The 20th anniversary of the Karabakh Liberation Movement, coupled with recent Azeri cease fire violations on the Karabakh border, prompt us to take a look back at that time in recent Armenian history. This week, we continue to mark Asbarez’s 100th anniversary with a look back at some of the features from our newspaper. In 1997, Asbarez English Editor Ara Khachatourian traveled to Karabakh and in the Sept. 22 1997 edition of Asbarez he published the following article, which discusses the role of the Armenian press in the development of history, as well as the significance of the Nagonor-Karabakh conflict three years following the fragile cease fire. Some of the elemen’s still resonate with today’s reality. The recent border skirmishes make us wonder whether a new storm is brewing and with the anniversary of the liberation we reflect on our achievemen’s.
My friend in the front seat of the van informed us that we had entered Karabakh–Artsakh.
However, I already knew that. Despite the dark of night which covered everything in the same unlit and blurry hue, I instinctively knew, for there was a serenity; one I would experience throughout my short-yet telling-stay in the Black Garden of the Mountains (the literal translation of Nagorno Karabakh).
It was a paradox. A place where years before had been the scene of bloody confrontations for national existence and preservation, now afforded an unsurpassed tranquility I had never experienced.
It was not just the lush shades of green on the mountains amid which I was nestled. Even in retrospect I have not been able to place my finger on what exactly gave me the instinct and the forethought of knowing I was already in Karabakh, before my friend could utter that simple sentence in an attempt to guide us through that unknown territory.
As I awoke with the scorching sun in my face and had the opportunity to take in the larger than life mountains by which I was cradled, I felt that I knew this place. In my long-or short-life I had never felt such a kinship toward a land. I had never felt an affinity toward a place. I felt at home, even before I had had the opportunity to explore the land for which thousands gave their lives, about which I had written at least a hundred thousand words, to which I had never been introduced as a child despite the fact that both my grandmothers were natives of this mystical reality called Karabakh.
Days before, I was conversing with another friend I had met during the Fifth International Jamboree of ARF Youth and Student Organizations. He was born and raised in Armenia and at the young age of 24, he was recounting an experience the details of which were too familiar.
He described it as the most exciting and difficult time of his short life-the two weeks, which shaped his reality as an Armenian and as a soldier. He felt proud-and possibly relieved-that he was able to recount in such great detail the Nagorno-Karabakh self-defense units’ efforts to liberate the last Azeri firing position in Karabakh-Mardakert.
"We had to do it," he said, "there was no other option. We had come too far and we knew, that we would be our savior."
He explained, in great detail and concise clarity the Karabakh soldiers’ move northeastward toward Mardakert. Their capture of the Sarsang Dam and finally their entry and the subsequent liberation of Mardakert was one of the most difficult military operations carried out against the Azeris during the war in Karabakh.
Is the pen mightier than the sword? I wonder at times like these.
As my friend recounted his adolescent excursion into the trenches of Nagorno-Karabakh, I recalled the tension that filled the air in our newsroom generally during the war years, but especially during the more than two weeks during which we reported on the advances toward Mardakert. We knew, every minute counted. We knew that one wrong move on the part of our fighting brothers could mean the doom and downfall of all military operations. So it was with great pride we published the two simple words that said it all: "Mardakert Liberated."
Another friend said in his Australian accent, "I look at this place and all I can wonder is how did they do it? For example, Shoushi. How did they manipulate these awesome mountains to liberate the place?"
One of those who actually did it said: "Shoushi was liberated in two days, but…"
"But Mardakert…" I interjected.
"But Mardakert…" our friends from Armenia would exclaim.
Today, Mardakert is among the six districts in Karabakh, which have been resettled by their previous inhabitants. The villagers are all too anxious to rebuild their lives, but most importantly to rebuild their homes-not necessarily the structures, but the roots by which one calls a place home. Ironically, in the extremely short time I was in Karabakh, I did not get to see Mardakert, but from explanations and stories, I gathered that it would parallel the awesome hold the rest of Karabakh had on me.
Shoushi. This one word conveys a thousand realities.
The church perched on top of this natural fortress embodies not only the heritage of Karabakh, but provides a clue to the actual age of that heritage. I am not one to gasp in awe at a religious edifice, but the Holy Savior [Ghazantchetzotz] church in Shoushi is not a mere religious icon it is the sign of survival, perseverance and maybe, of things to come.
A short walking distance from that very church is where we gathered as a group at the Shoushi battalion. Now an army barracks which many Karabakh veterans in the armed forces call home and a place where the new breed of officers is trained. Years before this place produced heroes. Bedo, who lies in the center of the battalion is a reminder that the prowess and conviction of our people who won a war, which, for many seemed impossible. It is also a reminder that the Armenian Revolutionary Federation has not stopped producing national icons, for Bedo embodies all that is Armenian and all for which the ARF has fought in the past 107 years. It was only fitting then that more than 50 young Armenia’s would join the ran’s of the ARF by taking their oath at the threshold of Bedo’s grave, in hopes that they, too, would carry the torch left lit by Bedo and the hundreds like him who gave their lives, not only for Karabak, but for our nation.
The soldiers with whom we came in contact at Shoushi were quiet and visibly moved by the ceremony they had just witnessed. They knew, however, that the visit by 670 people was a mere distraction for them. The bottom line: a strong army is the salvation of our nation.
The gunfire salute and the practices which were taking place nearby didn’t shatter the calm and the serenity of Karabakh, they only suggested that the war was not anywhere near over; that anything could happen. This seemed to be indicative of the sentiment throughout Karabakh.
