Saturday, August 12, 2000
Several weeks ago, in July, when we landed in Tbilisi, a man came to pick us up in an ancient Soviet Volga.
This relic from the sixties stalled frequently on our way from the airport, and wouldn't start again until our moustachioed
driver fiddled with a few things under the hood. Dov and I joked about driving in this wreck to Armenia in August. And so
Thursday morning, as I carried my bag into the streets of Tbilisi, I was both amused and concerned to see the very same
driver, in the very same Volga, waiting to take us to the Armenian border.
Like most things in the former Soviet Union, the car looked like it was about to fall to pieces, but it somehow did the job.
Our driver was a former chemistry teacher, and he had jerry-rigged the beast with methane tanks in the trunk which he used
as an alternative to gasoline. As he explained the physics of methane combustion we crawled towards the Armenian border on
back roads where lanes are completely irrelevant - you drive wherever you can, in any lane or sidewalk, on thin
strips of asphalt between cavernous potholes.
I have always liked to cross state lines by road. The landscape is identical on either side of the border, but language and
people change so suddenly it seems somewhat arbitrary. We crossed the no-mans land between Georgia and Armenia near
Bagratashen. We agreed to meet the same car and driver at this very place on September 1st, and stepped into Armenia
where another man was waiting to take us the rest of the way, to Yerevan.
The landscape changed quite suddenly as we drove through a valley between rocky slopes. Men sold peaches on the side of the road.
We drove through Spitak, the epicenter of the 1988 earthquake, and up through planes of dry, yellow hay. Flocks of sheep,
beehives and dark gray boulders were peppered across the landscape. In the distance, Mount Ararat - visible from Western
Armenia but inaccessible behind the Turkish border. As we approached Yerevan, I remembered a joke somebody told us in
Georgia. The story takes place in Soviet times. The government of Turkey sends a note to Moscow asking why the Republic of
Armenia has Mount Ararat on its flag although the mountain is in Turkey. The Soviet government responds with a question to
Ankara: "Why do you have a moon crescent on your flag even though the Moon belongs to us?"
We will spend a few days in the Armenian capital preparing for our third and last visit to a de facto, non-recognized
state - the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. I have heard that this "mountainous black garden" is beautiful and that its
people are strong and determined. And I wonder if recognition and full-fledged statehood for the Karabakhi is as close yet
unattainable as are the Moon and Mount Ararat in the Soviet story.
posted by Eric Baudelaire at 4:22 PM
Sunday, August 13, 2000
When does something exist, and when does it not exist?
Samuel Huntington, an academic at Harvard, argues that the bipolar struggle of the Cold War has been replaced by a 'clash of civilizations.'
Different civilizations coexist in tension in a new multi-polar world. There's a Western Christian civilization, an
Eastern Asiatic civilization, a Slavic Orthodox world, and a Muslim civilization. Wars arise at the frontiers of these
civilizations, where the lines of allegiance are unclear. Where different civilizations are mixed. These are
seismic points. How else can we understand the Yugoslav wars of dissolution? How could the weakened Soviet civilization
withstand such internal pressures?
In the cozy comfort of the Western academic world, Huntington's views have been rejected in a great clamor of spoons and
The Caucasus. If ever Huntington's argument worked, it would be here. From the North, wild
Cossacks and Russian troops. To the South, two great empires Persian and Ottoman. In between, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Armenia claims to be the first Christian nation. In 2001, it will celebrate 1700 years of Christianity. Georgia has a similar
claim. But Georgia also has a significant Muslim minority in Ajaria and Abkhazia. Azerbaijan is a Muslim country. Since
1990, how may wars have been fought in the Caucasus? Six. All of these wars contain civilizational clashes. In the West, a
clash of civilizations does not exist.
We spent the day at Lake Sevan, high in the Armenian mountains. A friend of a friend drove us there. He has classic
Armenian features. He is not a tall man. He is compact and built with economy for endurance. There is a toughness to him.
His arms are adorned with tattoos. His eyes are light brown and fierce at times. He wears a thick moustache that turns up
at the ends. All day we talked. He is unemployed and has been so for years. "I am a fighter, what else can do," he said,
"that is all that I know."
In 1990, when he was twenty eight, he left his village high in the Armenian mountains and went to Karabakh to fight the
"Turks." Turks and Azeris are the same thing for him. Two years later, he was already a commander. He fought in every single
battle of the war.
"Tomorrow, when we will drive to Karabakh, you will see. I will show exactly where and how the war was fought. I will show
He took us to two small churches that lie above Lake Sevan. We arrived in time to witness a ceremony outside to bless the
Armenian land. On a table in the sun, people placed small packets of white grapes. The head priest chanted and read from
an old bible. Brown faced young monks, dressed in blue, formed a circle around him. Two of them carried an image of Christ.
People crowded around watching and waiting. After the blessing, the grapes were distributed. Everyone moved towards the
table. I stood to the outside hesitant. An old woman came up to me and gave me a small package. They were hard and sweet.
"This nation is a nation of believers. This is why we have always had to fight the Turks. And we will always fight them."
Our friend glanced at me quickly and laughed. He lit another cigarette in the blinding light.
Over lunch, I asked him how they won the war against the Azeris. He looked at me, confused.
"How could we not win? They have no faith. They are sheep. They had no idea what they were fighting for. They came at us and
we mowed them down. They are sheep. They are a stupid people."
He talked later about the growing role of the United States in the Caucasus. "This is a bad thing for us." Why?
"The Americans should support us, but they don't. They support the Turks. Russia is our only savior. Only she will defend us
to last against the Turks. We have the same faith. We have always worked together here to fight off the Muslims, and we
always will. Russia needs us as much as we need them."
"Poor Armenia," his laugh had bitterness. "We are the last Christian position in the Caucasus. We are surrounded by Turks
and by enemies. Still we will fight. We always will."
Is this clash of civilizations real then? His faith is stone hard. Does this mean that it exists? I remain uncertain. I
cannot yet understand this. I feel dazed after today. I am not used to this Armenian light. I am wind swept and sun burnt.
