When Alvina Nersisyan’s husband instructed her to lock up their condominium and drive their youngsters someplace secure, she thought they’d be away for a few days—possibly a month at most. “I solely took a number of paperwork and my laptop computer,” the 39-year-old college lecturer says. “No valuables and no household images, as a result of none of us believed we wouldn’t be capable of return.” That was nearly two years in the past, and he or she hasn’t been again since to her residence within the metropolis of Shushi within the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh area.
Often called Shushi to the Armenians who referred to as it residence, and Shusha to the Azerbaijanis who now management it, the cliffside metropolis of a few thousand individuals has modified arms many occasions over the course of its historical past. Armenians had made up nearly half of the inhabitants earlier than their Azerbaijani neighbors drove them out and destroyed their a part of town in a 1920 pogrom. Amid the collapse of the Soviet Union, a brutal conflict from 1988-1994 noticed Armenian forces seize nearly all of Nagorno-Karabakh, displacing round 600,000 Azerbaijanis within the area together with over 90% of Shusha’s inhabitants. Most just lately, in 2020, Azerbaijani forces pushed into the disputed area and Shushi fell on Nov. 8., prompting a number of thousand Armenians, like Nersisyan, to flee town. Some 2,000 troops on each side are believed to have been killed within the metropolis alone.
“This can be an important day in our historical past,” stated Azerbaijan’s strongman President Ilham Aliyev, following Shushi’s fall. Swaths of the broader Nagorno-Karabakh area had been additionally handed over as a part of a Moscow-brokered ceasefire deal penned in November 2020, leaving Armenians accountable for round a 3rdof the area.
Azerbaijan is now trying to lengthen these dramatic wartime positive aspects; in Could 2021, Azerbaijan declared Shusha its “cultural capital” as a part of a bid to cement management of each town and the broader Nagorno-Karabakh area, the place Armenians kind a majority of the inhabitants. Now, dozens of occasions and conferences are being deliberate to color town as a hub for artwork, music, and studying. And all through September, Azerbaijanis throughout the nation and as far afield as Germany and France are celebrating what they are saying is the 270th anniversary of Shusha’s founding. “Now we have restored the territorial integrity of our nation and nationwide dignity by selflessly combating and shedding blood,” Aliyev stated, on the finish of August.
However, given town’s complicated, multi-layered previous, the celebrations and March declaration dangers inflaming wider Armenian-Azerbaijani tensions.
“Shusha is ours”
In current months, town has develop into a hive of exercise amid Azerbaijan’s plan to enshrine Shusha as its cultural capital. Two glitzy new resorts have been constructed for permitted guests—primarily official delegations and people Azerbaijanis privileged sufficient to drag strings and pay money for the federal government permits wanted to go to, provided that the navy continues to be in control of a lot of the area. Building staff toil across the clock on floodlit constructing websites, placing up new condominium blocks and convention facilities. “It’s very exhausting to forecast how a lot all of the work right here will value,” says Emin Huseynov, the Particular Consultant of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh. “It’s an enormous mission however there’s little question it is going to rework the area endlessly.” Most officers and specialists TIME speaks to can’t put a dollar-sum on the development blitz however agree it runs within the billions—a serious endeavor regardless of Azerbaijan’s oil-rich economic system.
Different elements of Shusha are roughly as they had been when the taking pictures stopped two years in the past. The Daniel Ghazaryan Music College within the metropolis heart, named after an Armenian composer born there in 1883, nonetheless has dusty footprints on the doorways from the place they had been kicked in, and bricks are nonetheless piled up as they had been when it was used as a firing publish. The college’s gymnasium has been barricaded, and paperwork written in Armenian are strewn by way of the corridors. Dozens of Azerbaijani troopers have daubed their names, hometowns, and unit numbers on classroom partitions to have fun their conquest. One message, written in pink marker behind a shattered Soviet-era piano, reads “Shusha is ours.”
Between the shells of unlit buildings, a big white tent has been arrange for attendees of a younger Azerbaijani diaspora convention to observe soccer. Qarabağ FK, which relies in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, is enjoying, and a cheer goes up from the gang after they rating. Ihan, 22, who research finance on the College of Warsaw in Poland, is amongst them. “That is my homeland,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how distant or if we alter our passports—we belong to this land.”
One of many convention’s organizers, Gunel Atkinson-Nasibova, has traveled from France for the chance to be one of many first Azerbaijanis to see town because the conflict. “It’s great to see so many good younger individuals coming right here to find out about our heritage,” she says, and hopes her personal youngsters will sooner or later make the journey as nicely. Atkinson-Nasibova, like Ilhan, isn’t from Nagorno-Karabakh, however sees the area as a core a part of her Azerbaijani nationwide identification, even whereas dwelling overseas.
