Road in Karabakh. Photo by JAMnews.

A journalist explores the evolution of the breakaway territory since the change of borders last November. From JAMnews.

On the anniversary of the second Karabakh war, JAMnews publishes an article by a journalist who covered the course of hostilities in Karabakh in the fall of 2020. Arthur Khachatryan went to the same places where he stayed during the conflict last fall to see what happened there after the end of the war.

On 27 September 2020, something happened that, without exaggeration, the entire population of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic feared. At 7 o’clock in the morning, the war began. The fact that this was not just another skirmish on the border, like many others in recent years, became clear to everyone from the very first minutes.

The war, in fact, was marked by the bombing of the capital Stepanakert and other large settlements. An hour later, the defense army reported that Azerbaijan attacked the positions of Nagorno-Karabakh’s armed forces along the entire length of the contact line. Thus began one of the bloodiest conflicts in the region since the start of this century.

The ‘Road of Life’

To understand the position of the unrecognized republic after the war, it is enough to drive along the Lachin corridor. The corridor provides land communication between Armenia and Artsakh (the Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh). This six-kilometer stretch of road was actually controlled by the unrecognized republic from May 1992 to November 2020. Since November 2020, Russian peacekeepers provide the security of movement along the Lachin corridor.

Before reaching the corridor, on the territory of Armenia, there is a sign “Free Artsakh welcomes you.” Nowadays, these words evoke mixed feelings of bitterness among the locals, as well as the hope that everything will return to normal.

On the once-busy highway, you only see few cars, and, at the very beginning of the corridor, another inscription, this time in Russian: “The Lachin corridor is the zone of responsibility of the Russian peacekeepers.”

Well-fortified checkpoints of Russian peacekeepers stand every five kilometers. Filming is strictly prohibited. Polite young soldiers ask to see your documents, sometimes check the trunk of your car, and wish you a safe journey.

There is a strong feeling that there is an exclusion zone around: abandoned villages, trenches left after the war, and traces of shelling on the asphalt and gates of houses.

However, as the Armenians passing along the corridor admit, for them the most difficult picture opens up near Shushi [the Azerbaijani name of the city is Shusha], whose capture ended the second Karabakh war. At the very entrance to the city, a large construction site catches the eye in the distance: Azerbaijan is already building roads and tunnels.

The last Russian checkpoint of the corridor is located near the city, and Azerbaijani soldiers are standing five meters away from it. The Armenian inscription “Shushi” on the fortress was changed to the Azerbaijani name of the city, “Shusha,” and the Turkish one, red with a white crescent, is waving next to the Azerbaijani flags.

The positions of the opposing sides are now located between Shushi and Stepanakert [the Azerbaijani name of the city is Khankendi], in some places dozens of meters from each other. The capital of Nagorno-Karabakh is now on the line of fire.

Lively and Quiet Stepanakert

If you accidentally get to Stepanakert without knowing this background, you can hardly guess that a year ago the city was subjected to attacks from modern operational-tactical missile systems and multiple launch rocket systems.

Stepanakert is almost completely restored. New housing complexes are being built here at an accelerated pace to provide shelter for internally displaced persons. There are several tens of thousands of them. Some returned to Karabakh and live in hotels and hostels. Others stayed in Armenia or left for Russia.

Stepanakert is the same clean and pleasant town, with evening cafes and lighted fountains. At sunset, the center comes to life, but loud music can no longer be heard in the restaurants, cars drive around the city at a slow pace, and people seem to be embarrassed to laugh at full volume.

The traces of war on buildings are practically erased, but the wounds are still fresh in the souls of people. Here, almost every family lost a loved one, a relative, or a friend.

In a once-bustling market, sellers are now trying to attract the few buyers. In the past, guests from Armenia and even tourists from other countries used to come here.

Now the flow is scant, admits Donara Barseghyan, who has been baking branded Karabakh flat cakes right on the market for more than 10 years: “A month after the war, there were very few people. Few come, some leave altogether. It used to be good. There were lots of people.”

Aunt Donara, as the locals call her here, did not leave the market even during the war. In the morning, she baked “bread and herbs” and distributed it to the soldiers free of charge. Then she went to collect the filling for the cakes again. Over the years, it has become a kind of symbol of the city. Everyone knows that no matter what happens, Donara is always here.

