Shusha still stands as symbol of vicious pogrom

Fri, May 25, 2012, 01:00

A T-72 TANK sits by the road that climbs the hill from Stepanakert to Shusha, a reminder that life was not always this quiet among the green mountains of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Twenty years ago, these towns were at the epicentre of fighting between Azeris and Armenians who had lived together for centuries under Persian and Russian rule, but were now deadly enemies as their nations claimed independence amid the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Nagorno-Karabakh had been an autonomous province within Soviet Azerbaijan, but as the Kremlin’s power waned, the region’s ethnic-Armenian majority demanded freedom from Azeri control. Ancient ties were forgotten as a series of vicious pogroms pitched the two nations into all-out war.

Shusha’s skyline of Armenian churches and Azerbaijani mosques bespoke a long history of co-existence. Communal violence was rare, but left deep and bloody memories that rose to the surface again as war approached.

Two decades ago, Shusha was the only majority Azeri area in Nagorno-Karabakh, making it both a vital strategic point and a symbol of Azerbaijan’s refusal to relinquish control of this land and Armenians’ determination to seize it for themselves.

It was from here that Azeri troops and mercenaries from other parts of Moscow’s crumbling empire, including Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, rained down fire on Stepanakert, bringing panic and bloodshed to the local capital and driving thousands into their basements.

The Azeris stored their shells and other weapons, local Armenians say, inside Shusha’s Orthodox cathedral.

“Things were always fine in our town, but when we started asking for independence from Azerbaijan people started saying ‘Let’s go – it will be bad here’,” recalled Anakit Danilyan (50), who sells icons and souvenirs from a kiosk opposite the cathedral.

And so it proved.

The 1988-1994 war killed some 30,000 people and drove about one million from their homes, causing chaos across a poor and politically unstable region. At different times Russia provided military help to each side; Armenia says Turkey also aided its Azeri allies.

Shusha fell to Armenian forces on May 9th, 1992, less than 24 hours after they launched their assault on the once beautiful mountain citadel.

The shelling of Stepanakert stopped and the tide of the war turned in Armenia’s favour. Its troops went on to capture not only Nagorno-Karabakh, but seven adjoining regions of Azerbaijan that they still hold, in defiance of United Nations resolutions calling for their withdrawal.

Armenians proudly claim that Basayev said Shusha was the only battle he ever lost.

“It was an amazing feeling. It still gives me goose-bumps to think of it,” said Mrs Danilyan of the day she returned to Shusha – or Shushi, as Armenians call it.

“We had got on well with our Azeri neighbours but when we came home we found our house had been robbed. And when my sister-in-law came back she was murdered by Azeris who were still hiding in her house. Then some Armenians killed them.

“We saw a lot of killing and destruction, too much to talk about. Everything was destroyed here: we had no water, no heating, no petrol.”

Shusha is now a patchwork of rebuilt apartment blocks and charred ruins untouched since wartime. Two mosques stand silent in a town that is now entirely Armenian.

Laid out in the valley below is Stepanakert, where last week soldiers paraded and the war dead were honoured. Separatist president Bako Sahakyan told the 100,000 or so residents of his unrecognised republic that freedom was theirs and international recognition would one day follow.

“We are doing all we can to achieve international recognition, and it is only a matter of time,” Sahakyan said recently as he sipped coffee and smoked Marlboros in his office in Stepanakert.

“We have a right to self- determination and we have created a state that fully corresponds to international standards,” the former soldier, who was elected president in 2007, added.

“And we are ready to defend our achievements. We would give a strong rebuff – even stronger than before – to any challenge to our security.”

Azerbaijan and Armenia are still technically at war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Their soldiers regularly shoot each other across a tense ceasefire line and talks are deadlocked under the auspices of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe – which is chaired this year by Ireland.

For Azerbaijan this is a time of national mourning, as it recalls the bitter loss of Shusha, a cradle of its culture that was once home to some 20,000 Azeris.

“Our army will liberate our lands from the occupation and achieve peace . . . I believe that this time will come,” Bayram Safarov, a Shusha-born leader of the displaced Karabakhi community, said 20 years after Armenians seized his home town.

“Today, every Azerbaijani considers himself to be from Shusha.”