I cannot say.
posted by Dov Lynch at 7:41 PM
Wednesday, August 16, 2000
For Armenians, the road from Yerevan to Stepanakert is a symbolic one. From the day Stalin drew the map of the Caucasus as
Commissar of Nationalities, the predominantly Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh was formally integrated as an autonomous
region inside the Azerbaijani SSR. The Lachin corridor, a thin strip of predominantly Azeri populated territory, stood
between Karabakh and the Armenian SSR. Soviet ideology sought to erode the notion of an 'Armenian Nation' by formally
disrupting its territorial contiguity. And so, when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 and former Soviet Socialist Republics
transformed themselves into nation states, Karabakh found itself inside Azerbaijan an independent and increasingly
The politics of what the Armenians call self-determination and the Azeris call separatism eventually escalated into a
full-scale war. During several years of bitter fighting, Karabakh was effectively cut off from Armenia until the Karabakhtsi
guerrillas seized the Lachin corridor and the Azeri villages inside it. Territorial contiguity with Armenia proper was
critical for Karabakh to win the war. Today, a brand new road winds through Eastern Armenia, the occupied territories of
Lachin, and on to Stepanakert capital of the de facto independent Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. It is continuous, devoid
of borders and checkpoints, and is tended like a lifeline: by far the best road we have seen in the Caucasus.
Two days ago we drove on this road. We crossed the Armenian plateau and briefly stopped on the very edge of Armenia to see
the small captured Lachin valley, and beyond it, the mountains of Karabakh. Our driver was the same man who had taken us to
Lake Sevan the previous day. He wore the strong, obligatory walrus moustache of the Armenian freedom fighter. As he drove,
he told stories of war with passion and spoke of politics with bitterness. His short, knotty forearms were covered in crude
tattoos, and the fingernails of his little fingers were deliberately kept long. I wondered about the significance of these
symbols but felt I would be trespassing if I asked. He is a hard and proud man, a Dashnak a century old ultra-nationalist
party. His world is full mysteries. Sometimes, when we passed a car, he winked at us and said, "He is also a Dashnak." We
asked him how he knew, but he would not tell, and only hinted at certain signs that he could recognize.
We found out that he had spent three years in jail after the war, but it took us a day to ask him why. He remained elusive,
and told us that when he was arrested the police found twenty-five weapons at his home. Later that night he spoke of an
assassination attempt on Ter Petrossian, Armenia's former president, who was getting soft in negotiating with Azerbaijan.
Because of this he cannot work. And so he drives people in his car to support his three children. A few years ago he was the
respected commander of two hundred men.
We drove through rocky canyons and steep valleys, and stopped at the sites of important battles. We heard tales of
Armenians capturing tanks with simple rifles, and cowardly 'Turks' (commonly substituted for 'Azeris') fleeing without a
fight. We saw completely abandoned and destroyed Azeri villages near Lachin, and learned how the valley had been "cleaned,"
village by village. The land was captured in an age-old battle between Christian and Muslim a sense of destiny that
seventy odd years of Soviet style Socialism have in no way diminished.
In the early stages of the war, Azeri television showed an Armenian woman living in an Azeri village speak about how safe
she felt and how friendly the villagers were to her. Eventually the Armenian guerrillas seized that village. With an
enigmatic tone, our driver told us, "At the end of the war, she lost her head." I don't think he meant that she had gone
mad. I understood him literally. And for the first time in six weeks I found that I had suddenly lost the fragile but
crucial distance of the outside observer. I looked around at the shattered walls of a cleansed village and was overtaken by
an overwhelming nausea. I stepped away to move out of hearing range. It was very difficult to go back to the car where more
war stories would be told. During the last few miles to Stepanakert, I was grateful that my Russian was insufficient to fully
understand what was being said.
We have been in Karabakh for two days now, and I am relieved that the pace has been slow. The young people who will
interpret for us here did not fight in the war. They are part of a new generation of Armenians who live with harsh memories
but still look ahead rather than continuously reliving the past. Tomorrow I will be ready to go back to work, driving to
villages, meeting people and making photographs.
posted by Eric Baudelaire at 6:28 PM
On our first night in Stepanakert, Artemis took us to "Dead and Alive", a restaurant on the outskirts of the
town, near the cemetery. At one point in the evening, we heard the bleating of a donkey. The man who had
driven us from Yerevan laughed and nudged me with his elbow: "There is a real Karabakhtsi!" He had been born in Armenia near
Lake Sevan. Artemis was born in Tehran, and lived most of her life in Australia before coming to Karabakh during the war.
Real Karabakhtsi, he said, are as stubborn as donkeys. And as contrary. "You say one thing, a Karabakhtsi will say another!"
The following day, Eric and I walked through the central park of the town. Artemis had said that the park fills up in the
evenings with people strolling, kids riding on rusty mechanical rides, all seeking to escape the heat. The park was still
empty around six in the evening. In one lane of the park, three old women sat on low walls selling sunflower seeds. We
walked past the first two and for some reason stopped at the third. I bought a newspaper cone filled with salted seeds.
Behind us the second old woman started complaining loudly in Armenian. Our lady smiled at me and said in Russian: "She is
asking why have you stopped to buy them off me." Eric walked over to the second woman and bought a double cone of seeds.
The third lady starts to talk. She is eighty-four years old, and wears a black shawl over her hair. Her eyes are all iris;
a thin circle of blue gives away an original hue. She is small and well put together. She is proud of her Russian. "A clean
pure Russian," she says. Her husband died in the Great Patriotic War, half a century ago. She has two sons. "Do they take
care of you?" I ask. She looks to the sky and raises her hands.
"Oh my son! You do not know how good he is to me." She bends over and hikes her skirt a little. "I fell down. Two months I
lay in bed. My son. I am eighty-four, he is sixty-one. My son he came to me and washed my feet every day. I wish every
mother to have a son like him. I am so lucky!" What of the other son, I thought.
"Yes" she says, touching my arm gently, almost not at all, "I cannot complain. I have a one-room apartment across from the
police station. Please God, come to visit me!" We take her address and promise to come.
"You are bored with my conversation." She smiles. We protest: No, this is why we have to come to Karabakh. "Ah. Let me tell
you about this government." At one point, the Karabakh government decided to stop providing privileges to the wives of men
who had died in the Second World War. These men had died for an illegal state that no longer exists. Those families affected
by the recent war with Azerbaijan were now to get first priority in money and government support.
"Can you believe this?" she says, her eyes all dark now. "I went to them three years ago. I needed an apartment. In 1996,
nobody got new apartments. But I went to the Housing Committee and petitioned them for a new apartment. How dare they stop
supporting the wives of those who died in the Second World War!"
Her hand rests on my arm. It is like the touch of a bird.
"I went to the Committee and entered the room. The Chairman shouted at me in this deep voice." She imitates him. "Shut that
door!" She did not move. "He shouted again: 'Shut that door!' a second time and I stood there." He shouted a third time. "I
said to him, how can you speak to somebody like that?" "Shut that door!" A fourth time. "This time, I said to him: I will
close that door but I hope to God that your doors are always shut! And that your wife ends up selling sunflower seeds like
I do!" She slammed the door and left.
