For Nagorno-Karabakh’s Dueling Sides, Living Together Is ‘Impossible’

For Nagorno-Karabakh’s Dueling Sides, Living Together Is ‘Impossible’

For Nagorno-Karabakh’s Dueling Sides, Living Together Is ‘Impossible’

For Nagorno-Karabakh’s Dueling Sides, Living Together Is ‘Impossible’

SHGHARJIK, Armenia — The concrete memorial to 30 Azerbaijani soldiers — pockmarked, stained and cracked — pokes out of the craggy mountainside next to the crumbling remnants of two junked cars.

They died fighting for the Soviet Union in World War II, but the time has come, the current head of the village says, for the soldiers’ monument to go.

“We also have our heroes now,” said the village head, Shahen Babayants, who is Armenian.

Armenians and Azerbaijanis lived side by side in the Soviet days, until conflict over the disputed mountain territory called Nagorno-Karabakh exploded in the late 1980s into riots, expulsions and a yearslong war. The violence left personal wounds festering for decades, as stubborn as the tan and gray stone ruins of Azerbaijani villages still scattered in the Armenian countryside.

In the last two weeks, those unhealed scars have erupted into a modern-day conflagration of trench warfare, drone strikes and artillery bombardments. More than 500 Armenian soldiers have died, along with scores of civilians and an unknown number of Azerbaijanis. A cease-fire brokered in Moscow over the weekend has failed to hold, and President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan has threatened a further escalation of his offensive.

The new war over Nagorno-Karabakh, in which Azerbaijan insists it is ready to fight to recapture the swath of land Armenia conquered in the 1990s, is emerging as this century’s deadliest conflict in the southern Caucasus region that separates Europe from Asia, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.

The conflict has the potential to spiral into an even bigger crisis with unforeseeable consequences. It is already drawing in Azerbaijan’s ally Turkey, which is a member of NATO; Russia, which has a mutual-defense treaty with Armenia; and even Iran, which borders the region to the south.

For the region’s populace, the war is a continuation of on-off strife over both territory and history, with roots going back more than a century. The days when the Soviet Union kept a lid on such conflicts, and Azerbaijanis and Armenians mostly lived together in peace, feel like an irrevocably lost world.

“Each wants to say that he is the master of this land,” said Mr. Babayants, himself a refugee who left Azerbaijan in 1989. “To live together is, put simply, impossible.”

He settled in Armenia, just over the border, in a village that had recently been home to Azerbaijanis. A few years after he arrived, the village took fire from Azerbaijani forces. The Azerbaijani graveyard, of all places, was hit.

Beyond that border, a gray-green expanse of mountains, is territory that is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but has been effectively controlled by Armenia ever since the 1990s war. It includes both the Armenian-majority enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, and land that surrounds it and links it to Armenia.

Some 500,000 Azerbaijanis were expelled, often violently, from that territory, and more than 200,000 were forced out of Armenia proper.

For decades, international mediators have been looking for a way to hand territory back to Azerbaijan while preserving the safety of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. To Mr. Babayants, the lesson of history is that returning those territories is out of the question. For Azerbaijan, the loss of them has been a national tragedy.

Azerbaijanis who lost their homes in Armenia and Armenian-controlled territory make up some 10 percent of Azerbaijan’s population. Their desire to leave cramped housing and to return to village life has been a potent political force in Azerbaijan, and it helps explain the domestic support for the escalation of the conflict by Mr. Aliyev, the Azerbaijani president.

“They kept pressuring the authorities to return their homes to them,” said Avaz Hasanov, an Azerbaijani peace advocate who held frequent talks with Armenians during civil-society efforts to mediate in the conflict. “It was impossible to set that fact aside.”

In Azerbaijan, many blame Armenian intransigence under Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who took power after a revolution in 2018, for pushing Mr. Aliyev to seek to resolve the conflict militarily. While Azerbaijan lost the war that ended in 1994, its rising energy wealth in recent years has allowed Mr. Aliyev to build up his military with armed drones and other sophisticated weaponry from Israel, Russia and Turkey that, analysts say, exceeds Armenia’s capabilities.

Mr. Hasanov said that Azerbaijan had been bearing the situation for 26 years. “Now both we and them have ended up in this hole, and coming out of it will be very hard,” he added.

Mr. Aliyev himself has roots in Armenia. The ethnic geography of the southern Caucasus is so complicated that part of Azerbaijan, the region called Nakhchivan, is cut off from the rest of the country by a slice of Armenia. The family of Mr. Aliyev’s father and predecessor as president, Heydar Aliyev, moved to Nakhchivan from an Azerbaijani village, now called Tanahat, on the Armenian side of the border.

These days, Tanahat is an expanse of stone ruins, with plum trees, bearing sweet yellow and red fruit, growing out of them. One of its few residents, Arsen Ogamyan, 67, was a teacher at the local driving school in 1990. Most of the village’s 38 Azerbaijani families loaded their belongings onto the driving school’s trucks — they even took their firewood, he says — and he and other Armenians drove them to the Azerbaijani border. Russian soldiers were on hand to ensure security.

Mr. Ogamyan said the departure was peaceful. Historians and human rights groups say the larger exodus was precipitated by beatings and the threat of more violence.

Down the road from Tanahat, in the village of Arevis, the mountains marking the border with Azerbaijan loom just a few miles away. The villagers were so nervous on Monday about the potential for an Azerbaijani attack that they refused to allow any photographs to be taken.

The Armenians who moved to Arevis after the Azerbaijanis left kept the old Azerbaijani cemetery intact; but when Armenian villagers died in recent years, they were buried on the opposite hillside.

The guard of the village school, Tigran Saakyan, recalled the inflection point as his once-friendly attitudes to his Azerbaijani neighbors shifted: the day in 1988 that his cousin arrived, fleeing the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait, where anti-Armenian riots had taken at least 32 lives.

That history of violence now underpins Armenians’ insistence that any territorial concessions to Azerbaijan in and around Nagorno-Karabakh could bring about the destruction of the Armenian population there. Reaching farther back into history, many Armenians note Azerbaijani ethnic violence directed against Armenians during and after World War I, and cite Turkey’s outspoken support for the Azerbaijani cause.

“Turkey committed a genocide of the Armenians in 1915,” Mr. Saakyan said. “Now they want to finish the job.”

There was violence by Armenians against Azerbaijanis, as well, including the killing of hundreds of Azerbaijani civilians in 1992, near the town of Khojaly.

In both Azerbaijan and Armenia, views of the other as the enemy have hardened as a generation has come of age with no memory of living with each other on friendly terms. The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry has been posting drone footage to Twitter, set to dramatic music, showing what appear to be the last moments of Armenian soldiers’ lives as they try to flee incoming missiles. The Armenian Defense Ministry, which has less sophisticated drone technology, has released graphic video of dead Azerbaijani soldiers.

“I can’t imagine two peoples in the world that hate each other as much as Armenians and Azerbaijanis,” said Serob Smbatyan, 30, a cardiologist in the southern Armenian city of Kapan who previously served in the military in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Thomas de Waal, a British expert on the region who wrote a book on Nagorno-Karabakh, “Black Garden,” said he feared a further escalation by Azerbaijan now that more than two weeks of war had weakened Armenia’s defenses and frayed its fragile supply lines. In a worst-case scenario, he said, Azerbaijan could seek to capture all of Nagorno-Karabakh — not just the sparsely populated surrounding territories that were previously home to Azerbaijanis and are now controlled by Armenia.

“It certainly does look like that peaceful coexistence in Soviet times was a bit of an illusion,” Mr. de Waal said. “They were living together — but also in parallel worlds, as far as their understanding of history went, and what belonged to whom.”

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