“This is not the best time to be here”, said the official at the Ministry of Foreign affairs, “but thank you for visiting my country”.
I had travelled to Nagorno-Karabakh, a country which doesn’t technically exist. It’s a small, breakaway territory between Azerbaijan and Armenia, it’s not recognised as an independent nation by any country, and on most maps it will appear simply as an unassuming province of Azerbaijan, who the international community recognise as the legitimate authority over the region. But since the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh have de facto governed their own affairs.
The Nagorno-Karabakh War is a forgotten conflict. It’s labelled a frozen conflict, because things haven’t changed much in the twenty or so years since full scale war broke out in 1992, and despite a ceasefire in 1994, the Armenians of Karabakh continue to fight intermittently with the Azerbaijanis.
At times this frozen conflict can be a very hot and deadly conflict for those involved. And it’s a conflict which largely goes unnoticed by anyone not involved.
The Only Road To Karabakh.
The only way into the Nagorno-Karabakh region is through Armenia. The population here almost exclusively define themselves as Armenian. They speak a dialect of Armenian, they use the Armenian Dram, and the only open border is with Armenia.
This wasn‘t always the case though.
Before the Nagorno-Karabakh War- before the Soviet Union collapsed- the province was a part of Azerbaijan, and there was a large Azeri and Muslim population living alongside the Armenians. During the war, as Armenians fought for independence in Karabakh, the Azeri population was forced out, leaving their villages and homes behind, never to return again, while across Azerbaijan, Armenians were forced into exile too. Hundreds of thousands were turned into refugees on both sides of this ethnic conflict.
The Black Garden.
To the Armenians, this land is known as Artsakh. To the Azeris, it’s Karabakh– The Black Garden.
To the rest of the world, this mountainous province is seen as a disputed land, caught between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but to the Armenians and to the Azerbaijanis there is no dispute.
Both sides claim this as there rightful land- the Azerbaijanis want this ‘occupied’ territory back and the Armenians want to keep it. And at any point, the fragile ceasefire holding this long lasting dispute together threatens to violently escalate into all out war.
That’s a problem for travellers. Most governments have Nagorno-Karabakh on their list of no go zones, and there’s no embassies or consulates here to help out anyone in trouble. But despite the conflict it’s also one of the most beautiful and hospitable areas that I’ve ever travelled to.
Travelling To A Country Which Doesn’t Exist.
I’d taken an old Marshrutka from Yerevan, the Armenian capital. It’s a journey of six hours to the border, and then a further hour into the mountains to reach the de facto capital, Stepanakert– a city known in Azerbaijan by the name Khankendi.
The border crossing was a simple process. The Armenian and Karabakh guards mingled freely by the crossing. There were no fences in sight. One guard strolled over to the van, checked my passport and then another guard came out of the office with a slip of paper, telling me to visit the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Stepanakert that same day to get a visa, and to enjoy my trip. It was smiles all round, no luggage was checked and no questions were asked. I couldn‘t tell who was supposed to be on the Armenian side and who was on the Karabakh side, they all wore the same uniforms anyway.
The mountain pass I was travelling through was never technically part of Karabakh, but it is the shortest route from Armenia.
The Nagorno-Karabakh province was an enclave within Azerbaijan, surrounded by other Azeri provinces. When the war began, access was needed to Armenia- who were supplying arms and aid to the fighters in Karabakh. So the Armenians took the Lachin Corridor by force- Azeri land- and still occupy it to this day. It’s the only viable route in and out. The Armenians are unlikely to give this land back, doing so would result in Nagorno-Karabakh once again being surrounded, and this unwavering position has been the focal point of many negotiations.
The Frozen Conflict Heats Up Again.
In Stepanakert I walked down Freedom Fighters Street to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building. The flag of Karabakh was flying from every building on the main street. A flag not so different to the Armenian- the colours and stripes are the same, there’s just one subtle difference. Billboards displayed pictures of military units and national heroes, while uniformed men and women strolled the streets.
At the Ministry I quickly had my visa issued. The official signed the documents off easily, asking if I wanted the visa stuck into my passport or left separate. I asked for it to be separate, as any evidence in my passport of having visited Karabakh would deny me entry to Azerbaijan in the future, and probably get me arrested at the border and thrown into an Azerbaijani jail. The authorities see any visit to Karabakh- even just as a simple tourist wanting to look around the place- as illegal entry into Azerbaijan. One unlucky travel blogger was recently even jailed in Belarus before being extradited to Azerbaijan for visiting. This is rare, but the threat is definitely real.
The official said that it was perhaps not the best time to be here, but thanked us for visiting. He signed off my visa but only gave me permission to stay in Stepanakert and to visit the nearby town of Shusha. Whilst things were tense, anywhere else would have to be off limits. Karabakh is small he told me, and the front line was technically not that far away at all, but in Stepanakert it would be safe. Things always had a habit of quieting down quickly on the front lines.