After this she went to the town's Military Commissariat and spoke to a man there. He agreed with her. The men of the Second
World War deserved the same honors as those who had died in the war with Azerbaijan. She got her apartment. It is across
from the police station on the main street. During the day she sells sunflower seeds below her apartment. In the evening
after four she comes to the park.
She laughs now. "I told him: 'Let your doors always be shut!' Two weeks later, you know, he lost his job! I see him now
because he lives nearby. Hello, he says to me. Hello, I say." She winks at me. "I tell him that my doors are always open
Today, Eric and I visited the town called Shushi. Shushi stands at 1400 meters, looking directly over Stepanakert at 800
meters. The Azeris shelled Stepanakert continuously for six months at the start of the war. In Stepanakert, people lived
in basements. In May 1992, Karabakhtsi forces seized Shushi. Sitting at such heights, the Azeri forces fled in shock at
the audacity of the Karabakh attack. Shushi could not be taken, and it had been. We drove through the remnants of a once
beautiful city. In the past it was one of the most striking in the Caucasus. Stone cobbled streets. At the end of each a
mountain view. Byzantine architecture. Now, houses remain but they have been burnt through. The town is a blackened shell
of the past. The streets are empty. Some three thousand Armenians live there. But there is nothing to live from.
Two friends that I had made on my last trip to Karabakh, young men called Robert and Artur, took us to one of the mosques
of Shushi. The building remained but it had been destroyed inside. The two minarets remained standing. Eric and I climbed
one of them. We rose through a darkness marked by thin splinters of light. From outside, the minaret had not
seemed so tall. The stairs were so narrow. My hands passed over the brick walls. As we rose, I could hear the wind blowing.
I felt dizzy. The walls seemed to tremble under my hands. My breathing was light. I stopped and looked at the worn brick
around me. Had the mullahs also felt this when they rose through this darkness? A lightness of light and air. Was there
magic left in these walls?
A little later, Robert introduced us to a childhood friend who lives in Shushi. A young man named David. David has very
dark skin and is tall. He is good looking and gives off a smell of cigarettes and small rooms. He is the Director of the
Shushi museum. "The museum is closed now but would you like to visit it? I have the key and can show you around. I think
that it is important that you come."
We drove up a steep cobbled street. A house appeared around a corner. It stood alone surrounded by a garden and gate. Whose
house was this, I asked. "A general's before the revolution." Time slipped for a moment. Which general? Which revolution?
As we walked towards the house, David told me: "You are a scholar. I am one also. I will show you what I have done. Are you
interested in the history of Shushi of a century ago? I am. I will show you."
We walked up wooden stairs and entered the second floor of the house. David took us into his office. It was filled with
books and papers, and overflowing ashtrays. On the ground there was a rug from 1929 showing Lenin with the first leader of
the Azeri Soviet Republic. "I put it on the ground especially!" said David laughing at the worn and dirty carpet. I stood
in the center of this room and all of a sudden felt at home. The wooden floors were worn smooth, bookshelves sagging,
scattered papers, a rusty teapot in the corner. On the windowsill, a young plant struggled for light through yellowing
windows. David opened his archives. Old photographs of the inhabitants of Shushi from a century ago. Where had he found
these? Somewhere in the remnants of this burnt town. In which attic room, which family trunk had these been taken from?
Strange faces. Small bodies. Azeri and Armenian. This town had always been mixed.
I looked at David as he pulled out more papers and photographs. No one comes to this museum. Somehow he had become the
museum director. He took it upon himself to record the architectural history of this town that has been destroyed. He
showed us pictures of the town as it was a century ago.
"Look at this beauty." He is compiling reports on the architecture of Shushi. Each house will have a 'passport' with its own
history, plans and photos. David wants to show that Armenians also lived in Shushi and that it was not only an Azeri town.
David struggles with a history that lies beyond his reach. I feel the hours that he has spent collecting these papers. The
abandoned houses that he has gone through. I look at him and understand the love that he has for this room, the books, the
ashes, the light coming in from the two windows. His desire to collect material. David and his photos. David and his archives.
This is the world that he is constructing. He is building it from nothing - family albums, photo scraps. How much ash does he
breathe in when he rummages through the burnt remnants of Shushi? I see the stubbornness in his eyes. David would reforge
this town. But outside Shushi stands in utter ruin.
posted by Dov Lynch at 6:30 PM
Sunday, August 20th, 2000
The pace of our days remains slow. We are still trying to find a rhythm here, but things feel very different than in
Abkhazia. We have had many meetings, including one with the Prime Minister. Officially, we have permission to go anywhere,
photograph anything. In reality things haven't quite been so easy and I am not sure why.
In Abkhazia, either a complete lack of organization, or a somewhat desperate need for outside interest translated into
relative freedom of movement for Dov and me. Outside of a few obviously sensitive military installations, I was free to
photograph. But there have been a lot more visitors here. Journalists, photographers and TV crews. There is a sense of
orchestration in the way we are being driven around and what we are being told. I have tried to move away from the Foreign
Ministry organized visits, but found that the humanitarian organizations in Stepanakert the same ones we worked with in
Sukhumi will not help us. Perhaps they have had bad experiences with photographers in the past. They are building
infrastructures in an unrecognized state an act that can be seen as lending legitimacy to Karabakh's claims to statehood.
Perhaps they fear their missions in Azerbaijan will be closed down if their work in Karabakh is shown in print.
What has worked so far is to improvise a visit to a village, walk around, and wait for something to happen. If you give it
enough time, something usually does. On Friday we went to Karintak where old stone houses cling to the side of the mountain.
During the war, Karintak was heavily bombed, like Stepanakert, by Azeri Grad missiles lobbed daily from the heights of
Shushi. Today it is mostly rebuilt. As Dov went to speak with the mayor, I sat down in the main square and watched old men
play nardy, which looks like backgammon but has different rules. They played what they call "the long game," where pieces
are all lined up in one long row at the beginning, and each player races them around the board. The old men slammed the
wooden piece pieces down on each turn. The dice, tossed negligently on the board, are immediately snatched up by the
opponent. You must be quick to count and move your pieces. For a full hour, the oldest man won every game, chain-smoking
his cigarettes from a wooden holder.
