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De Facto States and Cold Wars

Stuck between Russia, Turkey and Iran, the three countries of the in the Caucasus shares little. An exception is a number of de facto states and cold wars…

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The iron netting in the lower part of the gate had already been kicked in, so access to the courtyard was easy. Inside a concrete skeleton of a mosque was all that remained…

Nagorno-Karabakh's Foreign Ministry

Nagorno-Karabakh's Foreign Ministry

Most people have heard about South Ossetia because of the 2008 Russian-Georgian War that resulted in Russian control of the Georgian province. I tried to get in, but got turned back by the last Georgian check post, making the province the only of three de facto states in the Caucasus that is inaccessible for travelers. The easiest to access is Abkhazia, also in what is official Georgian territory, on the Black Sea coast. It has been quasi-independent since the early nineteenth and just as South Ossetia it is backed by Russia.
More interesting however is the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), tugged into the mountains of southeastern Azerbaijan (at least if you ask the UN or your government). Recognized by no-one the province claim independence, but is in reality controlled by Armenia, just as the people remaining are all Armenian.

Memorial/War Museum

Memorial/War Museum

The conflict started in 1989 when local guerillas fought the Soviet and Azeri armies before tit turned into a full blown and bloody war as the Soviet Union collapsed. Mainly between the armies of Armenia and Azerbaijan (backed by Turkish officers), smaller Armenia had conquered both the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and about 9 % of Azerbaijan when a shaky ceasefire was agreed in 1994.
It wasn’t pretty; both sides committed atrocities and took part in ethnic cleansing (more forcing people to flee than actually killing them). To this day there are still sporadic skirmishes along the ceasefire line…

NKR Mountains

NKR Mountains

So why go there? Because I am – as a student of international relations – hopelessly intrigued by these de facto states and the idea of secession. There is however plenty to keep the casual visitor interested, other than the post-war sights of building rippled by bullet holes, abandoned cities and war memorial museums: Beautiful pine-covered mountains, some fascinating Armenian monasteries and historical towns like Sushi – cradle of both Armenian and Azeri culture.
Though the most moving, though-provoking and unique parts of NKR are related to the war. All but one of the province mosques are mere concrete skeletons, ripped of everything valuable by scavengers as the Armenians are Armenian Christians and the Azerbaijanis Shia Muslims.

Defaced Mosque

Defaced Mosque

The mosques are usually fenced off, but in some are still accessible like the one in Sushi where the fence has been kicked in. So why go trespassing on for religious sites like this, not considering the emotional part of the empty concrete shells that used to house so many religious feelings the minarets (rocky and dangerously leaning as they are) are perfect spots for 360 degree views of the towns and cities you’re in as well as the surrounding valleys and mountains.

The Destroyed City of Agdam

The Destroyed City of Agdam

Nowhere more than NKR’s most interesting place of visit: the abandoned city of Agdam. Not part of the Nagorno-Karabakh province, but part of those 9 % of conquered Azerbaijan 55.000 Azerbaijanis used to live in the city, with another 100.000 in the rural areas around it. Only a handful is left…
As a military zone it is strictly off-limit to foreigners and three French guys got turned back at the entry to the city hours before I arrived. However, my taxi-driver was able to navigate the back streets, avoiding any of the military checkpoints getting me into the city.

If you can call it a city, there’s nothing much left after it was captured, sacked and looted. For the last decades professional scavengers and the local NKR population have picked clean anything of value and they are still removing bricks for cheap building material.

Bricks being driven away

Bricks being driven away

Shredded playgrounds sprout with shrubs, the streets are cracking open with trees, and ponds fill in bomb craters. Tall, shattered tower blocks stand in the distance, past a sprawling city center of one- and two-story buildings. Towering over the former central square stands a towering mosque – sadly defaced – where I climbed one of the minarets granting me a 360-degree view of the crumbling and overgrown city.

Agdam Ruin

Agdam Ruin

It’s a sad experience in the human tragedy of war and their damages, especially when considering that the 150.000 former inhabitants still live in temporary refugee shelters in Azerbaijan.

Posted by askgudmundsen 01.08.2013 09:09 Archived in Azerbaijan Tagged war azerbaijan armenia karabakh stepanakert agdam shushi de_facto

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