblings of discontent at Azeri immigration into the region, (in 1926 there were 117,000 Armenians and 13,000 Azeris respectively; by 1979 it was 123,000 Armenians and 37,000 Azeris),[3] and the fact that Nagorno-Karabagh fell behind the Armenian SSR economically, (although not the rest of the Azerbaijani SSR), but all was muted until February 1988 when the region exploded after yet another petition accompanied by a series of rallies and strikes. This was the first serious expression of discontent within the USSR since the death of Stalin and the developments led to Azerbaijani counter demonstrations and then the gathering of more than a million people, (more than a quarter of the entire population of the Armenian SSR), in Yerevan. Feelings were running high and the authorities were paralysed in their response. This in its turn caused pogroms of Armenians in Sumgait in Azerbaijan, (thirty-two deaths – twenty-six Armenians and six Azeris).[4] The tensions continued with Gorbachev being harangued when he visited Armenia after the 1988 earthquake and pogroms in Baku in which more than ninety Armenians lost their lives.[5] An insurgency started which, in times gone by, the Red Army would have squashed without blinking but by this time the USSR itself was beginning its meltdown and by the time that it was formally dissolved on 31st December 1991, there was all-out war in Nagorno-Karabagh.

How that war was fought was dictated by two factors: geography and demography. For the Azerbaijanis it was simple: maintain a blockade around Nagorno-Karabagh to weaken the entity and stop weapons from seeping in and then advance up the broad, low-lying valley to Khankendi, (the Azeri name for Stepanakert, the region's capital). For the Armenians, they had to use their overwhelming demographic majority to force the Azeri population to flee the region and then to try and force a road link to Armenia through the former Red Kurdistan and its capital Lachin.[6] And at the same time as all of this was going on, both sides were busy courting Russian support which, in the end, proved to be crucial.

Initially Azerbaijan bombarded Stepanakert whilst the Armenians did the same, (but less successfully), with Shusha, (the only Azeri-majority city in the region). The Armenians also made a priority of capturing the Azeri village of Khojali to the east of Stepanakert as that contained Nagorno-Karabagh's only airfield. Three thousand people lived in Khojali and in the attack 485 were killed or massacred.[7] Stunned by this, the Azerbaijan's morale fell and when the Armenians turned their attentions to a ground assault on Shusha – which the Azeris should have easily been able to defend – petrified at what their fate might be, the Azeri population merely upped and left so that on 8th to 9th May 1992, the Armenians captured the city with minimal effort. Now the entire territory of Nagorno-Karabagh was effectively Armenian but it was still blockaded on all sides and separate from Armenia proper, whilst also wide open to a full-on Azerbaijani assault. But then, only a fortnight after the catastrophe of Shusha, on 18th May 1992 the Azerbaijanis suffered another, even more calamitous, defeat with Lachin falling to the Armenians and the blockade being lifted. Now Nagorno-Karabagh had both land and air links with Armenia through which food, medicine and arms could be channelled.[8]

But then, in the summer of 1992, the tide began to change. The Azerbaijanis elected a new president, Abulfaz Elchibey and, riding a wave of patriot support and an influx of old Soviet weapons, his tanks rolled through the Armenian-populated Shaumian Region to the north of Nagorno-Karabagh and then into the region itself, capturing around 40% of the region's territory and coming within half an hour of Stepanakert itself.[9] But then the Armenians rallied and in 1993 these gains melted away as the Azerbaijani commanders began to plot against one another and the Armenians received more military support from Russia. Two of the senior Azerbaijani leaders, defence minister Rasim Gaziev and commander Suret Husseinov, plotted against the government and simply withdrew their men from the field leaving the region of Kelbajar, (part of the old Red Kurdistan buffer zone between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabagh), undefended. In April 1993 the Armenians attacked and the local population fled. The occupation of this region, never Armenian or part of Nagorno-Karabagh, drew stern international condemnation including from Turkey who closed her border with Armenia in protest. However, the largest fall-out was in Azerbaijan itself where Elchibey lost his presidency in a coup, the Soviet era leader Heidar Aliev moving to replace him. And whilst all this was happening, the Armenians simply continued to advance, causing 350,000 Azeri civilians to flee in their path.