Yesterday we drove up north to Martakert, a garrison town just a few miles from the cease-fire line. From the fifth floor
of the region's administrative building we could see Azerbaijan. On the way back to Stepanakert, the road passes near the
occupied territories and abandoned Azeri villages. Armenians like to point out that the Azeri cemeteries were not destroyed.
The long and narrow tombstones stand in the tall dry grass. There is nobody left to tend to them - only a few Azeris remain
in Karabakh, mostly in mixed marriages. All around the cemeteries, only the white walls of empty houses remain.
I wanted to take a picture of these empty villages. From inside the car I raised my camera, but the young man who was
driving looked at me sternly and said "No pictures." At first I thought he was joking. The villages lie blatantly
along the road for miles. It is no secret that Karabakh is now an entirely Armenian land. I told the driver that I was
granted permission to photograph by the Prime Minister who had told me, just a few days before, "We have no secrets in
Karabakh." But somehow the act of taking a photograph here had become confrontational and partisan. I became confused,
unable to decide what to do. My task here is to photograph this place as I see it. Its people, but also the traces of those
who have left.
A few miles further, we drove past Agdam. Ten years ago, Agdam was a large and prosperous Azeri city, just outside Karabakh.
During the war it was captured, and today it stands in the occupied territories, completely deserted. A ghost town by all
accounts. I made a symbolic attempt to photograph the town from the distance of the road, but this time our driver insisted,
and asked me not to. He told me that he had instructions. He became uneasy and beads of sweat accumulated on his forehead.
On the one hand, we paid him to drive us and enable our project. On the other, he had a sense of personal duty and explicit
orders he was not sure how to enforce. And as if to prevent me from making any attempts with my camera, he accelerated at
breakneck speed past Agdam 80, 100, 130 kilometers per hour on a barely paved road. I put my camera in my bag and remained
perplexed at the idea that these looted villages and the ruins of this city remain there, in plain site to any visitor, but
somehow should not be recorded.
In the late afternoon, Dov and I sometimes stroll to the stadium to watch the football team train, or the army reservists
work out. At night we talk about the history of the Caucasus, how the pieces of this mosaic have been arranged and
rearranged over the years. There is something tragic about villages fighting each other after periods of peace, and
there is something patently unfair about people being forced to leave the land on which they were born. But there is also
something convincing about the argument that the only way to end the violence of war is to separate the parties regardless
of how this separation occurs. All the same, I remain puzzled by the contradiction between the Karabakhtsi pride of having
fought to survive and build a country, and their clumsy secrecy and unease towards the reality of the Azeri exodus,
and the traces left behind which have not been erased, rebuilt or repopulated.
posted by Eric Baudelaire at 6:32 PM
We left early yesterday morning for a long drive to the north of Karabakh. A young man drove us, and we were accompanied by
a young woman from the Foreign Ministry. We worked our way up into the mountains along paths that were sometimes only sand and
small stones. Our first stop was Gandsazar. Gandsazar is a church built in the tenth century. It stands high on the side of
a mountain surrounded by trees. I had visited Gandsazar two years ago by helicopter and was familiar with its story. The
young priest had remained in the church during the war. Azeri troops and villagers below in the valley had sought several
times to destroy the church.
Our driver looked at me and said in that high voice of a young man who has not found his authority: "It was bombed by Azeri
planes in the war. One bomb fell right on the church but it did not go off." This is a miracle, I said. "Yes, it was." I
recall a similar tale in Abkhazia. Why do bombs never explode in Caucasian churches?
From Gandsazar we drove down into the plain that leads to the north of Karabakh. Follow that plain and it will lead all the
way to Baku. I imagine that dry city on the Caspian all lead and black in the heat. The road led us through former
Azeri villages, past house after house, burnt, roofless, windows gone. Two men and a young boy looked at us as we passed.
I saw a woman running up ahead. Three other women walked along the side of the road. One of the women carried a cake.
"Oh! A birthday!" said the lady from the Ministry, clapping her hands next to me.
The northern town of Martakert changed hands several times in the war. Each time the local population fled from the attack.
Many houses have been rebuilt. Basic infrastructure has been restored. But the town has suffered too much. The first
approach is one of destroyed homes, rusted oil barrels, and overgrown trenches. Once inside, only soldiers walk down these
dusty streets. Martakert feels like an outpost sealing off a cordon in the dry mind of a mapmaker. It is held. The line has
been drawn. I imagine small quick hands coloring in the charts.
The administration building stands on the outskirts of the town. The Governor's office is on the top floor. The first Azeri
village in Azerbaijan is three miles away. In case of an attack this building would be the first to be destroyed. Who
decided that the administration would be placed here? Did this Governor choose this position as some heroic gesture to the
Azeris across the front line, and for the local population?
The Governor of the Region was expecting us. We were led into his office and sat down at a table before his main desk.
The lady from the Ministry handed him a letter. The Governor had yet to acknowledge us. He took the letter, and tore open the
official stamp. Somewhere on his desk he found his glasses. He read the letter slowly. The afternoon was hot. What message
have we brought? What is our news?
He finished reading and then stood up and shook our hands. He then sat down and looked at me. I looked back at him. I felt
dry and thirsty. We smiled at each other. "Do you have any questions?" he asked.
"Yes. I am very interested in Martakert. Would you please tell me about the region, the town, its population?"
He looked down at his hands. They were blunt and dark. The nails on his little fingers had been left to grow.
"I can tell you nothing. You are writing a book." He pointed at my notepad and pen. "What you write will be read by our
enemies. I cannot tell you these things."
I rested back into the chair. "Fine, I understand. What kind of questions may I ask about Martakert?"
"I am willing to answer specific questions." There was a slight tremor in his hands. Out the window, the town looked dry,
uncomfortable, sitting below the mountains, at the edge of the great plain.
"How can I know which specific questions that I am allowed to ask?"
The moment held in silence. "You must ask specific questions."
I looked out the window again. "Let us say that I know nothing about Martakert and that I am very interested in knowing more.
What would you want me to know that I am allowed to know?"
He smiled now. Ah, he saw an opening at last. The Governor started to tell the story of the birth of the Karabakh
independence movement. I placed my pen on the table, looked at him and then out the window. After five minutes, I stopped
"Please, when you come to work in the morning, what is the first thing that you do? What is the order of priorities to your
He stopped. "What do you mean?"
"What do you think about most? Economics, security?"
He looked at me somewhat surprised. "First, there is security. Second the economy. Third, there is the military."
Coffee was brought in. I smiled at Eric. "Au moins, on aura un café!" Eric whispered back: "Ask him why he grows the nails
on his little finger so long." The Governor told us at one point that the first violin had been made in this region long
before our era. Eric and I nodded in approval.
