In the evening I continue to the largest ghost town in the world, Agdam – a symbol of suffering and hatred of two nations. All houses are in ruins, only one mosque was spared the fury. From the top of its minaret I stare at the horrifying consequences of the conflict, reminiscent of nuclear disaster. While cruising the dusty roads of the once vibrant city I cannot resist a mix of sadness, fear and despair. Before the war, fifty thousand people lived here – today, the town is all forsaken and only abandoned dogs cross my path here and there. After nightfall I notice glimmering light in one building. From its courtyard, hidden among sacks of fruit, three men observe me suspiciously. Ernest, Boris and Michael are processing their fertile harvests of pomegranates and, of course, drinking vodka. They do not hesitate too long to invite me in, and between many stakans (I told you that driving a car is not an excuse here, didn´t I?) they keep telling their stories.
On the way to the south I pass through several villages to be assured, again and again, about unbelievable hospitality of the locals. I am offered countless invitations to households, given more shashlik I can digest and more vodka I can metabolize. Raya and Volodya Gryginov, both in their seventies, invite me home for coffee and lunch as soon as I get out of the car in the village of Karmir Shuka. Fractured iron gate in front of their house is pierced with bullets from automatic weapons. Volodya shows me several places in his garden where the grenades fell. He tells me of his sons and daughter, all of whom fought in the nearby mountains; they were 17 years old then. “Next time you come here, enter without knocking, the door is never locked,” he sums up in one sentence the mentality of the villagers.
Villages are often riddled and rarely maintained; the remains are gradually overgrown by vegetation. Monuments along the roads are the only modern structures I can see. In the village of Togh a boy is waving at me to invite me for a lunch with his family – my second lunch in a few hours. To decline would have been extremely impolite so I enter the house, one of the few that has got a roof. Vera, the boy´s mom, had prepared lunch as if she expected me – shashlik, halva, baklava, cheese, jam and of course vodka – everything is of domestic production. Many people here are relying on themselves – it is far to a store and there is often little or no money to be spent. Through the window, Vera points to the ruins of a neighboring house; an Azerbaijan family used to live there. And they lived there in peace; as neighbors they celebrated, together they went to church or to the pub. But the war changed everything. All Azerbaijan villagers disappeared, leaving only ruined houses behind.
I continue to the north, along the Azeri border, passing through Askeran, Tigranakert, Martakert. Twenty years after the conflict the traces of war are visible everywhere: the overturned tank torsos, destroyed houses, military trenches and empty shells in the fields. I’m still within sight of the hot line. In the streets I see more uniformed than civilians. As soon as I step out of the car in Martakert to make a few images of shattered cultural center a uniformed soldier approaches me with a never-ending series of questions: “Why are you taking pictures?” “What for?” Why? When? What? Luckily he becomes interested in a little compass attached to my pants. I decide to give it to him as a little present to save the photos on my cards, swiftly get back in the car and leave.
Behind the village on the road I meet Stephen, an evident homeless. I offer him a lift, he pays back by telling stories. Stephen gives me the insight from the other side of the border. As an Armenian he lived in Azerbaijan, from where he was exiled during the war. He tells me how he fought for freedom of the Nagorno-Karabakh, had been wounded many times, but because he came from Azerbaijan, the government identified him as a potential terrorist. To this day, he did not get any apartment, nor pension; he lives in a retirement house and wanders around the village.
On my way back to Armenia through a mountain Sotka pass I taste what it means off-road driving in Nagorno-Karabakh. Asphalt is torn at first, then none at all. Just holes, mud, rocks, and in higher altitudes the first snow of this year. In the mountain saddle I step out of the car to pay farewell to Nagorno-Karabakh. The evening haze envelops the “Black Garden” in a white veil and softens the contours of the landscape. It occurs to me in that moment that it metaphorically symbolizes the perception of Nagorno-Karabakh by the outside world: no matter how beautiful, still hazy, fuzzy, and illegible.
Photo gallery of Nagorno-Karabakh:
Nagorno-Karabakh, at the first glance, does not make sense; it is inhabited mainly by Armenians but is internationally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan. Entry is possible through two roads – both leading from Armenia. Visas are granted by the Embassy of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh based in Yerevan, but once in your passport, you have closed the door to Azerbaijan. Neither the name of the enclave is utterly straightforward – a composite of the Russo-Persian “Nagorno Kara Bakh”, which translates as “mountainous black garden.” Unceasing border skirmishes and quarrels about political control of this elusive area scare many travelers. Yet, the country has so much to offer: mountain monasteries, archaeological sites, natural scenery and kindhearted people living lives that our (grand)grandparents told us about.
