nagorno karabakh statutes

Nagorno-Karabakh – Torn & Tangled Land

Armenia / Azerbaijan

The driver sucked his cigarette, eyes wide, head darting around, hoping that we wouldn’t be stopped.

Meanwhile, we sped past armored vehicles, soldiers in trenches, concrete bunkers.

I snapped pictures – hastily.

Traveling Nagorno-Karabakh

But the driver wouldn’t let me take photos of the wrecked tombstones in the Muslim cemetery, where we stopped on route to an old fortress.

He was so nervous about me even using my camera.

And what’s more, I didn’t have visa to be where I was – Nagorno-Karabakh.

Or, as it was called back then, the Republic of Artsakh – a region ruled by ethnic Armenians, yet still formally part of Azerbaijan.

Traveling Nagorno-Karabakh with view of snowy mountain landscape
Snowy mountain landscape of Karabakh from Sushsi fortress walls.

It’s a contentious and tragic story.

And another chapter is ending as I write this in late 2023.

Nagorno-Karabakh has returned to Azerbaijan, yet my travels date from 2011 when ethnic-Armenians controlled the enclave.

However, the real story of this contested mountain region stretches back centuries and is a dreadful tangle of history.

History of Nagorno-Karabakh

Going way back, the Armenia province of ancient Artsakh was part of the Greater Armenian Empire (331 BC–428 AD), and despite Roman and Persian rule and then invasions by successive Muslim – Arab, Turkic, Persian – armies, the Armenians usually wrestled back some control.

Traveling Nagorno-Karabakh past historic castle ruins.
Traveling Nagorno-Karabakh: Woman nears historic castle ruins on the deserted road passing close to the frontlines.

But in 1805, Nagorno-Karabakh became a ‘protectorate’ of expanding Tsarist Russia.

More occupiers came during the First World War. Turkish troops moved in (they’d already massacred Armenians in Turkey) and the British followed the Ottoman surrender.

By 1918-20, Armenia and Azerbaijan had plunged into wars and massacres before Bolshevik Russia seized them BOTH.

Soviet block architecture in the quiet streets of Shusha, traveling Nagorno-Karabakh in 2011.
Typical Soviet block architecture in the quiet streets of Shusha or Shushi, once populated by Muslim Azeris and still dominated by an 18th-century Persian fortress palace.

So, things stayed relatively calm for decades – despite the resentful mix of Christian Armenians and Muslim Azeris across Karabakh; since the people of the USSR were one big Soviet family.

But come 1991, muddled policy about who ‘owned’ Karabakh merged with the collapse of the Soviet Union, thrusting this fragile region back into ethnic violence and then war.

Armenian taxi drivers party in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2011
Traveling Nagorno-Karabakh in December 2011: Hanging out with taxi drivers – a vodka and beer session in my apartment in Stepanakert, the capital of Armenian-controlled Artsakh Republic. I stayed in a taxi driver’s rental apartment – he (BELOW LEFT) had helped me to find a place to stay when nothing was open (in the Lonely Planet’s accommodation page).

Later, he took me on a paid ‘illegal’ drive around the border area as I didn’t have my Artsakh visa yet and he didn’t have a reason to be in that area. He was nervous about being stopped; it didn’t happen… That night, I don’t remember most of others – including the arrival of a woman – and how long our party lasted.

Recent Nagorno-Karabakh Wars

Armenia decisively won the first Karabakh War (1991-94).

It claimed 30,000 lives.

Not only did Azerbaijan lose Nagorno-Karabakh – territory internationally recognized as theirs – but also surrounding areas, resulting in about 1 million Azeris being displaced and fleeing to Azerbaijan.

I traveled Nagorno-Karabakh when it was the Artsakh Republic, an autonomous region / country that existed for 3 decades (but really an extension of Armenia. Yet, Artsakh issued their own separate tourist visa).

Traveling Nagorno- Karabakh defensive frontlines, looking the destroyed Azeri city of Aghdam.
Traveling Nagorno-Karabakh: Shaky photos from a speeding taxi along a bumpy deserted road near the war front: (TOP) Armenian bunker and trenches and (BELOW) looking towards the ruins of the Azeri city of Aghdam, destroyed by Armenia in the First Karabakh War.

However, in 2020, another chapter began with a blistering offensive by Azerbaijan that smashed the Armenian military in Karabakh and forced major concessions, including the return of the Azeri historic city of Susha.

It was a humiliating reversal for Armenia and the separatist enclave. Yet it wasn’t the end of Artsakh, and they kept control of central Karabakh.

Azerbaijan, it seemed, had some unfinished plans.

Despite peace agreements that Russian troops guaranteed – in September 2023 for a few short days, the Azeri military took total control to where, in less than a week, 100,000 (out of 120,000) ethnic Armenians fled Nagorno-Karabakh to the homeland.

They feared ethnic cleansing.

Each side has a history of such unpleasantness.

T-shirt hanging in an upside-down 'surrender' in Shusha traveling seen when Nagorno-Karabakh in 2011
T-shirt hanging in an upside-down ‘surrender’ in the fortress city of Shushi in Nagorno-Karabakh (2011).

The Armenian Republic of Artsakh agreed to dissolve itself by 1 January 2024, and so ends another chapter of bloody Nagorno-Karabakh.

For now, Azerbaijan gets the happy-ever-after story.

But maybe Armenia will return to write the epilogue?

Travels in Nagorno-Karabakh / Artsakh Republic – 2011

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