Thirty minutes later, as we drove out of town back towards the capital, I remembered visiting the previous governor of the
same region two years ago. He was a young Armenian, a Dashnak from the French Diaspora. We had spoken in French. In his
office there had been a bookcase filled with "Que Sais-Je?" books. One of them was of Sun Tsu's The Art of War. It
occurred to me then that it was this previous governor who had placed the administration building so close to the front
line. He had chosen the office on the top floor. Not the man that I had just met.
The day before our trip to Martakert, Eric and I visited a small village. That morning, another young woman in the Foreign
Ministry had told us about a small church that had been rebuilt by young adults from the Diaspora. The church was in the
officially designated Heroic Village of Karintak. We drove down into the village on a cleared path that clung to the
mountain. Just before we left, a young woman from the Ministry had given me a letter to give to the mayor of the village.
"Do not worry. It is about the group of Diaspora volunteers. They are arriving tonight from Yerevan to open the church on
Sunday." The letter rested inside my breast pocket. I felt somehow purposeful because of this letter. As we drove down, I
found my hand feeling the letter my pocket.
We arrived in the village. Behind the main store, a group of old men played nardy. I asked them where I could find the
Mayor. "Grisha," one man said. "He lives on the other side. Walk down and then ask anybody for Grisha." Eric stayed with
the old men while I walked around the corner towards a small path leading away from the square. A young man stopped near me.
"Wait here. Grisha is coming. Someone went for him when you drove in." A few minutes later, I watched a man in his forties
approaching the path. He stopped before me. I handed him the letter. He looked at me and opened the letter. He turned his
back from me in some ancient mayoral gesture of protection.
He finished reading, looked at me and then walked away. I waited a second and then followed. He led me around the corner
and down another stone cobbled path. He stopped at a low house, took out a large key and opened a huge rusted lock. We
entered his office and sat down. The room was small. The floors were made of rough wood. There was one desk; fifteen chairs
stood along the wall. In the middle of the room was a wood stove. A light bulb hung from the ceiling. The walls were
empty except for a large map of Karabakh and the occupied territories. On the table to the right there sat a wooden abacus.
Throughout our conversation, his right hand strayed to the abacus, his fingers playing with the wooden beads, counting off
our words, recording the conversation in strange absent-minded equations.
At first he told me about the church. "Everything was destroyed. We need a church. It is good to have." He wore dark
trousers and a black shirt. His skin was tanned with the sun. He leaned over this desk. He spoke loudly and enjoyed
talking. His eyes looked like those of some predator bird.
"I must admit that I am atheist. Forty years of Soviet communism. How can I believe? I believe in myself and nothing else.
My family. My children." He laughed and seemed to move closer to me across the desk. "The church opening? I am happy because
I arranged for there to be a wedding at the same time! That is good. This, I believe in!"
He told me about the village. He has slowly rebuilt it seven years after the war. Water had been put in. Electricity also.
There is a direct phone line to Stepanakert. There are 617 people in the village, far larger than any other in the region.
There is a school. "We have 101 kids. All of them go to our school from the lowest to the highest classes." He laughed and
yelled. He counted everything out on the abacus.
A silence fell. I got up and walked to the window. Had I taken too much of his time? "No, no. Sit. Let us rest awhile."
We sat in silence in the bare room. He told me about the work that he still had to do. "So much left. Gas must be put in.
And the real problem is that one third of the village has no job." We sat back again in silence. He had a plan for a bank
for small agricultural farmers. They need rates that are in tune with farming - long and drawn out, low. He rested again.
"Yes, we are back on the path to life again. The Motherland starts here!" He laughed and stared at me. He yelled it again:
"Karabakh starts here!" He picked up the telephone and shouted down the line something about potatoes, cucumbers and
aubergine. I had been invited to dinner yet no open invitation had been made. He closed the mayor's office and we walked
back to the square. We came across Eric sitting on the bench with the old men. He was playing backgammon.
We were taken to the mayor's house. His wife was out so his daughter was busy preparing food. The main room of the house was
spare, with one table in the middle, a television to one side, a school desk in one corner. We played backgammon. He slammed
the pieces down on the board and we ate nuts. Not much was said. Later we washed our hands in the garden. When we returned
the table was full of tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, bread. Two bottles of vodka stood in the middle. We sat down and he
raised a first toast to Karabakh. "The Motherland starts here!" he shouted, laughing, his eyes alight.
His daughter, young and proud, served us without looking at us. His wife arrived later. Her face was also beautiful, her
voice as strong as her husband's. She took out a pile of photos from the drawer of the school desk in the corner of the room.
Her, young. Him, a young man in Moscow. Her as a teacher. Her students. His brother, killed in the war. She was a school
teacher before the war. The Mayor looked at us, winking. "When she says something, she knows what she is saying."
A young boy flew into the room, into his mother's arms. His name is Gor. The name means Prince.
"Look at him. He is five. He is already a Prince. A little Prince." The mayor laughed and kissed his son.
posted by Dov Lynch at 6:38 PM
Wednesday, August 23, 2000
We had arrived late for a meeting with Artemis. She was already there with her friends, Gagik and Michael. We sat drinking
beer around a table in a bar not far from the government buildings, talking about spies. Gagik, a big man in every way,
is convinced that we are spies. "You come to Karabakh and ask to see the Front Line, and the Defence Ministry accepts!
Come on! And you speak Russian!" We laughed. The joke was stale a week ago. Artemis left the table and went to speak to an
older man sitting alone on the other side of the little garden. She returned and asked us whether we would like to speak to
the Deputy Head of the region of Shaumian. The Shaumian region is at the northern tip of Karabakh and remains in Azeri hands.
We sat down at his table and he started speaking in Armenian. Artemis translated for us. He seemed altogether this man,
and then not quite. Perhaps he had been sitting here for some time already, drinking quietly. He looked at us only once
or twice during our conversation. He spoke no Russian or English. He was Diaspora Armenian from Iran. He had been put in
jail under the Shah for anti-Turkish activity and then again after the Revolution. He was heavy and wore a thick moustache.
He smoked red Marlboros one after the other. The cigarettes looked tiny in his hands.
I had heard that the administration of the Shaumian region now worked in exile and was based in the northern areas of
Karabakh. He drew a picture of the region for us.
