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KOSOVO AMID THE CAUCASUS: What life is like on both sides of the Nagorno-Karabakh front (PHOTO)
Foto: Viktor Lazić, Nikola Branović

CULTURE AND CIVILIAN LIVES LOST

KOSOVO AMID THE CAUCASUS: What life is like on both sides of the Nagorno-Karabakh front (PHOTO)

News

The war in Nagorno-Karabakh has caught the world’s attention. A few years ago, I sat behind the wheel of my Lada Niva and drove to the Caucasus, collecting the material for my book titled The Lands That Do Not Exist, dealing with the seceded provinces around the globe. I travelled along the border on the Azerbaijani side, while a Serbian friend of mine, Nikola Branović, visited the part of Karabakh controlled by the Armenians.

The Azerbaijani side

 

The Azerbaijani military only controls a small part of Karabakh today, no more than a few villages. The unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh controls other parts of Azerbaijan as well – a total of 16 percent of this state. In this case, as well as in all other similar cases, Serbia supports Azerbaijan. This is one of the reasons for the close relations with Baku, although Christianity and the friendship going back centuries tie us to the Armenians. What is most tragic is that it is culture and civilian lives that are lost in all conflicts, on all sides.

foto: Viktor Lazić, Nikola Branović

Azerbaijan and Armenia ban the citizens of their respective enemy state from entering their territory, unless the head of state approves it! Each entry into Karabakh via that route is considered illegal, and there is no other route. As far as Azerbaijan is concerned, foreigners who cross the border illegally have committed the gravest felony, and those that get a Karabakh visa or stamp effectively recognize the independence of their province! The punishment is declaring the offender a persona non grata and a life ban on entry into Azerbaijan! Foreign diplomats, politicians, and journalists face much worse consequences: the entire state administration springs into action to discredit the person in question or to completely eliminate them from public life. For instance, the Azerbaijani diplomacy came down on a Polish parliamentarian like a ton of bricks, nearly having him removed from the parliament!

foto: Viktor Lazić, Nikola Branović

I embarked on a tour of the cities of Aghdam and Tartar with a slender youth who offered to be my guide. The two cities are located right next to the line of separation, on the Azerbaijani side. Aghdam is a city taken over by the Armenians, and is in ruins now on the other side of the front. On this side, however, a parallel city has been built bearing the same name, mostly populated by people who left the old Aghdam. The monuments erected to honour the dead dominated the city. A black band of names twisted and wound behind me, hitting me hard. Young soldiers, farmers, ordinary folk, take a place of honour at the heart of the tragedy, always and everywhere.

The shooting never stopped

I visited the villages located only eight hundred meters from the border and the front line. A torn-down house and a man in front of it, standing next to his donkey and smoking calmly, caught my attention. He explained that 24 Azerbaijani soldiers had died there during the war. A missile stopped them having lunch and blew everyone at the table to smithereens. His home was some hundred meters from there. It was regularly targeted, and the man would still dig out an occasional bomb in the garden instead of a potato.

foto: Viktor Lazić, Nikola Branović

He offered to show me his home. The metal gate was riddled with shrapnel, but the inside of the house was the most horrific. A huge hole was gaping above the mirror in the room where the children used to play. The ceiling too was riddled with shrapnel.

foto: Viktor Lazić, Nikola Branović

‘We have nowhere else to go, this is our home. They should let us live or bury us here!’ our host resolutely said.

foto: Viktor Lazić, Nikola Branović

‘We have nowhere else to go, this is our home. They should let us live or bury us here!’ our host resolutely said.

foto: Viktor Lazić, Nikola Branović

A new generation is growing up there being used to hiding and hatred. That is why every evening parents tell their children stories of happier times, when war and suffering were inconceivable. They think it is important to help their children develop a belief that there is more to the world than the horror around them.

foto: Viktor Lazić, Nikola Branović

As the night fell, the first shots could be heard. Were those that were killed more of a victim than the unfortunate people who lived in constant fear of death? I took the advice to keep moving in order to make things difficult for the snipers. I drove far from the homes that the war had brought tragedy upon.

