Ağdam – the forbidden zone

View from the top of the mosque. Photo: ©Paul Toetzke

By Paul Toetzke

Agdam once contained factories, a freight depot and – so we hear – a particularly good wine. 40-50 000 people once lived here, the majority of which were Azerbaijani. Today, it is a ghost town.

The fog hangs low as we leave the quarter in Stepanakert. One can barely see five meters into the distance. The capital of the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh seems bleak and deserted , the streets are empty – November mood in April. For the past five days we have been staying in the Armenian populated mountain enclave on Azerbaijani territory. We wanted to understand, what impact the conflict has had on the people, who are directly involved. A conflict, which has found no end since its outbreak in 1988, and which, despite its endless nature, is largely ignored in Germany.

At first we are shocked. What we see hardly reminds us of war: impeccably clean streets, freshly painted government buildings. A sense of normality seems to be present in the by far largest city of Nagorno-Karabakh. After Stepanakert was largely destroyed during the war, people seem to be strenuously mending the wounds. The city wants to seem modern and young. In front of the central park the statue of Stepan Shahumyan marks the center of the town. He is the namesake of the city. There’s free wifi for the youth and an amusement park for smaller children. A banner is put across the main street, lettered with the English words: ‘Ensure free and fair elections with your participation’. Even the few tourists should not miss the efforts of democratization so shortly before the parliamentary elections. Even a modern airport has been erected, which is out of use due to threats by the Azerbaijani party. In front of the de facto Foreign Ministry, a policeman directing the traffic, waves to passing drivers. The people know each other here. A hint of Soviet provincial idyll sweeps through the streets.

A forgotten conflict? Not for the people in the region. There continue to be numerous deaths due to shootings at the frontline to Azerbaijan every year. Even the ceasefire of 1994 did not bring peace. No conversation ends without the hostilities towards Azerbaijanis being mentioned.

Again and again we hear the name “Agdam”; usually behind closed doors. What is so special about this place? Since the end of the war, it is forbidden to visit the last ruins of the stage of war. One needs a special permission from the government. Journalists are regularly expelled from the country and put on the Armenian black list due to their attempts to visit Agdam without permission. This makes us curious. What is behind the name Agdam? After an extended search we finally find a driver, who, for the converted sum of 12 Euros per person offers to drive us to the forbidden zone. This journey is not for everyone. But it is not Vartan’s (the name has been changed) first time going on this journey – it serves him as a lucrative source of income next to official tourist tours. Initially he seems easy going, although he can’t understand why we would want to pay this visit. ‘What do you want to do there? There’s nothing to see over there’, he explains in his impeccable Russian. Before he begins to drive, he wants to know if we are journalists. We deny, and tell him we are students. To all our questions he simply answers: ‘Odkuda ja zhaju?’ – how should I know?

The former capital of the Agdam region is situated on one of the seven ‘surrounding areas’, which are occupied by the Karabakh-Armenians today (see map). According to the journalist and South Caucasus researcher Thomas de Waal, around 14 percent of Azerbaijani territory is occupied. Agdam was established in the 18th century and obtained its city status in 1828. Agdam once contained factories, a freight depot and – so we hear – a particularly good wine. 40-50 000 people once lived here, the majority of which were Azerbaijani. As we move further through Azerbaijan, my mobile phone is the first to realise the shift into the official territory of Azerbaijan, as it returns to an Azerbaijani network. The roads become worse, the potholes bigger. On the right hand side the first ruins appear. A few lonely cows and sheep stand grazing between heaps of rubble. Only a few people are left here. A scrap dealer has settled down at the edge of the ghost town. The remnants of burned down cars and rusty oil containers lay scattered across his garden. From time to time we encounter a military transporter. The exact number of soldiers that have been stationed in this ancient city since the war, remains unknown.

Armenians and Azerbaijani people have been fighting about this fruitful piece of land for close to one hundred years. Both rely on the historical importance of the land for their respective nations. The ‘black garden’, or, Nagorno-Karabakh, has repeatedly fallen into the hands of the great powers, and, as a result of this, has frequently changed its nationality. After World War I, during the short period of independence of the South-Caucasian states, the region belonged to Armenia. Under Stalin’s reign, during the Soviet Nationality Policy, the 4.400 km2 mountain region was allocated to the Azerbaijani Socialist Soviet Republic; though this was done as an autonomous region. Approximately three-quarters of the inhabitants were ethnic Armenians to this time already. The subsequent fall of the Soviet Union led to programs against Armenians in different areas of Azerbaijan. Parallel attacks were being executed toward ethnic Azerbaijani people in Armenia. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced. Yet, in the black garden, christian Armenians and muslim Azerbaijanis had lived together in peace for generations.

In the late 1980s , the Karabakh Armenians demanded a port of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. They felt oppressed by the Azeri leadership. Angry protests, led by the Azerbaijanis in Agdam followed. A small group of men began moving towards the Armenian village Astern on the 22nd of February, 1988, where a group of inhabitants, armed with hunting rifles, as well as the police force awaited them. According to reports, the riots resulted in two deaths: the first sign of the arrival of an approaching war.

The land by the street turns wilder. Nature is reclaiming everything back: it grows over the remnants of houses, it erases the last traces of human life. Landmines are said to remain here. During our ride, the dark blue sign from Halo Trust keeps propping up, which signals that the land in question has gone through the process of being de-mined. As I asked whether I could leave the car to take some pictures, Vartan dismisses my request. Just to leave the car. The further we advance, the more nervous he appears to become. As a military vehicle drives past us, he signals that I should hide my camera. Finally he holds. ‘I end here, I refuse to drive any further. I can no longer guarantee your safety from here on.’ Just a few hundred meters a head of us stands erect a ghost-like white shape: the minaret of the mosque. The only building which continues to tell the story of a city that once was.

We manage to convince Vartan to allow us to leave the car. He gives us ten minutes, and no guarantee. His warnings run deep into our bodies. In front of the mosque lies the metal dome of one of the minarets – dented and forgotten. After a moment of hesitation we climb to the top of the minaret. From above the extent of the damage becomes fully clear. Ruins as far as the eye can see. The Caucasian Hiroshima. This is the wounded face of a region, scars of a war, which is not even that long ago; which continues to seethe, but which is far away for us, and as a result is largely ignored. Finally we are able to understand why one must come do Agdam in order to ‘see’ this conflict. The grey fog, which hangs over Agdam today coat over the mountain panorama, and lends the space an ghostly air. I quickly take one picture after the other and hide the memory card in my sock – better safe than sorry.

Upon our safe return to the taxi, Vartan is ready to depart. Suddenly he begins to explain after all. He too once fought in the war the here, on the Armenian side. Apparently, at the time, Iran had asked them to spare the mosque. To the question why they completely destroyed the city in the first place he simply answers: ‘They were shooting us from Agdam, we didn’t have any other option’. Other sources speak of a systematic ruin of the city due to its income. This tactic supposedly hindered the former residents from being able to come back. Whether this story actually hold true, or whether individual soldiers simply let their victory craving drives run wild remains controversial.

After the outbreak of the war, the Azerbaijani army made Agdam to its headquarter. Until the victory of the Armenians, the city remained one of the last bastions of Azerbaijan. But even then, the triumphal procession of the Armenians was hardly stoppable. By the summer of 1992 the Armenian troops had already taken over the Shusha, a city of central strategic importance to Azerbaijan, and thereby strengthened their control over the region enormously. Chaos prevailed in Agdam. Various units tried to take over the lead, resulting in an internal war against each other. The situation in Baku was no better, where a government crisis broke out, as a result of which the Azerbaijanis could no longer defend the Karabakh front. On the 23rd of July 1993, the Armenian party used the crisis in the Azerbaijani capital and took Agdam without much of a struggle. The majority of inhabitants had already fled. Since them Agdam belongs to the occupied land of the Karabakh-Armenians and serves as a protective buffer zone between the frontline and the actual territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. In 1994, with the help of the OSCE Minsk-Group – under the lead of France, Russia and the USA – a ceasefire was negotiated. However, this could not be claimed to have brought peace. In this year alone shootings at the frontline have resulted in the death of over twenty people.

As we leave the ‘fobidden zone’, Vartan reaches into the glove compartment and offers us a drink from his flask. Mulberry brandy, a speciality of the region. He asks us if we saw anything interesting. Still under the rush of adrenaline, we tell him about the incredible view from the top of the minaret. Vartan nods and remains silent for a moment. ‘I once had an Azerbaijani friend. No clue what happened to him. He’s probably long gone. Odkuda ja znaiu?’. A tone of equanimity rings through his voice. He offers us another sip from his flask and subsequently points his finger at the ruins by the side of the street. ‘They want to grow fruit and vegetables here now’. An excavator stands in the middle of the rubble. Apparently the stones serve as material for road construction in Nagorno-Karabakh. Exquisitely clean roads and vegetable gardens are preferable to offer than ghost towns and war wounds.

This contribution first appeared in a slightly altered form at taz. Translation by Gina Mirow.