Before the war, 150,000 Armenians had lived in the region. Now all had fled. Most had left Armenia for Russia and
other parts of the former Soviet Union. But many remained in the northern parts of Karabakh. In Soviet times, two
administrative districts separated Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia, Lachin and Kelbajar. During the war, Karabakh forces had
seized all of these territories. The Karabakh government now sought to repopulate them with Armenian refugees from
Azerbaijan. One of the key issues in the negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan concerns these occupied territories
and their possible return to Azerbaijan. But Karabakh considers these territories liberated, not occupied. The Karabakh
government seeks to buy time in the negotiations while a fait accompli can be created on the ground. Armenians have to
return to Kelbajar for this strategy to work.
The Deputy Head explained that right after the war a few villages in the neighboring region of Martakert had been renamed
'Shaumian'. This was where the administration in exile was originally situated and where the refugees were to live. After
initial negotiations with Azerbaijan on the possible return of the occupied territories, the Karabakh government decided to
transfer the administration and the people of Shaumian to Kelbajar.
Their aim was clear. In the negotiations, Karabakh would struggle for the withdrawal of Azeri troops from the Shaumian
region of Karabakh. On the ground in Kelbajar, in territories occupied by Karabakh troops, where tens of thousands of
Azeris had lived before the war, a new Shaumian was to be created.
The villages that were Azeri before the war and that were lost to Karabakh forces are called Green Villages. The name has
its origins in the 1920s when the new Soviet Union was being built. Armenian villages in the region were Red Villages and
the Azeri, Green. Throughout Karabakh, the Green Villages have been destroyed. Some Armenian families have moved into
houses built from the remnants of Azeri homes that have been razed. But these families are there because they have no other
choice. They are a desperate lot.
The entire Kelbajar region is Green. There were few Armenians there before the war. The Azeri government made sure that
Azeris and non-Armenians populated the strip of land separating Karabakh from Armenia. Now, the Karabakh government faces a
dilemma in Kelbajar.
These lands cannot be returned to Azerbaijan. They are the strategic link between Armenia and Karabakh. To discourage even
talk of an Azeri return, there should be no houses for the pre-war Azeri population to return to. At the same time the
government wants Armenians to repopulate this area. There is no money to help them return and set up new lives. The region
has been devastated.
The military imperative of keeping the area dead for Azeris clashes with the political need to rebuild it with Armenians.
"Nothing higher than one story buildings remains in the region. All the bridges have been blown up by our troops." The
Deputy Head lit another cigarette. "Beer? Drink, drink?" he pointed at us.
"What do you know about Pan-Turkism?" he asked. I remembered that Turan, the idea of reuniting all the Turkish lands, had
been raised by Turkey in a brief moment of euphoria after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Turkey was to lead all the
former Turkic lands that had been held captive by Soviet rule. The idea has fallen by the wayside. Turkey has no money.
Turkey's future lies in Europe.
The man waved his hand. His cigarette glowed in the dark.
"In an international strategy that started 500 years ago, Turkey sought to seize all the land to China. Only Armenia stood
in its way. Pan-Turkism is still alive. It endangers Armenia, it endangers Russia and the whole world." Artemis translated.
"Do you remember the mullahs in Spain?" he asked. "Do you want this again?"
This morning we went to the front line with the Defence Ministry. We drove up out of the valley of Stepanakert towards the
Martuni Region. We crested a low mountain range and then drove over stone roads to the line. We were met by the Commander
of the Military Region, who then drove us out in a Russian jeep. The land was sun beaten and dusty. Not far from the line,
the Commander raced the jeep at 80 then 90 kilometers an hour. We were exposed to Azeri troops, he said. The Commander was
like some ancient man of the mountains, here to seize the plains. He was short and bent over, his face beaten and drawn. He
had large ears that stuck out and were deeply tanned. He could live without water. He would grow in this dusty earth. We
walked hunched over through the trenches and stood at a protected look-out post. Through the metal slit, I saw the Azeri
line three hundred meters away.
This is the front line with the Turks. This snake-ridden land. The sun beat without mercy. My face felt dry and smooth.
What was time in this land? How can the centuries go by so quickly? Five hundred years ago. Time and space were out of
joint. Had the sun been so merciless in Spain? I felt inconstant to this land. I am here and I will leave. This land will
remain without water. These stones. This dust. These men. They will remain.
posted by Dov Lynch at 6:39 PM
On each leg of this journey we have persistently sought to visit the line that divides the de facto from the
metropolitan state. For the most part we are chasing symbols. The front line is the visible demarcation between people who
have fought each other and have yet to reach a permanent settlement. It is the line along which the fighting will start
again. In Transdniestria and Abkhazia, it is a fuzzy line a zone where Russian peacekeepers are stationed, and through which
farmers pass to harvest chestnuts or sell vegetables at a market on the other side. In Karabakh, the cease-fire line is
firmly drawn, straight across scorched land. There is no buffer zone. There are no peacekeeping troops. Simply two rows of
trenches facing each other, a few hundred meters apart, for hundreds of kilometers.
When this war started, the fighting erupted between houses in a same village, or between Green and Red villages in a same
valley. Hundreds of skirmishes between people whose lives, for better or worse, were linked by history, commerce, and daily
acquaintance. Today the Green villages are empty shells, and the only point of contact between Armenians and Azeris happens
across the line where conscripts in their teens face each other under a blistering sun. We were told that occasionally shots
are fired - snipers trying to pick off an inattentive soldier standing too tall in the shallow trenches. I imagine that
these shots have as much to do with fighting boredom than testing enemy defences.
We raced, hunched over, through a narrow maze of trenches, took a peek at the Azeri positions, and passed two sentries huddled
in a dark dugout. I was told not to photograph over the fortifications: my lens would catch the sunrays, and snipers would
see us. Time seemed to stop. We could be in the Dardanelles, facing Turkish positions in 1916.
We headed back to the shelled building where the bulk of the front line soldiers kill time in the shade. Under the impassive
gaze of the diminutive major, a sergeant inspected a company of men and led them in a defensive drill that I could
photograph. The conscripts ran and fell flat on their stomachs, rifles pointing towards an invisible enemy. Sweat poured
down from under helmets onto young faces. None of these men fought in the war. They were part of a new generation that had
inherited the task of fighting for Karabakh from their fathers and older brothers. They looked nothing like the tough,
moustachioed war veterans who sit on the terrace of the Asbar café in Stepanakert every night reminiscing about the
guerrilla war they waged seven years ago.
Karabakh has fundamentally changed since those days. Most of the conscripts at the front are from Armenia. Those who are
from Karabakh have grown up without meeting an Azeri in years. The Soviet days are distant childhood memories.
