Fear and loathing in Nagorno-Karabakh

Armenia and Azerbaijan's age-old war stretches beyond the battlefields
October 22, 2020

Wretched pictures of Stepanakert (or “Khankendu,” depending who you ask), capital of the self-declared Republic of Artsakh and heart of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, have peppered headlines since clashes began on 27 September. Almost half of the population of the Nagorno-Karabakh region has been displaced – an exodus of some 70,000 Armenians – as Azerbaijani rockets and drones claim the territory recognised as theirs, in law if not reality.

It is not the first time tragedy has struck the hotly contested, highly strategical region around Nagorno-Karabakh. Fierce fighting in the early 90s wreaked similar devastation. Back then, many of these towns were filled with Azerbaijanis.

What’s happening in Nagorno-Karabakh?

The mountainous region connecting western Europe to the Caspian Sea is strategically coveted, but people’s bond to the land runs thicker than oil. Azerbaijan insists it has the right to seize what is legally recognised as its own after three decades of stagnant negotiations. Armenia believes the territory to be not only historically Armenian, but essential to the security of its people in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Why do many Azerbaijanis support this war?

Gunel Aslan was ten when Artsakh-Armenian forces displaced her family. She lived in the mountainous Lachin corridor, next to the small town of Khojaly which would play host to one of the most notoriously gruesome events of the war.

On 27 February 1992, Artsakh forces captured Khojaly and gunned down fleeing civilians during a two-hour offensive. Wounded survivors trickled to surrounding hospitals, bringing word of disembodiment, burning and rape. “They peeled off their scalps and cut off their ears, noses and genitals,” Gunel recalls, fighting back tears 28 years and 3,000 miles away. There is no exact body count (many remain missing), but officials recorded 613 dead, 63 of them children. Eight families were completely wiped out.

In the weeks following the fall of Khojaly, Gunel’s mother kept her on red alert. She sat on the edge of her seat in class, ready to abandon bags and books in a sudden escape. In secret, her father trained her mother to fight. “Never beg an Armenian for your life,” he’d say, “we cannot risk them getting the children”. When Gunel’s father spotted her eavesdropping, he pretended they were playing a game. But she understood, and she agreed: “It is better to die than be tortured.”

“We left our home on the eighth of May. It was a terrible day. I kissed all the walls in my house and said goodbye, because I was sure in my heart I would never go back.”

When night fell, Gunel’s mother poured out heaps of grain to keep the chickens from starving, and squeezed the children into a car full of fugitives. They drove without lights, as they’d lived for weeks, fearing yellow windows would mark them for an airstrike.

Even today, Gunel flinches when her daughter flicks on a light in their house in Plymouth, where the 38-year-old human rights lawyer is studying. In early October, missiles struck the Azerbaijani city of Ganja, killing 24 civilians and triggering Gunel’s PTSD. Her daughter soothed her with cups of tea. “But I don’t want to talk to her about war,” Gunel says “I can’t let it steal her childhood too.”

The conflict today

Clashes have broken the monotony of nearly 30 years of displacement for Gunel’s family. Explosions shake her grandmother’s new walls in Yevlakh, home to an oil pipeline that has reportedly been targeted twice by Artsakh forces. They brought her cousin’s walls down entirely, but the family refuses to leave. “This is their motherland and they won’t abandon it,” Gunel says, “they cannot face being displaced again.”

Over the course of the Nagorno-Karabakh war, up to 1 million Azerbaijanis lost their homes. Hundreds of thousands of children have been born into displacement, facing infant mortality and poverty rates manyfold worse than their settled countrymen. They live in dugout camps, abandoned buildings, or in the case of Gunel’s family, overcrowded student accommodation.

For them, the recent flare up may be triggering, but it also promises hope. The morning we spoke, Gunel was nursing the traces of last night’s dream. “I was barbecuing with my family back in Lachin.” A sign, she’s sure: “Azerbaijan is closing in on my city.”

“I have never wanted war anywhere. I am human, I am a mother. It is terrible to see people kill each other. But I want to go back to my motherland.”

After many years attempting to forget the green and yellow walls of her home, Gunel is now determined to rebuild them. “International law has told Armenians to give me back my home peacefully for 28 years, and for 28 years I have waited.”

“So perhaps peace must come from war. All Azerbaijani should be given back— with peace or with war I don’t know.”

What does Armenia stand to lose?

If Azerbaijanis have fresh wounds, Armenians have centuries of collective trauma feeding their fight. Those living in Nagorno-Karabach – isolated and surrounded by their richer, larger foe – have legitimate reasons to seek protection.

Dr Aytrom Tonoyan is an Armenian sociologist working at the University of Minnesota. He is exhausted when we Skype, but takes me through the Armenian consciousness driving them to fight on. The podcast below shares his story.


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