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Layers of Tragedy, in a Cemetery and in the Mountains

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KELBAJAR, Azerbaijan — It’s the little things that stick with you.

The men extracting the engine from a junked car on the side of the road. The passing truck filled with a living room’s worth of red upholstered furniture. The ruddy faces of the Russian peacekeeping troops, leaning forward out of the hatches of their armored personnel carriers, rumbling down into a desolate, hazy valley.

Perhaps focusing on the little things is the mind’s way of functioning when faced with tragedy.

This is Kelbajar, the scene this past week of the latest wrenching turn in the generations-long conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.

The mountainous district is part of the breakaway enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is legally part of Azerbaijan, but inhabited almost exclusively by ethnic Armenians. Armenian troops captured Kelbajar in 1993, driving out thousands of Azerbaijanis who were forced up a frigid mountain pass on foot to escape; last week, after thousands died in a six-week Azerbaijani offensive to regain Nagorno-Karabakh, it was the Armenians fleeing what they consider their historical lands, many of them burning their houses as they left.

Around you here is the specter of death: the whispers about the bodies of Armenians still scattered on roadsides to the south and the vacant eyes of the soldiers when they speak of Azerbaijan’s armed drones. There is also the wreckage of a Soviet-era Azerbaijani cemetery, a piece of a gravestone, engraved with minarets, abandoned in the tan grass.

I returned last week to Nagorno-Karabakh, with the photographer Mauricio Lima, to document the immediate aftermath of this century’s most vicious war in the long-volatile Caucasus Mountains. With Russia to the north, Turkey and Iran to the south, the energy-rich Caspian Sea to the east and the strategically pivotal Black Sea to the west, the Caucasus seems destined to suffer as regional powers compete for influence.

And it feels as if the violence is unending. The killings of Armenians by Azerbaijanis in the early 20th century; the tit-for-tat violence of the late 1980s, which escalated into riots, pogroms, war and Armenia’s violent expulsion of more than half a million Azerbaijanis from what became the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. And now, a six-week war that ended last week after the deaths of more than 2,000 Armenians and an unknown number of Azerbaijanis.

As we headed toward Nagorno-Karabakh last Friday, we passed a column of Russian forces in what seemed an absurd scene. Our bus squeezed between some cows on the roadside along Armenia’s graceful, blue, mountain-framed Lake Sevan to the left, and Russian armored personnel carriers, with backpacks, cases and cardboard boxes marked fragile piled haphazardly on top of these mechanized killing machines, held in place by green netting.

It turned out we were all heading to the same place — the Dadivank Monastery, a centuries-old Armenian holy site whose fate now concerns Armenians and historians around the world. It is part of the Kelbajar District, which was supposed to be transferred to Azerbaijani control on Sunday under the peace deal brokered by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia last week, a handover later delayed to Nov. 25.

The Russians set up an observation post next to the monastery, where Armenians had flocked to bid farewell and baptize their babies. As I spoke with the monastery’s abbot, Hovhannes Hovhannisyan, the monastery’s guard’s house down below went up in flames. The monastery’s longtime guard had set it on fire, even though the abbot had asked him not to.

To explain the man’s mind-set, Abbot Hovhannisyan evoked the Armenian Genocide of 1915.

“The people always thought this way,” the abbot said, referring to Armenians, as tall licks of flame tore through the house roof below and thick yellowish smoke enveloped the monastery. “It is better to burn the house that he built, so as not to leave it to be defiled.”

We drove on deeper into Nagorno-Karabakh. After passing more burning, smoldering and charred houses, we entered areas that will remain under Armenian control. The question is: How many Armenians will return?

In Stepanakert, the capital of the enclave, the streets were desolate. There were munitions craters in the pavement, shrapnel pockmarks on building walls, burned-out stores, broken glass, broken windows, shattered soft-drink-cooler doors. There was no hot water and no heating, and the only mobile internet service was Azerbaijani, coming from the land that the Armenians had just lost.

One of the few people out on the streets was Mayor Danielyan, 58. He invited me to his house to look in the direction of the historic hilltop town of Shusha, six miles away — now controlled by Azerbaijan. It was now up to the Russian peacekeepers — almost 2,000 of them to be deployed along the line with imposing checkpoints and heavy armor — to keep the Armenians and Azerbaijanis apart.

“For now, unfortunately, we must live separately in order to exist,” Mr. Danielyan said. “One can only hope and dream of living together.”

We stopped at the military cemetery. I had been there a month earlier, during the third week of the war, and found a hillside scraped away for the recent dead. There were about 60 new graves now, with holes already dug out for more, across three stair-step rows bulldozed into the hill.

Standing down below, I was at eye level with the barren clay, tree roots poking out of it. I knew that within it were the remains of men who had just weeks ago been alive.

Looking up I saw the rows of fresh graves, bright artificial roses and chrysanthemums, framed pictures of soldiers, a nailed-together wooden cross scrawled with a last name, Beklaryan, in black marker. Looking higher I saw the jumble of gravestones from the 1990s war, the likenesses of stern Armenian fighters in uniforms and horizontal-stripe undershirts etched into them.

And looking higher still I saw an orange stela, memorializing the Nagorno-Karabakh residents who had died in World War II.

Layers of tragedy, I thought, form these sharp mountains and rolling hills.

And then it was time to go. It was 1 p.m. on Saturday, and at midnight, the only open road out of Nagorno-Karabakh was supposed to come under Azerbaijani control. Soldiers rerouted us onto a side road through the mountains, jammed with traffic for six miles, we were told. For hours, stuck in the town of Kelbajar, we barely moved, surrounded by fleeing Armenians. The truck behind us was carrying what seemed to be an entire house, intact.

As night fell, the scene became increasingly apocalyptic. Houses around us went up in flames, and columns of white smoke rose into the dark sky. At one point, a brawl broke out, and, with barely any cellphone service, no one knew where to go.

Eventually, we turned around and left by the main road, passing power lines that had been knocked down. But before we did, a man came out of the truck in front, lit a cigarette and unleashed a monumental tirade of profanity.

The man, Arsen Nalbanzyan, told me that in the district of Armenia where he lives, 31 of the 36 villages were Azerbaijani during Soviet times. “We lived normally,” he said of Azerbaijanis and Armenians, describing shared weddings and being godfathers to each others’ children. Even in recent years, he said, he would get drunk with Azerbaijani friends in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

It was the country’s elites, he said, who fomented hatred among people for their own ends.

“This was all done for money, for cash,” Mr. Nalbanzyan said, his face lit up by car headlights, the air around us thick with smoke from burning houses in the frigid night. “They didn’t think about the people — people like us.”

“And now” — expletive — “who knows what will happen?”

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