The images that I had seen-photographs, film clippings, and video footage-did not do justice to the grandeur of Shoushi. It is often called an "eagle’s nest." High up on the Caucasus mountains, Shoushi was the first in a series of Azeri looted territories to be liberated and a great reminder of how the Soviets settled people wherever their politics dictated. The grand structre of Our Holy Savior was used as a large warehouse where at the onset of the Karabakh conflict became an Azeri military depot.
Today, Shoushi, too, is bustling with Armenian life. The second largest city in Karabakh sits atop the mountain keeping a watchful eye on the rest of the republic.
Further down in Stepankert, the capital, construction is booming. Cran’s are everywhere, and at night people take to the streets for family strolls and a stop at the many sidewalk cafes serving ice cream refreshmen’s and the ever-present Coca Cola and Jermuk.
The streets of Stepanakert attest to the historical tales of what the population endured. A block from the government sector and the center of town, buildings, crumbled as a result of fierce Azeri aerial and land missile attacks, barely stand, awaiting the cran’s which one day will reach them. Maybe those cran’s should not reach all of them, so those buildings can serve as a reminder of the wrath brought on by the Azeris. This juxtaposed with the vibrant life of the city can serve as a lesson for future generations, although the children of Karabakh today, know full well where their place is in society: alongside their fathers-some of them dead, some of them wounded, most of them soldiers. The new generation, too, will experience this, since the mood in Karabakh, while calm, is also alert.
My visit to this land coincided with the latest in diplomatic efforts to resolve the Karabakh conflict. Azeri President Haydar Aliyev had just returned from his whirlwind US junket, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was busy with its shuttle diplomatic efforts to mediate peace in the region. Oil politics was very much a reality. For the people of Karabakh, the war had already taught them that their only salvation was in their perseverance and resilience. They knew they would win again.
The most poignant images of that determination and national will become evident when one leaves Karabakh proper heading west to Aghdam-Azerbaijan’s third largest city which is now a ghost town. At its entrance sits a tank. The very first which entered Aghdam. Some pacifists often ask, "was this really necessary?" The answer: "Damn right."
The enormous destruction caused from Aghdam and its geographic vicinity to Karabakh made it an imperative to neutralize that area. The Azeris living there fled. The houses-rather their skeletons-serve as a reminder to all, that those who lived in those palatial edifices advocated for the destruction and the complete annihilation of a people-the Armenia’s of Artsakh.
The destitute one feels when encountering a war-ravaged building in Stepanakert and Shoushi is overcome by a feeling of relief and pride when walking around Aghdam or Lachin.
Figs were in season, and pomegranates were beginning to show their red vibrance as we toured Aghdam. While abandoned and uninhabited, Aghdam was not silent. It was not serene. There, in fact, was an invisible black cloud, which hovered over our heads. This was the place from where day upon day, fire rained on Stepanakert. The nights would glow and the days would dim. It was that very cloud, which made all the destruction around us, seem so apropos.
We passed through Aghdam, once again, on our way to visit the village of Ashan in Karabakh’s Martuni district, the site of a construction project which has taken more than 30 young Armenian-American’s from the Armenian Youth Federation-Western Region to Karabakh every year for the last four summers. The AYF-WR Youth Corps program initially began in Ashan and has been used mainly to acquaint Armenian-American youth to the ways of life in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Picturesque, it isn’t, until one reaches the peak, which houses the building currently in construction/renovation and slated to become a summer camp facility for the children of Armenia and Karabakh.
An old schoolhouse built in 1914, the building was converted into a barn until recently when the residents of Ashan decided to restore the grandeur of the edifice and allow it to serve its original purpose of educating future generations.
The dirt roads, which connect the residents of Ashan, are used not only by vehicles but also by the resident pigs, a flock of orderly turkeys, and other birds and animals, which roam the streets freely. An abundance of mulberries, which can be picked and consumed on the spot, seems to have made the fruit a staple of Ashan.
The generous meal provided by the Avakian family–Rudik, Naira, Marineh, Hermine and, of course, unger Davit–was not just a show of hospitality, but an invitation-a genuine invitation-for Diasporans to stay in Karabakh. The meal was not just one of three eaten during a regular day; it became a memorial for a fallen soldier, an opportunity for gratitude and a time to reflect for some and to look ahead for others. The table was covered with pork khorovadz, eggplant salad and other delectable made from fresh meets and produce from Ashan; and, of course, the potent and omnipotent touti oghi-a fomented berry vodka which cases an inferno as it goes down.
The menu did not matter, for all of us around the table made a pact to meet again-in Karabakh. While some actually uttered the words it was abundantly clear that the crowd would come together again, at one point. Those who lived there were quite certain that we had found a new home and we were determined to return.
The last night in Karabakh was a festive one. As a band played national and patriotic songs in the main square in Stepanakert, it seemed that the entire population of the city had turned out to bid farewell to this group of visitors. This group which had entered Karabakh in the dark of night, making some locals wonder whether the OSCE peace keeping forces had arrived, would be departing this place in the dark taking with them a renewed understanding of the realities of our people.
The reality, however, is an entirely different ball game. The serenity which was Karabakh could develop into the proverbial calm before the storm. The people of Karabakh seemed prepared to confront anything for they are unprepared to give up their land and their homes. I became convinced that they would persevere in the event military activities resumed. This realization opened a slew of new questions for me as I departed from our black garden in the mountains. The most crucial of those questions was that in the event of war, what would be my role, now that I have had an opportunity to peer through the Karabakh window, because the answers and rationalizations we have used in the past were no longer enough.
If the winds of war are indeed to shatter the serenity with which I have been so enthralled, then, at least, I-if not the rest of the Diaspora-s-should be prepared to give more of myself to ensure an eventual victory.