I worry that time does not work in favor of a peaceful settlement in Karabakh. How can two populations coexist when there
are no more shared memories of times of peace, only tales of terror, war, and trenches separating them?
The people we speak to here seem content to wait, man the front line, and hold out while new roads are built, Green villages
dismantled and the territories resettled with Armenians. But I have also heard stories that at dusk, when there are no
officers in the trenches, soldiers from each side wave a special flag and meet in the middle of no mans land to swap
trinkets and buy cigarettes.
posted by Eric Baudelaire at 6:42 PM
Saturday, August 26, 2000
He is my age. Thirty years old. His hands are like paws, swollen with work and the sun. Cut and scarred. He picks at a cut
on his right palm. He has scars down his right arm. Thick and angry. But his face is young. Look at him in the eyes and you
will see his age. His life has marked his body. But his face is strong still. "I no longer believe in anything," he says.
In the shadow of the small metal room, his eyes look at you and smile.
"You are my age! You are not my age. You are twenty. You look young. What have I done to be so different from you?"
I stood outside the metal kiosk in the sun. Armen came over to me and looked at me in the eyes. He said nothing. Then he
stuck out his hand. "Come in out of the sun," he pointed inside the kiosk.
Inside it was dark and cool. He placed a metal box in the middle and pointed for me to sit down. He pulled over another box
and sat in front of me. The room was so close that our knees almost touched. We sat in silence for a few minutes. Outside I
could almost see the heat rising with the dust. This was the village called Shosh. Before the war it had been an important
village with a prosperous state farm. During the war, it had lived under constant bombing from Azeri positions above in
Shushi. Most of the village had been destroyed. He had fought in the battle to take Shushi. "Look at my arm, these are the
"Dov, let's play chess, okay?" He went outside and returned with a small box. We sat in silence and played. He was quick
minded but not aggressive. He made two important mistakes to allow me to move forward. I looked at him after these two
moves. He looked up quickly and smiled. I smiled and took the pieces. I played softly. I returned the two mistakes to him.
He hesitated before taking my pieces and then did. We played a gentle game. There was respect only. It was a moment out of
the sun. Over the board the small pieces moved in a soft dance of friendship.
After some time, he talked to me. He liked my name and started every sentence with it. "Dov, you know I also want to travel.
But how can I travel like you do? I would like to leave this village." His spoke softly. There was no despair there. Only a
sense of fact. He had nothing, and nothing would change.
"Dov, we are the same age," he laughed. "Sometimes I wish that I had never been born in this village." He whispered now. I
looked at him. "I live with my parents. They are pensioners. They get 3000 drams a month (six dollars). How can we live on
that? I have no job. I buy my cigarettes with their pension."
"I fought in the war. Things were clear then. Now, what do we have? Nothing. What did I fight for?"
Later we stood up and shook hands over the chessboard. He laughed and smiled. "You are an excellent player." I laughed and
said that he had taught me things. When I left the village, I saw him sitting on a bench in the shade. I waved at him. He
leaned forward and put his right arm into the air.
I interviewed the Foreign Minister yesterday for the second time. She is charming and intelligent. More than that, you feel
her ability for empathy. She is an attractive woman. She speaks softly and with a sense of control. There is fatigue in her
voice. Her eyes are tired. I had seen this in other officials in Karabakh and Abkhazia. But in her, it has a certain truth.
She sees the difficulty that Karabakh faces in its political and economic situation. She knows that Karabakh must change its
"We have won the war. Now we must win the peace." I asked what would it mean to lose the peace.
"To lose the peace would mean that we lose faith in the values for which we fought. The most important thing for the
authorities of this Republic is to restore the faith of the people in themselves and in the authorities." She pointed with
her chin towards the noise coming from the streets below. On the central street of Stepanakert, the government was building
a major underpass. The work had been ongoing for years now. There is no need for an underpass. Most people do not have cars.
There is no traffic in Karabakh. The former Defence Minister, Samvel Babayan, had forced this project onto the government.
Since last summer, the President of Karabakh has struggled with Babayan to secure the reins of state. Since the war, the
army has received the lion's share of privileges in this de facto state. The military has the largest part of the budget.
Real power in Karabakh lies with the military. Last summer, with the support of the Armenian President, Babayan was
sacked as Defence Minister. But he remained as Commander of the Armed Forces. An open struggle for power emerged. In
December 1999, the Karabakh President fired Babayan from the armed forces. The struggle moved underground. In March this
year, when returning home late at night, the President's car was attacked. His two bodyguards were severely wounded. The
President was shot in the legs several times. Babayan and all of his associates were rounded up and thrown in jail. The
trial is set to start next month.
The Foreign Minister continued. "It may seem to many that the Republic has come through the crisis years. But I think that
we stand now at a critical turning point. In recent years, the budget went to one man. I do not mean his pocket. But it went
to many illegal economic activities. In order to liberate the creativity of our people, the budget must work for all the
people of Karabakh."
She lit another thin cigarette and drew from it heavily. "The soldiers are our heroes. Yes. After a long history of tragedy,
we have won a war at last! But now we have to move to peaceful development. We have to build a civil society."
She was a woman of certitude. But her fatigue was palpable. She smoked slowly. I said that one man had been arrested. This
did not mean that all now accepted her point of view.
"Yes, this will require a qualitative change of mentality from all. All must recognize that the authorities are those chosen
by the people. We must move away from the military view, from the mentality of the generals."
The smoke collected above her desk. Outside gravel was being laid on the underpass. Soon asphalt would be poured.
She stopped me as I left the room. "Oh yes. You can go to Agdam. I have permission for you. Go there and see what you like.
Later I thought about what she had said. We could go to Agdam. Agdam is an Azeri city in the occupied territories. There is
nothing left of it. It has been completely destroyed and pillaged. Not one piece of scrap metal is left. All that could be
taken has been carted away to rebuild Stepanakert. Agdam lies at the heart of the victory of Karabakh in the war. It is also
the secret shame of the Karabakh state. An entire city has been levelled. Systematically and coldly. How did this happen? How
did they let this happen? Who had taken part in this? I saw images of medieval pillaging bands; fires burning, a city empty
of its former inhabitants. Agdam is the drunken trophy of a vicious war. It festers like a sore on the new Karabakh state.