There Would Never Be A ‘Good’ Time To Visit.
In Yerevan I’d heard reports that fighting had been occurring along The Line of Contact, the ceasefire line separating the Azerbaijani and Karabakh forces. Although they act with de facto independence, it‘s an open secret that the Karabakh Defence Forces comprise a significant number of soldiers from Armenia itself, while receiving training and funding from the country too. And this despite the fact that Armenia doesn’t actually even recognise Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent nation.
Having spent the last few months touring around countries which don’t exist– Abkhazia and Northern Cyprus were all part of my holiday plans– I couldn‘t miss the opportunity to travel to Karabakh too, even if things were hotting up, and in Yerevan I was told by many Armenians that this sort of trouble was always happening, and always would anyway. There would never exactly be a good time to visit. Fighting was always contained along the border, and if it escalated beyond that then I wouldn’t be safe anywhere in Armenia or Azerbaijan, so it was time to just get on with it.
It was now or never, I might never get another chance.
Despite his warnings, the official was happy to see tourists. “Not many people make it here”, he said. He spoke fluent English, having spent his younger years in education in Edinburgh, under the sponsorship of Baroness Cox, a British Peer who is working to gain Karabakh international recognition. She’s a popular figure amongst Armenians for her tireless efforts to help the region- politically and through humanitarian channels- although in the process she has earned the scorn of the Government of Azerbaijan for promoting Nagorno-Karabakh‘s independence against the common consensus of the wider International Community.
Showing his appreciation for my visit he gave me a large poster, depicting a detailed map of the Nagorno-Karabakh region- a rather unique souvenir- before recommending a little guesthouse to stay in around the corner.
The Forgotten Land.
The guesthouse was down a small street near the city centre, run by a lovely Karabakh lady. She made a delicious breakfast each morning, served in her family’s dining room while she gave out invaluable sightseeing tips.
She assured me that in Stepanakert it would be fine of course, but unfortunately there were always a few skirmishes along the border. It never spilled over into anything bigger, it was just what they had to live with. I couldn‘t help but feel a little bit guilty imagining all the Azerbaijani and Armenian soldiers on the border though- the majority of them probably young conscripts- while here I was eating breakfast. But she assured me that Karabakh needed more visitors, this was a forgotten part of the world.
She recommended that I start my tour of Stepanakert by visiting a monument on the edge of the city, it would be like nothing I’d ever seen before. So I headed there, towards the We Are Our Mountains Monument.
We Are Our Mountains.
Nagorno-Karabakh is a mountainous region and tall peaks surround Stepanakert. The mountains are ingrained into the history and culture of this land, they have been and always will be a defining feature of life in this part of the world, for all people.
And the monument was indeed like nothing I’d ever seen before, more reminiscent of the giant heads of Easter Island than anything that I’d seen anywhere else, especially in the Caucasus.
A local name for the We Are Our Mountains Monument is Tapik-Papik, which in the local Armenian dialect means Grandma and Grandpa, and the sculpture was built years before the war, in 1967. The monument managed to cause an international dispute during the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest of all things, a contest which has bizarrely become a strange political battleground between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The Armenian contingent brazenly displayed images of the monument during their act’s performance, and during the voting stage, purely to annoy the Azerbaijani’s who claimed that the image couldn‘t be used as the monument was on Azerbaijani land. Azerbaijan supposedly went as far as blurring out the Armenian performance completely on Azeri television and it’s alleged that Azerbaijani’s who voted for Armenia’s act were later brought before the Ministry of National Security in Baku. Whatever the truth, it’s an undeniable representation of how strongly each side feels about Karabakh.
Selfies In Stepanakert.
The city has a small museum dedicated to Karabakh’s history, with free guided tours for tourists around the predominantly military related exhibits. Across the city there was a large military presence too, with men and women in uniform and groups of soldiers buying supplies from the small shops and markets.
At the local bazaar, an Armenian man from Yerevan began talking to me about Karabakh. He was just visiting on business but said that it had to be one of the most beautiful places in the world. He translated for a local market vendor who was selling fresh fruit and vegetables, and who was keen to know where I was from. As I went to leave, he gave me a bag of fresh vegetables, refusing to accept any money for any of it, despite my protests.
This was Karabakh hospitality at its finest.
Outside the Parliament building a group of young students came over to chat, asking where I was from and what had brought me to Karabakh. At first people would assume that I was a journalist or an aid worker- what with the recent trouble on the front line- only to be surprised and intrigued when I said that I was just a tourist. This led to a long round of selfies and photographs with the students outside the parliament.
Despite their situation, the people I met in Nagorno-Karabakh always strove to make me welcome… although perhaps it would be a different story if I was from Azerbaijan…
The Ghost Town, Shusha.
