By Rachel Avraham
Azerbaijani-Scottish human rights activist Fuad Alakborov once stated, “The Nagorno-Karabakh war transformed Aghdam from a vibrant city of 40,000 inhabitants with fancy teahouses and Soviet bloc high-rises to the world’s largest ghost town, with 6,000 people killed and many more lives ruined.” Fast forward to 2021 and not much has changed not only in Aghdam but in the entire Karabakh region of Azerbaijan.
Last week, Ayoob Kara, who formerly served as Israel’s Communication, Cyber and Satellite Minister, and I traveled to the landmine infested Karabakh region together with a convoy of Russian journalists to learn more about the recent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. We both were greatly shocked by what we discovered over there.
As we traveled by bus, mile after mile, we saw nothing but destroyed homes, villages, and cities, which were accompanied by burnt agricultural fields and uprooted trees. The destruction was so massive that even the cows in the field and the fish in the river were not spared from Armenia’s campaign to ethnically cleanse the land and make it uninhabitable. In fact, the Armenians ignited so many fires upon their withdrawal that some fields were still in flames during our visit to the region.
The roads were also full of potholes and almost impossible to drive on. Just traveling on those roads could make one terribly sick, as the road is terribly bumpy, and one always must zigzag for the road was destroyed in multiple areas. As a result of these conditions, we drove by and saw multiple vehicles that got wrecked while traveling in the area. In fact, we ourselves got into a bus accident due to the poor road conditions, which led to Mr. Kara, me and a team of Russian journalists getting stranded in the middle of nowhere for several hours, till we were rescued by members of the Azerbaijani government and military.
In-between all this destruction, signs warning of landmines were everywhere. We were warned that if we strayed from the dirt road one inch, we could get blown up. Imagine what it is like to be a journalist accompanying a former Israeli government minister, stranded on the side of such a road for several hours, fearing what could happen if we moved a little too far to the right or left.
A Russian journalist who accompanied us did stray from the road to use the bathroom and designated the area as the public restroom. However, I said to that journalist that Mr. Kara and myself will not be using that area as a bathroom, as its too dangerous. The journalist then asked, “What if you don’t have a choice?” Fortunately, we were rescued in enough time, so we did have a choice.
What Armenia did to the Karabakh region constitutes a grave crime against humanity. In fact, the destruction was so massive that Kara compared what he saw to Southern Lebanon and hinted that Karabakh may be even worse. After all, in Southern Lebanon, at least one could still find fish and cows during the 1982 war, despite the massive destruction. But in Karabakh, even the nature was not spared.
As a result, on our first day in Karabakh, we had to eat lunch on an Azerbaijani military base, as there were no markets, no grocery stores, and no restaurants and cafes for miles around, as everything was destroyed during Armenia’s thirty-year occupation of the area. While living under such subhuman conditions, one can be grateful to eat a banana and drink some water, as even a bowl of rice is hard to come by. All traces of civilization were destroyed during Armenia’s 30-year-occupation of the area.
Indeed, Armenia did not even spare cultural heritage sites. While touring around Karabakh, we visited Sultanya. According to an Azerbaijani government official, “Until 1994, there were around 4,000 people living here. They had huge vineyards and mulberry trees. There was cattle breeding here also. All of them fled from this region in 1994. All the destruction here happened because they looted everything and sold it in Armenia and different countries. They even destroyed a monument honoring Soviet soldiers.”
In fact, an Azerbaijani official told us anonymously that the Iranian government used to pay the Armenians to loot Azerbaijani areas and then they used to sell the looted items in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The official also said that the only mosque that was not destroyed was spared only so it could be rebranded as an Iranian mosque, with all the traditional Azerbaijani architecture destroyed.
After spending a day touring around destroyed villages and journeying awfully close to the Iranian border, our second day in Karabakh was spent in Shusha, the Azerbaijani cultural capital city. Although Shusha was better than Fizzouly, Sultanya, Aghdam and many other areas in Karabakh, that is only because it is one of the few places in Karabakh, where Armenians lived. Yet even there, the destruction was also horrible.
In Shusha, the Armenians destroyed a palace belonging to Azerbaijani poet Khurshidbanu Natavan. As an Azerbaijani government official noted, “She is a descendant of the founder of Karabakh, of Shusha. She came from a noble family. She was a poetess and played chess with Alexandra Dumas Sr. She was incredibly famous in Azerbaijani literature. She is also a philanthropist, who opened a school and hammam baths.”
Alongside destroying the palace of this famous Azerbaijani national poet, the Armenians also destroyed a historic bank, the offices of the Shusha newspaper and the government offices in the city, all of which were historic landmarks. During Armenia’s occupation of Shusha, the Armenians did not even clear away the debris and rebuild the city. Instead, they lived among the ruins of what used to be Azerbaijan’s cultural capital city. However, amid the destruction, there were also signs that since Azerbaijan regained control over the area, they were attempting to revitalize the Karabakh region.
Our convoy visited a dairy factory that is under construction in Agaly Village, which is being built jointly with Israel and Italy. Our convoy also saw that the Shusha fort was recently rebuilt, as were a couple of mosques and a hotel in the city. The Azerbaijanis also were building an airport in Fizouly and trying to fix the roads in the areas where they got landmine maps. They even were repairing a church that was damaged during the war. However, the road to making Karabakh a livable region once again is a long one. The entire region looks worse than Leningrad during the great Nazis siege during World War II. Nevertheless, all the Azerbaijanis that we spoke to are determined to make Karabakh great once again and to rebuild what the Armenians destroyed.
As one Azerbaijani man told me: “The Armenians left the area in disarray like that because these lands don’t belong to them under international law. If they felt attached to these lands, then they would view them to be their home and want them to be beautiful and livable. But since they know these lands are not theirs, they destroyed these lands and made it impossible for anyone to live there. But we Azerbaijanis feel attached to our land and want to make it look like home once again. So, we will do everything possible to rebuild what they destroyed, for these lands are ours and we want to make it look like home.”