Once Aliev was established, there then began what the Armenian president Levon Ter-Petrosian referred to as “a real war” in which “both sides had real armies”. Between December and February casualty figures skyrocketed, the Azerbaijanis losing around four thousand men and the Armenians two thousand. However, despite some marginal gains, Aliev's military strategy failed and both sides were exhausted. Talks began and a ceasefire came into place on 12th May 1994.[10] Minor infractions aside, it has held ever since. Thus the war ended and, holding most of Nagorno-Karabagh and seven districts of Azerbaijan proper, one has to say that the Armenians were the winners. That said, the conflict did seriously damage their international reputation and Nagorno-Karabagh then – and still today – remains unrecognised as an entity and is still officially regarded as a part of Azerbaijan.


And that was the place that we were travelling to that sunny morning. We rumbled along, firstly to Goris, a spectacularly situated town that had once been the capital of the ill-fated Republic of Mountainous Armenia and then, on its outskirts, we changed marshrutka for the journey onwards into Nagorno-Karabagh itself.

The trip contained some incredible scenery, quite different to that around Sisian and instead more like the Balkan Mountains in Bosnia or parts of Albania. The road was different too, far better maintained and engineered than all the others and large signs along it declared that it had been paid for by the Hayarstan All-Armenians Fund, a diaspora organisation that ploughs money into various Armenian projects from new classrooms for a village school to tree planting schemes to replace those felled during the electricity shortages of 1992-5. This road however, was the daddy of them all for this was the all-important artery through Lachin which allowed the Armenians to channel weapons, food and medical supplies into their beleaguered brothers and sisters in Nagorno-Karabagh. You could almost say it was the road what won it.

Near to the border we passed by the village of Tegh where, in a cliff face below the settlement, were hundreds of caves. They looked fascinating and I would have loved to have stopped but it was, of course, not possible. Later research on the internet however, revealed that many had been used for human habitation although these days only livestock dwell in them.

The border, at kink in the road in the bottom of a valley, was not what I had anticipated. For starters, there was no Armenian checkpoint whatsoever. Ok, so officially Nagorno-Karabagh isn't a proper country, I get that, but nonetheless, you are still leaving Armenian territory so why not check passports. All fuel to the fire I suppose, that Nagorno-Karabagh, which Armenia doesn't even recognise, is actually run from Yerevan.

The Nagorno-Karabagh checkpoint was, like their embassy, casual. They seemed surprised that we had bothered to buy visas – I later learnt that most people purchase them once they arrive in Stepanakert – and didn't bother to stamp our passports. I felt like saying, “C'mon guys, if you want to convince people that you're a proper country, then you should at least start acting like one!” but I didn't of course. After all, it would have been rude.

It was only a couple of miles further on, up a hefty climb, that we reached the town of Berdzor, formerly Lachin, once the grand capital of Red Kurdistan and more recently the site of some of the fiercest fighting in the war. The legacy of that was all around us in the form of bombed or burnt out buildings by the road in. nonetheless, when we got to the centre of that infamous place, it was all a bit disappointing. The capital of Red Kurdistan and flashpoint of the war was little more than a sleepy village where our driver stopped for some time to chat with “friends” in the main square after which sums of money changed hands.

