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In Nagorno-Karabakh, Land Mines, Bulldozers and Lingering Tensions

In Nagorno-Karabakh, Land Mines, Bulldozers and Lingering Tensions
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In Nagorno-Karabakh, Land Mines, Bulldozers and Lingering Tensions

In Nagorno-Karabakh, Land Mines, Bulldozers and Lingering Tensions

When I arrived in Nagorno-Karabakh after the war last year, the sight of an Armenian military cemetery on the hillside reminded me of the layers of tragedy embedded in this country.

After I returned in June, I left wondering how much a piece of land can handle grief.

In Shusha last October, I entered the concrete basement of an apartment building, where Armenian women were sheltering on flattened cardboard boxes. They thought they knew what war was like, one said, recalling the conflict of the 1990s. But the enormous firepower of modern weapons was different, “an eyesore, an eyesore.”

At the time, as communism crumbled, the former Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war over Nagorno-Karabakh – a region populated primarily by Armenians within the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan. Armenia won this war, leaving about a seventh of Azerbaijani territory under Armenian control.

As international conflict mediation efforts failed and Azerbaijan’s oil and gas wealth exploded, the country invested in modern drones from Israel and Turkey. By the time Azerbaijan attacked last September, its Turkish-backed army was overwhelming compared to that of poorer and smaller Armenia.

When I returned to Shusha’s apartment building last month, he was gone, razed to bare brown ground. The area will be part of a new ‘streetscape’, British architect Adrian Griffiths told me.

Rather than allowing Azerbaijanis to simply return home, President Ilham Aliyev, the authoritarian ruler of the country, wants to rebuild Shusha as the cultural capital of Azerbaijan. About 15,000 people, mostly Azerbaijanis, lived there before the war of the 1990s; until last fall, there were around 5,000 Armenian residents.

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The hilltop town was the birthplace of Azerbaijani music and poetry in the 19th century, although Armenians also consider it the core of their historical identity.

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