The NKR (Nagorno-Karabakh Republic) has two faces, just like Two-Face, the villain in the Batman comic books. The war ended sixteen years ago; nobody moved into the villages inhabited by the Azerbaijani and the houses destroyed in the war were looted for building materials. The entire buffer area with Azerbaijan is kept in a sinister dereliction. Even nowadays, there are attacks on and off. From time to time, a soldier on one side or the other loses his life.
We covered the entire frontline from Martakert to Martuni. Most places we have been to don’t even exist on an Armenian map. They are simply gone. Neither the frontline, nor that of the NKR border is marked, but it can be easily identified by the trenches, using satellite images of Google maps.
We requested a written authorization from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to visit settlements which do not appear on the Armenian map. We were denied access to several on the list, among which Ağdam. And yet, if you want to reach a Northern or Eastern town, you have to pass by it.
Before the conflict, Ağdam numbered approximately 150.000 inhabitants. It was a flourishing commercial node. Ağdam is currently a ghost town and a strategic military point. Whoever controls Ağdam, controls the entire NKR region. The Azerbaijani army set up its main military base in the town and it was from here that it bombed the town inhabited by Armenians. Stepanakert suffered immense damage from Azeri bombardment for more than a year. Ağdam was captured by Armenian forces in mid 1993 and, shortly after, the conflict ceased.
Whatever escaped military operations was hashed up real nice after the Azerbaijani left. The houses of Ağdam were melted down and contributed to the reconstruction of Armenian houses destroyed during the bombardment. However, almost 300 people live in this ghost town. Some of them are shepherds who lead their cattle on the surrounding demined fields. Others make a living by collecting scrap metal from debris and the fields. On the side of the town’s main roads deep gutters bear witness to ample operations to dig up pipes and cables belonging to the old infrastructure.
We passed by Ağdam through the middle of a row of rusty tanks and carriers which seemed to have frozen in the field. There are neither inhabitants, nor signposts in the area, so we lost our way to Martakert. We went on a road we thought was the main one, among demined fields marked Halo Trust. On our right and left, we pass ghost villages: skeletons of houses, heaps of stones and tall weeds. In the middle of the field, next to a cluster of ramshackle houses, we see a chain dropped to the ground, a stop sign and a security booth. Not a soul around. I drive on and behind some fences I see a group of soldiers who were wrestling. I turn the car around, enter their courtyard and ask for directions. It instantly dawns on me that we’re lost. We come up against the NKR army who are guarding the positions in the trenches.
They show us on the map that we’ve crossed the border line. The GPS shows we are very close to Terter and we also learn that Azerbaijani military forces have already set up camp. While we were all gesturing, an Armenian car comes up from behind. Another couple of stragglers. The soldiers turn an annoyed face to us. However, they agree to take a picture with us; then, their captain shows up and advises us on a very firm tone to drive back.
We leave behind a dozen bare-chested soldiers wearing flip-flops, real jokesters to the bone – they don’t seem to sense real danger. And yet, hundreds of skirmishes between the two sides – which frequently violate cease-fire agreements – are reported monthly. The day after our wandering on the border, right in the same region, four Armenian soldiers and one Azerbaijani soldier died in an intense overnight skirmish. The incident occurred just a few hours after the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan met for peace negotiations hosted by Dmitry Medvedev.