On town’s major Gazanchi road, plaques have been put up marking the previous properties of main Azerbaijani cultural figures, comparable to Uzeyir Hajibeyov, who’s touted as having in 1908 created the primary opera in a Muslim-majority nation. Hajibeyov can be a kind of honored by three solid steel busts that dominate the central sq., all of them peppered with holes from shelling or gunfire. The others are poet Khurshudbanu Natavan and opera singer Bulbul. Baku alleges the Armenians tried to promote them off for scrap, a cost Yerevan has by no means acknowledged.
For the reason that 2020 conflict, Yerevan seems to have conceded it might have completed extra to guard that heritage, and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan raised eyebrows in November by describing it as a “unhappy, grey metropolis” that by no means acquired the funding it deserved. “Did we’d like Shushi?” he requested, “and in that case, why wasn’t it left in higher situation?”
Contested historical past
Regardless of Pashniyan’s feedback, town has a near-mythical standing for Armenians, because it does for Azerbaijanis. “From the 1820s, Shushi grew to become one of many main cultural facilities for Japanese Armenians,” says Raffi Kortoshian, the co-director of the Analysis on Armenian Structure basis, who relies in Yerevan. “Now Azerbaijan is attempting to neutralize that historical past from all of the territory below its management.”
For the reason that conflict, dozens of experiences have emerged of Armenian church buildings being razed and graveyards desecrated, as indicators of their historic presence within the area are focused. Movies have emerged on-line of Azerbaijani troops smashing up sculptures, whereas plans have been printed to transform one chapel right into a mosque.
In March, the European Parliament handed a movement that condemned Azerbaijan for “erasing and denying the Armenian cultural heritage in and round Nagorno-Karabakh,” which it assessed to be a part of a “systematic, state-level coverage of Armenophobia, historic revisionism and hatred in the direction of Armenians.”
Baku, nevertheless, denies it’s finishing up a marketing campaign to obliterate any hint of Armenians dwelling within the area. Ruslan Anvarli, who’s in control of cultural heritage safety for Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Tradition, argues its officers are attempting to reverse “the general destruction brought about throughout 30 years of occupation by Armenia” and “shield websites that require pressing intervention.”
Restoration work has already begun on Shusha’s mosques, which Anvarli says had been allowed to fall into break over the previous three a long time. “We discovered this as you see it now,” says Farid, the supervisor of a crew engaged on the Ashaghi Govhar Agha mosque, pointing at its crumbling partitions and lacking minaret.
On the identical time, the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, which was the primary place of worship for Armenians, has been fenced off and coated fully with scaffolding—nearly shielding it from view. It was bombed in the course of the 2020 conflict by Azerbaijani forces whereas journalists and civilians sheltered inside, in what Human Rights Watch has described as a “potential conflict crime.” “No guests are allowed due to building work,” a Kalashinkov-carrying soldier outdoors tells TIME, however declines to elucidate why there are not any staff or constructing equipment to be seen.
Azerbaijan has large plans to resettle Nagorno-Karabakh with its residents who had been displaced by combating within the Nineties. Native officers say that Shusha will finally have 30,000 residents, and the almost 20,000 Azerbaijanis who lived there three a long time in the past can be first in line for brand spanking new properties. At current, primarily Azerbaijani staff and their households dwell within the rubble-strewn metropolis.
Mohubbet Samadov, 69, was one of many Azerbaijanis displaced from the areas surrounding Shusha within the Nineties. The agricultural employee says he has been dwelling in squalid circumstances as a refugee and dreaming of returning residence. He went again to search out his ruined village, Agali, on the primary day after the ceasefire was signed in 2020. “I wouldn’t want being displaced on anybody,” he provides, with a sigh, “and even when they had been Armenians, I’d attempt to assist them if I might.”
1000’s of Armenians now discover themselves in an identical scenario to the one Samadov and different Azerbaijanis went by way of within the Nineties.
Defending the previous
With each side embroiled in a current spherical of hostilities, the prospect of them working collectively to safeguard their shared heritage within the metropolis appears slim. Nonetheless, there are efforts to usher in worldwide mediators that might assist untangle the problem.
Elman Abdullayev, Azerbaijan’s everlasting delegate to the U.N.’s cultural heritage company, UNESCO, says that Baku would “welcome a mission from the group to our territory as quickly as potential.” In keeping with him, that may assist show “Azerbaijan is dedicated to preserving wealthy cultural heritage on this particular place.” He says that such a transfer has beforehand been blocked by Yerevan.
In response, Gegham Stepanyan, the human rights ombudsman for the unrecognized majority-Armenian Republic of Artsakh in Nagorno-Karabakh, says that he could be open to an skilled group visiting. “Work by a prestigious worldwide group like UNESCO could possibly be a useful step,” he says, “and it could have a deterrent impact in stopping additional circumstances of vandalism.”
For Nersisyan, although, who now lives simply down the mountainside within the Armenian-held metropolis of Stepanakert in Nagorno-Karabakh, that historical past appears like it’s already slipping away. “I can all the time discover a new condominium to dwell in, so I don’t really feel pity for myself. I really feel it for the church buildings I can now not enter. I really feel pity for the traditional streets I can now not stroll on,” she says. “I can’t imagine I received’t ever be capable of return.”