“It’s hard for people now. Financial assistance from the state helped, but this is not enough. There is an outflow from the republic. Some people come here for big bags. They say that they are leaving for Russia. But there are also those who return. People are afraid that war could start again. The Russians say that while they are here, you can be calm, but still,” Donara says.

How Long Will Russian Peacekeepers Stay in Karabakh?

The Russian peacekeepers are treated very well here, and people hope that their mission will be extended. According to a statement from November 2020, if no side proposes to terminate the mission five years after its deployment, the Russian peacekeepers will remain. But no one knows what will happen in 2025.

Nagorno-Karabakh’s Minister of Foreign Affairs David Babayan says that Azerbaijan is already preparing the ground for abandoning the peacekeeping mission.

“In general, people trust peacekeepers. And Azerbaijan and Turkey do not like this. Therefore, they are trying in every possible way to discredit the Russian peacekeepers in different ways. Now they are trying to show that Russia has the same interests as Turkey and Azerbaijan, that everything has already been decided, that Azerbaijan will take Artsakh under its control, and no one will interfere with this. But we consider Russia a brotherly country for us.”

However, even the presence of Russian soldiers does not prevent ceasefire violations. Although no serious incidents were recorded after the war, from time to time shots can still be heard, people are wounded, and nearby places are subjected to shelling.

The village of Karmir Shuka (Red Bazaar) is now on the line of contact, although before the war it was far in the rear. Azerbaijani positions are located just one kilometer from houses. After the war, the Red Bazaar was subjected to shelling several times. So far there have been no casualties, but it is hard for the locals to live in such conditions. Despite this, almost all residents returned to the village after the end of hostilities.

Staying or leaving is perhaps the main question for the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh. After the war, this is a different land, there is no stability and confidence in the future. Residents are sure that with shelling and various provocations, Azerbaijan wants to deepen this instability, and force those who remain to leave.

After much persuasion, Juliet Harutyunyan agrees to be interviewed by JAMnews. Her son left his wife and five children at home and volunteered. He fought until the last day. She herself and her husband waited out the war in Armenia. She returned a few days after the ceasefire.

The Land of Our Ancestors

“We will live here. Whatever they do. This is the land of our ancestors. Only their posts are very close. I would like to move away for a while, because when they shoot, they immediately end up in the Red Bazaar,” Harutyunyan says.

But of course, no one will withdraw the troops. This village is still lucky. The neighboring village of Tagavart was divided into two parts, an Armenian and an Azerbaijani one. The positions of the parties are located directly between the houses, separated by a couple of tens of meters in some places.

Unlike Tagawart and the Red Bazaar, Martuni lives in relative tranquility. The Azerbaijani positions can be seen here only through binoculars.

Martuni was subjected to fierce bombing during the war. An unusual silence reigns here now. Life returned to its usual track, although the faces bear the same sadness.

In the city center, the silence is broken by the sounds of a piano, cello, and violin. The music school is full of students even on Saturday. Their number increased after the war, when the inhabitants of settlements that came under the control of Azerbaijan moved here.

“The war has directly affected almost all families. There is the Agasyan family, where two brothers were killed in the war. One was a war hero of the 16th year and our student. It is tragic, difficult to describe in words. There is a lost son and father,” says Alvina Baghdasaryan, the headmaster of the school.

She has already survived the third war. Like virtually all men, her husband and son also volunteered. Martuni was able to withstand the onslaught of the enemy, although at the beginning of the war Azerbaijan tried to break through the defense line in this direction.

Could there be a fourth war? Maybe, Alvina says. But she’s not going to leave anyway: “And there can be no question that we finally lose Artsakh. This is how people live. Even with the thought that we will return the lost lands. And we will live as before.”

The territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which remained under the control of the Armenian side, is practically completely cut off from Armenia. But Yerevan is not going to give up the issue of its status.

Now, a year after the war, the main task of the local authorities is to return the migrants who remained in Armenia to Karabakh. They believe that it will take decades to return to the pre-war pace of development. And ordinary people think that at any moment you need to be ready for war, which they see as inevitable.

This article by Arthur Khachatryan was initially published by JAMnews. Reprinted with permission.