On the way to Karabakh I make a brief stop in an old Armenian village school of Halidzor. My visit and photography was pre-arranged by Volodya, with whom I drank vodka last night in a pub in nearby Goris. He promised the school would be pretty shabby, means photogenic, but he failed to mention that I would sink through the wooden classroom floor during history lesson. The decking of the gym is so disintegrated and patched that I’m afraid to move. Not the children who fearlessly, and in all the wildness, play basketball, football and handball – all at the same time. Igor, a teacher with a cigarette in his hand guides me around the school and when the classes are finished he invites me to his home. Sitting on the doorstep is his father, decorated with medals from the World War II (which assures him a relatively high pension of about one hundred US$ a month). But the greatest treasure is hidden behind the building – a vodka distillery! Incredibly amateur distillation apparatus starts with natural fireplace beneath a hanging cauldron, rusty pipes extending through the water tank (for cooling) and at the end, wonder of wonders, dripping in regular rhythm is this year’s crop. In Armenia, I soon realize that driving a car is not an acceptable excuse for not drinking; so before heading out to the serpentines of Nagorno-Karabakh I taste Igor´s delicious brandy.
In the late afternoon I climb into the mountains of the Black garden, pausing here and there to admire the beautiful landscape under the setting sun. After dusk, I arrive to the first Karabakh town of a few thousand inhabitants, Shusha. Twenty years ago, the war destroyed eighty percent of the buildings – and the town has still not recovered. The dark streets lead me towards a newly renovated Christian cathedral with an unpronounceable name, Ghazanchetsots, the only illuminated building around. In a nearby restaurant I order shashlik and ask about lodging. The best place to stay, I am told, must be at Saro Saryan´s; they all know him and he knows them all. He also knows the foreign minister Karen Mirzoyan, who will grant me a permission to visit the ghost town, Agdam.
In Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, I roam the gray streets and decline countless invitations to stakan of vodka. On the outskirts of the town I happen upon a children’s home. Its director, Nonna Musajeljan, is happy to walk me through the corridors with beautifully painted walls and introduces me to her smiling foster-children. After reaching the age of 18, they must leave this temporary home, but they all are given an apartment and a job by the government.
The old Hospital in Stepanakert is an aged Stalinist building constructed in 1936. It is Sunday morning and I do not expect anyone to let me in. Yet, I am lucky to meet the “glavnyj vratch” – the chief physician. Doctor Atayan, a gray-haired gentleman in his late 60´s, is kind enough to guide me through all departments of the hospital. Cracked walls, fissured plaster and crumbling floor tiles resemble anything but a hospital. The gloomy atmosphere of the dark corridors is, however, not reflected in the minds of the staff or patients – they are all extremely helpful and cooperative. The patients do not understand the purpose of my visit, but when I explain my journalist’s mission, they thank me for my interest – “spasibo za vnimanje.”
“We have nothing to complain! We have excellent doctors here,” they say in unison, “and pretty nurses,” they add. I have to agree.
Doctor Atayan explains to me how the hospital functioned during the war. “First we worked here, left or right wing of the building, depending on where the shooting was coming from. Then we had to move to the basement and eventually we left the building and relocated to the president´s house.” Numerous bullet holes in the hospital facade confirm the testimony. Through a broken window I see a brand new hospital being finalized, sponsored by patrons from Russia and the West. A metaphorical view that gives the doctors and patients a hope for brighter future.
Note: Nagorno-Karabakh is a mountainous enclave on the south side of the Caucasian massif surrounded by Azerbaijan but controlled by Armenia. As the object of power rivalry it was attached to Azerbaijan in 1921. In February 1988 riots for connecting the enclave to Armenia broke out in Stepanakert, the administrative center. The People’s Assembly had grown into an armed conflict and the war between Christian Armenia and Muslim Azerbaijan could begin. In six years, it claimed about 30,000 lives, hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis and Armenians were driven from their homes. Cease fire was declared in 1994, but a peace treaty has not been signed yet. At the time of preparing this report (Spring 2016) media inform on destabilization of the border – each side blaming the other for starting the violence.
Photo gallery of Nagorno-Karabakh: