Azeris Wall Off Front-Line Zones
The Azerbaijani government is building walls along the line separating its troops and the Karabakh Armenian military to protect villagers from hostile gunfire.
Villagers are grateful for the protection the walls give them, but some people in Azerbaijan fear such a visible demarcation could effectively cement Armenian control, to the detriment of Baku’s aim of regaining these lands.
Following the war over Nagorny Karabakh, a 1994 ceasefire left Armenian forces with de facto control of the region itself – formerly an autonomous territory within Soviet Azerbaijan – and also of large swathes of land surrounding it.
Talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan over many years have failed to nudge the peace process towards a deal that either side could accept.
In the interim, there have been frequent outbreaks of gunfire across the “line of control”, with each side blaming the other for provoking such incidents, although there has been no large-scale fighting since the ceasefire.
Azerbaijan’s defence ministry says a number of walls are going up to protect civilians living close to the line of control.
Khosrov Shukurov, 64, lives in Chiragli, a village in Aghdam district, just 200 metres from the line of control. His house now looks directly onto a three-metre-high wall built as a defensive measure.
“Women have twice been injured by Armenian sniper bullets during wedding parties in my courtyard. The first time it was my daughter and the second a neighbour,” he said. “As you can see the doors, walls, and roof of the house have been damaged by Armenian gunfire. Of course it’s frightening to live under a constant threat.”
Shukurov said he was grateful to the Azerbaijani government for building the wall, but expressed hope it would not be there permanently.
“Let them resolve this protracted conflict quickly, and then we will remove this wall with our own hands, and our land will be whole again,” he said.
Yusif Khasayaev, a spokesman for the government reconstruction agency carrying out the work, said that settlements in Aghdam district, the villages of Gapanli and Garadagli in Tartar district, and Tapgaragoyunlu in the Goranboy district, were all getting walls.
He said the walls – totalling 2.7 kilometres in length – began going up in September and would be finished by the end of the year. After that, the agency would move on to repairing homes and other buildings damaged by conflict.
The first wall went up in the village of Orta Garvand in Aghdam, where nine-year-old Fariz Badalov was killed by an Armenian sniper in March.
“Construction of walls ensures the security of the civilian population, and gives people a chance to return to their homes,” local government chief Hadil Abbasov said. “That’s a big issue, since 24 of the village’s 78 houses aren’t occupied because they are constantly under fire. If there’s some protection from the bullets, people will be able to live there.”
Not everyone in Azerbaijan sees building walls as a positive step. Some residents of villages close to the front line say it creates the appearance of admitting that territory on the other side is lost forever.
“It reminds me of the Berlin Wall,” Namaz Kerimov from Aghdam said. “The question is how long it will divide Azerbaijani territory in two? In my view, when the government built this wall, it failed to consider that the Armenian authorities would see it as a sign of fear and acceptance. I personally don’t want to have to look over a wall to see the other part of my village.”
Uzeir Jafarov, a freelance reporter on defence affairs, said the wall-building programme had gone ahead with little transparency.
“It’s unclear what the aim of this construction work is. They say the wall is being built for the safety of civilians and garrisons. But the fire doesn’t just come from automatic weapons; it’s also from mortars. Can a wall protect people against mortar fire?” he asked.
Jafarov said the cost of building walls had not been disclosed, and suggested the money might have been better spent on improving the infrastructure of villages near the line of control.
He also pointed to the emotional significance of barriers, asking. “How can you build a wall if the graves of your parents and friends lie on the other side of it?”
Government allies like Zahid Oruj, who sits on parliament’s security and defence committee, do not accept that the walls amount to a tacit recognition of Armenian control of the territories beyond them.
“The Armenians are always firing on our villages. They want to force civilians to leave their homes prevent them farming and leading normal lives,” Oruj said. “So a wall ensures the safety of civilians in front line villages. And one day, the Azerbaijani army will remove the wall and liberate our lands from occupation.”
He said barriers were needed because security could not be provided by other means. “The ceasefire regime is fragile, OSCE monitoring doesn’t exert serious influence on the situation, and the Armenians continue to violate the ceasefire,” he said.
The OSCE, the lead body in international efforts to negotiate a permanent solution to the Karabakh dispute, maintains a small team of monitors on the line of control.
Rey Karimoglu comes from part of Aghdam district that is now behind Armenian lines, making him one of hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis forced to flee their homes during the Karabakh war, and still living as displaced persons in other parts of the country.
He condemned the walls as a stain on Azerbaijan’s honour, and said experience elsewhere had shown they were an obstruction to ending conflict.
“A wall between two armed forces causes a lot of problems in peace talks. Such a wall exists between Israel and the Palestinians, and talks between the two have reached a dead end. We can expect a similar outcome,” he said. “We have an army strong and organised enough to serve as guarantor of the liberation of our occupied lands. We should not hide behind a wall.”
Samira Ahmedbeyli is an IWPR staff reporter in Baku. Leyla Mustavayeva is a correspondent for the Yeni Musavat newspaper in Azerbaijan.