After Berdzor it was a mountainous, picturesque wilderness all the way to Shushi – formerly Shusha – the Azeri stronghold during the war and formerly Nagorno-Karabagh's largest city, (Stepanakert was only made capital in 1923 at which time it was a small village). Shushi was formerly one of the great cities of the Caucasus, but today much of it lies ruined, and not for the first time either. Founded in 1747, it was called the “Jerusalem of Karabagh” due to its ethnic mix which invigorated the city making it a renowned cultural centre but which also proved to be its downfall with inter-ethnic fighting breaking out in 1905 and then again in 1920 when the Azerbaijani army sacked its Armenian Quarter leaving around five hundred dead. Ten years later, the famous Russian Jewish poet Osip Mandelstam visited and found it to be a ghost town with “forty-thousand dead windows”. Afterwards Stepanakert became the region's capital and Shushi became the centre of Nagorno-Karabagh's Azeri community, hence the Armenians making its capture a priority.[11] Passing through we saw little beyond the newly-restored 19th century Armenian cathedral and two ruined mosques with fine brick minarets. Also intriguing was a working party of teenagers and twenty-somethings busy cleaning up the town's war memorial. I have read much of such “voluntary” initiatives during Soviet days and wondered if this was a continuation of the same tradition.

Stepanakert was not far from Shushi and we were dropped off in the centre where a gentleman named Ashot Simionian met us offering an apartment at 5,000 dram per person per night. We had a look and were impressed – two bedrooms, a living room, toilet and (non-working) shower, plus a large balcony which commanded a fine view over the city – and so took it. Ashot, a real businessman in the Del Boy mould, then took us to his house round the corner. Although in the heart of the city and behind a huge apartment block, it felt more like a village, being rather home-built and with a vegetable garden and a chicken run at the back. Our host bade us sit on a bench in his yard and then served us tea with berries whilst telling us about when he'd served with the Red Army in his youth, doing three years in East Germany (which he'd loved) and three in Afghanistan (understandably less keen). Both him and his house reminded me of Kolya Babamanov, the Uzbeki gent who had hosted the Lowlander and I in his house in a village not far from Urgench during our Trans-Asian trip.[12] He had also served in the Red Army, had been posted in Magdeburg in East Germany and had loved it. For all its faults, one positive of the old USSR had been its very cosmopolitan nature and the opportunities that it gave people from far-flung backwaters like Uzbekistan and Nagorno-Karabagh to enjoy experiences that they would never have had otherwise. How different I mused, are things for Ashot's children and grandchildren. He was a citizen of a superpower, the largest state on earth, which gave him the chance to cross continents; they belong to a tiny statelet, unrecognised even by its neighbours, and are barred from entering Azerbaijan, only ten miles or so down the road.

Is that what we call “progress”?

One of those disadvantaged youngsters, Ashot's son, now appeared and his father brokered a deal which would see him drive us to Gandazar Monastery, the architectural highlight of Nagorno-Karabagh, for the sum of 150 dram per kilometre, (about 20p). And so off we set in his gas-powered Volga to explore a little of this unknown and half-forgotten state.

Just outside Stepanakert we halted at Nagorno-Karabagh's most famous sight which we checked out whilst our driver went to fill up with gas. 'We Are Our Mountains' is a statue of an elderly couple, both vaguely mountain-shaped, which was erected during Soviet times to symbolise the unity of the Nagorno-Karabaghi people with their mountains. It has become the symbol of the statelet and is much-loved by all although no one refers to it by its official title; instead everyone calls it 'Mamik yel Babik' (“Granny and Granddad”).

We both liked it, a friendly, fun statue that truly succeeded where public art so often fails, in winning the hearts of minds of the people who live with it. There was a group of schoolchildren there being organised by their teacher in order to have some group photos taken in from of Granny and Granddad. All wore Young Pioneer neckties and all looked very Armenian. Well, all bar one. Stuck amongst his dusky-skinned and raven-haired classmates was a pale-skinned ginger lad. “Who put an Irish kid there?” asked more, for he certainly would have looked far more at home in Sligo than Stepanakert although I do know that there are a few ginger Armenians as back in Bulgaria I once taught one.

14162156210_8382f09626_zMamik yel Babik

We wandered around the statue, had our photos taken in front of it and then descended the hill to wait for the Volga to return. On a bench beside us were a young couple, the girl in tears, and I wondered what had caused her day to be so bad.

