Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

In the Ruins of Shusha

A ruined town in Karabakh makes a Georgian reporter reflect on this conflict and his own.
Today is the last day of a visit to Karabakh that lasted almost ten days. And the day most packed with impressions.

Shusha. The look of this town uniquely conveys the complex history and the pain of this region - a pain that has touched two peoples. The contrast is striking. I contrast this place with the clean, brightly lit streets and shop windows of Stepanakert in which you can still discern a small Soviet town but no longer the traces of the destructive war that every citizen here endured.

Shusha is like a different planet. There is only a flicker of life here. Around 20,000 people lived here before the conflict. Judging by the number of voters who took part in the presidential election a few days ago, the current number of inhabitants now barely exceeds three thousand.

A new modern road winds through the little houses that resemble ancient Armenian ruins and the awful tall ruined apartment blocks with dozens of empty windows yawning open. In the old town, now almost completely destroyed, a sign remains in the Azeri language saying that this is Nizami Street. A crane stands next to one of the two mosques - evidently the local authorities are restoring it to demonstrate their tolerance.

People in the town are trying to make a normal life in Shusha, but the terrible past accompanies you at every step; it’s impossible not to see it. We met some refugees from Baku in the street. These people, who have lost their homeland, have fixed themselves up something resembling apartments amid the ruins and are trying to build a new life.

An elderly man suddenly started speaking Azeri, so as to discover if there were any of his former fellow countrymen from amongst our international crowd. They told us about life here - that there is no work.

“She was held prisoner,” said one man of a woman we were talking to. He should not have mentioned this because she began to be hysterical and the others could not calm her down. We quickly moved on.

These people have lost their homes - and so have most of the Azerbaijani residents of these ruined houses and empty apartment blocks, who fled from here long ago. How many of them are still alive? Where are they now? Do they yearn for their lost homeland just as these unhappy Bakuvians do? Almost all of these people are not responsible for this tragedy, on either side. They are ordinary people, whose lives have been sliced through by history or politics or big ideas.

Stepanakert is gleaming. Every evening big crowds stroll through the central square and the park. I am reminded of Batumi in summer and I keep thinking that in a moment I will see the Black Sea and the lights of ships.

There can be no doubt that, in the future, the Karabakh government, helped by Armenia and the Diaspora, will make sure that Shusha will also gleam festively - and indeed so will the whole of Karabakh. But all around still lies an unpopulated empty zone, the seven occupied Azerbaijani territories outside Nagorny Karabakh, and dead towns, which look as though they have been levelled by a nuclear bomb. I didn’t see the ruined Azerbaijani city of Aghdam and I am afraid to imagine what it looks like.

It is important to remember that the Karabakh Armenians who enjoy strolling through the gleaming streets of Stepanakert don’t see anything wrong in this. They went through a war, bombing, the death of loved ones; they feared for their own lives and the lives of their children. They believe that they defended their rights to live and to live here. Now they are working and building a new life which has no place in it for their former neighbours and former friends. They don’t want them to return because they fear that it will all start over again. All the more so because people like the refugees we met, the exiles “from the other side” are living here. And they, most likely, will never return home because the homeland they knew has now died.

People in Karabakh are slowly but surely building a new state. True, no one knows if it will get its own colour on the political map or if it will continue to be an unrecognised entity, linked to the outside world by a single highway that winds mercilessly through the mountains. The answer to this question has to be provided by something known as the “peace process” for which there is currently no end in sight. As, indeed is the case in my own homeland.

When you come here you understand how different in nature are the conflicts in the Caucasus region, although they seem so similar to one another at first glance. Acquaintances here were surprised to see me and Ahra Smyr from Abkhazia working together or sitting with one another in a restaurant. Even if they didn’t say anything, it was obvious from the expression on their faces. Because it is different with them and they find it hard to picture an Armenian and an Azerbaijani sitting at the same table. Thank God, things have not gone so far with us – and, despite the conflict, we Georgians and Abkhaz can not be enemies and can even be friends.

In another country, Ahra and I understand how much our peoples and cultures actually have in common. Sooner or later we will come to understand one another. I am certain of that today as never before.

Dmitry Avaliani is a correspondent with 24 Hours newspaper in Tbilisi, Georgia.

This report is one of three first-person accounts of journalists from and visiting Nagorny Karabakh during the presidential elections as part of IWPR’s Cross Caucasus Journalism Network project. Different in style from our usual reports, they give an impression of the polls and life in this remote but important territory in the South Caucasus.

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