Let’s hear the other side too

In recent years, over 30 Serbs, mostly climbers, have visited Nagorno-Karabakh. Here is a short piece by one of them, Nikola Branović: ‘The stubborn handful of Armenians, whose country was placed under a foreign sky by Stalin’s order, has decided to attack a hundred times richer Azerbaijan and Turkey.’ This is the news we read, the news that we believe. And that has never happened in history, nor can it happen.

foto: Viktor Lazić, Nikola Branović

The accusations Armenians and the Azerbaijani throw against each other are identical: both claim they are victims of genocide; both claim that history has been falsified and that the other side is systematically destroying cultural monuments; both claim that they have destroyed hundreds, thousands, soon to be millions of enemy tanks and soldiers. The Azerbaijani claim that a portion of their territory has been occupied, while the Armenians claim that they have liberated Karabakh, rectifying a historical injustice and Stalin’s whim. Who to trust? I always take sides with those who are weaker and under threat. The Armenians who have lived in Karabakh since times immemorial did not attempt to conquer Baku. However, a number of soldiers from Syria and Turkey came to oust the few members of a very sturdy and tenacious nation from their mountain homes.

What stands in Azerbaijan’s way is the fact that Armenians have a strong foothold in their diasporas across Europe and America. Some places on this planet truly are castles in the air. The landscapes remain undefined, as if God’s magic brush never finished painting them. There, it is hard to decide what is, and easier to say what is not. In the same vein, Karabakh is neither Azerbaijan nor Armenia, in more ways than one.

At the centre of the capital, the calm Stepanakert, is a modern hotel, as well as the presidential palace and the Parliament of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. When I went to visit it, it was Independence Day, and there was a big concert at the centre. I asked an official if there were many guests from other countries.

‘Of course,’ he said.

I then asked what countries they had come from.

‘Well, from Abkhazia, Transnistria, South Ossetia, …’

The Museum of the Perished

Unrecognized states recognize each other, but agree on not recognizing the independence of Kosovo, as it is a special case. They think that, owing to how peculiar it is, Kosovo must remain a part of Serbia! It is interesting that not even Armenia has recognized the independence of Kosovo.

foto: Nikola Branović, Viktor Lazić

I passed by an exhibition of war photos, celebrating tanks, machine guns, and bombers. Girls flirted with foreigners, which were few, in the hope of marrying well and leaving for happier lands.

No more than 150,000 people live in Karabakh! It is a sad truth that sometimes it is easier to fight and die for one’s homeland than it is to live in it. On one side, there were rows of torn-down buildings, and on the other, abandoned homes, and dead villages and cities. The paucity of provisions aside, Karabakh is an isolated paradise made up of mountains and wild rivers, fresh air, and healthy food. The oldest people in the world live here! It is not unusual to meet a sprightly centenarian, still going strong, who is considered a young man by 110-year-olds! This is no exaggeration, but a well-known fact.

foto: Nikola Branović, Viktor Lazić

As the evening rolled around, the menfolk started to tell stories of heroes, which Armenians are known for. Many had scars on their bodies, or traces of surgeries and shell fragments in their tissue. They showed their wounds to each other like trophies. Once, no more than three soldiers had taken control of an elevated stretch of ground on the hills to the east, resisting the attacks of four hundred well-armed enemies for days. Two were killed, and the third, although wounded, survived until reinforcements arrived, but the hill remained in their hands.

The mother of a soldier, an Armenian hero who had fallen in the war and never had the chance to celebrate his twentieth birthday, founded the Museum of the Perished. No other place in the whole of Karabakh was as horrific: she had collected thousands of photographs and soldiers’ personal belongings. Their faces spoke more than any data, and their eyes lived on, looking at their loved ones and burning with the desire for justice. You could see dried blood on T-shirts at that museum. A mother told me: ‘All sorts of things spring from the ground, but a human being never does. My son was planted in the ground like a green apple!’ Forty thousand rice grains is a lot. And how much more is forty thousand perished youths!

(Kurir.rs /Viktor Lazić-Nikola Branović)

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