The drive to Gandazar passed through some incredibly beautiful mountain scenery, again very Balkan and green and a world away from the bleak brown moorlands we had left that morning around Sisian. There were few signs of the conflict of two decades ago yet here there had been much fighting as this was the area that Elchibey's forces had occupied during his counterattacks following the loss of Lachin that had resulted in around 40% of the territory of Nag being taken by the Azerbaijanis. The entire population had fled in the face of the invading troops and from what I could see, there hadn't been a lot of returning since for the area was notable for its emptiness. But then Nagorno-Karabagh as a whole only has a population of 146,573 over 50,000 of which live in Stepanakert.[13] That means that less than 100,000 people are spread out across an area the size of Northern Ireland, (which has just under two million). Thus the only relics from the war that we saw were several fields with signs by them which declared that they had been cleared of mines by the HALO Trust, a non-political, non-religious NGO which is the largest humanitarian mine-clearing organisation in the world.[14]

Immediately prior to the monastery, we stopped in Gandazar village, a very spruce and prosperous looking place where everything had been painted in gaudy yellow and green for some reason giving it a Disneyland feel. That was further enhanced by an astonishingly awful Titanic-themed hotel which looked like a giant concrete liner stranded in the mountains; post-Soviet nouveau riche at its very worst! More pleasing on the eye were the brand new school and kindergarten and of interest were entire fences constructed out of old Azerbaijani number plates, they being defunct after independence, and the village souvenir shop which proudly boasted that it was run by a veteran of the war.

14162138870_8faf5dc2e7_zThe Titanic Hotel

14162082848_f5ca764539_zThe new primary school

14348743235_7907b3dd4a_zNumberplate heaven

High up on a mountain overlooking that most cheesy of villages was the monastery itself, one of the finest that we visited on the entire trip. It had some amazing intricate carvings particularly around the altar, but equally inspiring were the almost Alpine views from the terrace.

14368901263_6191823d40_zThe altar at Gandazar

14368908283_1bd83e7089_zThe view from the monastery

On the way back our driver tried to take us to a cheesy cave-sum-zoo tourist complex near to Gandazar village but we both refused point blank and so headed straight back to Stepanakert. There we attempted to visit the Karabagh War Museum but it was shut and so all that we could do was check out the collection of (rather primitive looking) guns outside. Then it was back to Ashot's house where we were plied with vodka and some slightly fizzy homemade wine that was not likely to win many awards whilst being treated to the most amazing meal of the entire trip – shashlik with some beautiful seasoned potatoes, tomato paste, pepper paste, vegetable and lavash.[15] Whilst eating we were pestered continually by Ashot's five-year old grandson who was an almighty pain, but, more positively, our driver opened up to us a little, telling us that he had no girlfriend and that when he was eight Azerbaijani helicopters had strafed the adjacent apartment block, upon which the pockmarks from that attack are still visible.

14325564336_751a4691ea_zAshot’s yard with the Volga

As the sun was setting we bid our hosts adieu and headed to an internet café to talk with friends and family on Skype and witness Stoke City beating Newcastle United. Then, having been warmed up by Ashot, we stocked up on sausage and wine and retreated to our balcony with its magnificent view where we celebrated our arrival in this non-state by drinking into the small hours and inflicting a selection of English and Irish folk songs upon the good people of Stepanakert.

Day 6: Stepanakert and Aghdam


[1] The Caucasus, p.105

[2] The Caucasus, p.105

[3] The Caucasus, p.105

[4] The Caucasus, p.111

[5] The Caucasus, p.113

[6] The Caucasus, p.117

[7] The Caucasus, p.119

[8] The Caucasus, p.120

[9] The Caucasus, p.121

[10] The Caucasus, p.123-4

[11] The Caucasus, p.103-4

[12] See my travelogue 'Across Asia With A Lowlander'.

[13] Wikipedia

[14] Armenia with Nagorno-Karabagh, p.97

[15] Lavash – Armenian flatbread, a delicious staple everywhere.

No comments:

Post a Comment