My next stop was the nearby town of Shusha, perched in the hills above Stepanakert. Before the war, the majority of the population here were Azeri, and today the town stands in huge contrast to the reconstructed capital, with abandoned mosques and destroyed buildings still littering the streets years after the ceasefire.
Shusha was used by Azerbaijani forces to bomb Stepanakert during the war. It was a base for the artillery and GRAD missiles which rained fire upon the Armenians below.
When the Armenians took the town in 1992 to stop the bombardments, the Azeris were forced to flee, abandoning their homes and their livelihoods behind in the ruins. They have never been able to return.
It’s in Shusha that I get to see the opposing effect of the war. It’s here, amongst the abandoned apartments and the abandoned mosques that I get to see a glimpse of the other side of the story and the lasting consequences that the conflict has had not only on Armenians but on Azerbaijanis too.
It’s Stalin’s Fault, As Usual.
Both ethnic groups had lived in ‘relative’ harmony for the majority of Soviet Rule, there was no war at least. Stalin in his quest for power had ensured that Nagorno-Karabakh remained separate from Armenia, giving into Azerbaijani demands that this was traditional and historic Azeri land, despite the majority Armenian population. This was all part of his divide and rule policy, and it helped the Soviets to keep power in the Soviet Republics. It also led to innumerable conflicts when the USSR collapsed- many of which, including the question of Karabakh, remain unresolved today.
Shusha was the scene of fierce fighting when the Armenian Karabakh forces took the town in 1992. Tank battles were fought in the surrounding hills, and on the mountain road leading from Stepanakert a wrecked Armenian tank stands as a memorial to the conflict, looking out over the battlefield it was destroyed upon. Armenian Karabakh forces scaled nearby cliffs and took Shusha by force, forcing the Azeri soldiers out and the remaining civilians who hadn’t already fled with them.
The Beginning Of The End.
This marked the beginning of the end for Azerbaijan’s forces in Karabakh. With their largest town in the region under occupation, the Azerbaijanis were slowly pushed out until the the Armenian and Karabakh forces began occupying Azeri lands outside of Nagorno-Karabakh until a ceasefire was negotiated in 1994.
With the forced exodus of its population, Shusha has never fully recovered from the war. The Armenians have restored the town’s Christian cathedrals and churches but buildings and mosques stand abandoned, war scarred and crumbling. Armenians started to move in, to repopulate the empty streets, but Shusha is still part ghost town.
A Strange Existence.
The people of Nagorno-Karabakh live a strange existence, unrecognised, isolated and under the constant threat of invasion and war. The people I met here shrugged this off complacently as their normality, but from an outsider’s perspective, it’s anything but normal.
The conflict has created thousands of refugees on both sides, and each year it continues to be a deadly place for many of the soldiers along the Line of Contact. It’s a conflict that has dragged on for decades now, a conflict whose roots go back hundreds of years, and unfortunately, it doesn’t look like a solution will be found anytime soon.
So for now the Azerbaijanis and Armenians will continue to face off against each other over Karabakh, in a disputed land which was long ago forgotten by the outside world.
Return To Yerevan.
When I returned to Yerevan there were demonstrations in the city to raise awareness for Nagorno-Karabakh.
Armenians- as of course do the Azerbaijanis- feel strongly about the conflict. With the recent fighting and deaths along the front lines, tensions were higher than usual in the Armenian capital.
It was also nearing Armenian Genocide Memorial Day when I arrived back, and many Armenians equate the war in Karabakh with memories of the forced removals and deaths of Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.
For many Armenians, like that struggle was, the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is once again a struggle for the existence of Armenia itself. And for Azerbaijanis, their historic land has been taken, occupied and their people forcibly removed.
And neither side is likely to back down.
Author’s Footnote: I wrote this article purely from a travel perspective, however it is hard to separate Nagorno-Karabakh from the politics and history that surround it, and in the recent case of the Russian-Israeli-Ukrainian Travel Blogger Aleksandr Lapshin who is facing trial in Azerbaijan over his visits to the region and subsequent blog and social media posts, it appears that authorities can’t separate the idea of travel from politics either. After finishing this article I read an interesting piece by The Accidental Geographer on why it’s impossible to report on the Karabakh conflict with any real human element when it’s reduced to the numbers and propaganda thrown around by all the parties involved in the war. The Accidental Geographer writes that “We write academic papers on the nature of ‘Frozen Conflict’ but know little about the frozen trench foot that soldiers endure”. I realise that this article I’ve written is from one point of view, the side of the Armenians in Karabakh, more so obviously than the Azerbaijani side, as that is where I visited and those are the people I spoke to, and as such it is hard to stay neutral, especially when all governments present different arguments and opinions on all matters related to the region and refuse to debate. But unless you even attempt to get on the ground to see what is really going on, even from a tourist’s perspective as is my case, and attempt to witness and then to present a human side of the argument, as I have endeavoured to do, then you can never even attempt to know even a small part of the real story.
You can find The Accidental Geographer’s article HERE.