The Foreign Minister had obtained the authorization for us to go from the Defence Ministry. Why had she done this? Were we to
show the world what had happened there? I remembered the fatigue in her look. The yellow cloud around her face. Was this to
be part of the qualitative shift that she called for in Karabakh? Perhaps she also thought that something terrible had
happened there. Did she see the need to open this wound?
posted by Dov Lynch at 6:44 PM
After two weeks in Karabakh, a visit to Agdam had become a minor obsession. We had asked the Prime Minister for
permission, and he had brushed the question aside saying it would be too dangerous: "There are snipers in Agdam." In off
the record conversations with expats from humanitarian organizations, we understood that the ruins of Agdam are an
extraordinary sight a dirty and poorly kept secret, a place that people were tacitly urging us to visit despite the
difficulties it entailed.
There were two ways to get to Agdam. The first was simply to hire a cab and drive there. Nobody would stop us. But it would
almost certainly be known, and the consequences were unclear. A few days ago, a friend advised us to do just that. She had
been and come back freely. Another acquaintance spoke of the eerie sense that although there is never anybody around in the
occupied territories, you feel observed. He said, "I knew a fellow who went there and photographed. There was nobody in
sight. On the road back to Stepanakert he was pulled over by the militia and his film was confiscated."
I remembered a clause in the paperwork we signed to get a visa to Karabakh. It stipulated that unauthorized photographing
would result in confiscation of film and camera equipment. Of course we needed to go to Agdam. And for me, going without
photographing, or photographing and being stripped of my film (in the most paranoid scenario, stripped of two months worth
of film) defeated the purpose of this journey. And so Dov and I opted for the second route to Agdam going with permission,
but at the cost of our freedom of movement.
Our guided visit to Agdam turned into a six-hour game of cat and mouse between Dov and me, and our chaperones - a Ministry
of Defence Lieutenant, and an officer from the Foreign Ministry. After so much resistance to granting us permission, why
were they taking us to Agdam? How would they control the photographing?
As we piled into the Jiguli, I had a mixed sense of anticipation and skepticism. The road from Stepanakert winds down into
the Agdam valley, and on to plains that stretch all the way to Baku. We passed a military convoy fresh troops rotating
into positions East of Agdam. These trucks packed with conscripts caused some commotion. The Lieutenant ordered our driver
to change course. We would not go to Agdam now. Instead we would drive to a village further north, and visit Agdam on the
way back, when the troop movements were finished. We had planned to visit a Green village where a few Armenians have
settled, to understand the repopulation of occupied territories but we had not planned to do this accompanied.
The Lieutenant explained the ground rules: no panoramic photographs, only close-ups. The official explanation is the
presence of strategic military installations in the area. The more likely reason is that close-ups of a destroyed house
give no context. They only portray the typical destruction of war without any sense of place or proportion. Landscapes of
an entire valley show the systematic nature and massive scale of the destruction of Azeri villages. Thus began an absurd
process of very obvious and mutual deception. I would ask the driver to stop the car to photograph. The Defence official
would overrule me and we would keep on driving. All around us, the foothills were scorched by a recent fire. There were
absolutely no military installations in sight, only the crumbling white walls of dozens of roofless houses in the valley.
The Lieutenant waved at the hills and with a mysterious look in his eyes spoke of hidden anti-aircraft defences that only
he could see.
The village below us was Kharatchelor. Like every other village in this region, it was an Azeri village before the war,
clearly marked in green on the 1990 map that hangs in the Foreign Ministry. All the same, the Lieutenant explained that in
fact this was an Armenian village destroyed by the Azeris. On the hill behind him stood the typically oblong white
gravestones, engraved with Persian script, of an Azeri cemetery. There were no Armenian tombstones. Dov and I nodded as the
officer spoke, and the game continued. We descended into the village and met a handful of Armenian cow farmers who had
settled there in 1996. As Dov asked questions and a bushy haired woman brought coffee, I slipped out and wandered
through the village. I was trying to find a vantage point from which to make an image that could capture the feeling of
this empty place. There was nobody in sight. Every possible piece of usable material had been stripped doors, windows,
tiles, pipes, hinges, even screws and nails. At a distance, men loaded bricks from the walls into a truck. These bricks
will be used to restore and build houses in Martakert or Stepanakert.
After a short while, I heard people calling me at a distance. The Lieutenant had gone off to find me. He told Dov that he
was very concerned about my safety because of the landmines. To explain my absence, Dov answered that I had been having some
bowel problems lately.
As I returned to the farm house where our group sipped coffee on a bed frame hanging from a tree, I felt the Lieutenant's
disapproval of my absence. We walked back up to the car, and I asked to photograph the Muslim cemetery at the top of the
village. The officer frowned and declined, citing landmines. In the hope of changing his mind, I explained that in the West
it was said that Azeri graveyards had been looted and destroyed by Armenians, and he should let me photograph this one
since the tombstones were untouched. But he could not let me photograph Muslim tombstones in what he claimed to have been an
Armenian village, so we agreed that he would let me photograph another graveyard near Agdam.
Back in the car on the way to Agdam, I was not permitted to photograph workers stripping a house of construction material,
but instead was led to a destroyed Azeri tank that lies in a field near the road. I took a few pictures to appease him and
we continued on to Agdam where the stakes were much higher. I could feel the tension in the car. Nobody was comfortable.
Each interdiction was increasingly frustrating to me, and the officials were unsure how to enforce the rules in the vast
wasteland that Agdam had become. As we drove closer to the center of the ruins, the Lieutenant's explanations got more and
more convoluted and bizarre. He told us that the Azeris had razed Agdam before leaving. They shelled each and every house four
times. Yet a little later, when Dov asked how long it took to take the city, the Lieutenant fell back to a more boastful
mode and said "We took Agdam in one day!" How the Azeris could have destroyed the entire city while leaving in a panic was
What lay around us was not so much the aftermath of a battle as the obvious result of seven years of systematic
dismantling and looting. In the empty streets, a few people milled around, picking berries, looking for scrap metal, and
loading bricks into trucks. The Lieutenant's words were becoming half hearted. His movements were brisk. He was simply
filling the silence with words that he didn't expect us to believe.
We asked to see the mosque that was still standing in the center of town. As we stepped out of the car, there was a moment
of confusion. The officer would not enter the mosque. He believed it was forbidden for Christians to be in such a place. Yet
he authorized us to climb up to the roof and on to the minaret, as long as we took no pictures. There was something far
too deliberate or foolish in what he was saying. Before I knew it, I had raced up the steep and dark steps, and stood sixty
feet above the city. There was very little time to think, even less to take in the sight that surrounded me. I imagined this
was what Carthage must have looked like after the Greeks sacked the buildings and sowed the earth with salt. Agdam will
never be rebuilt. There is too much purpose in the destruction, a feeling of permanence in these desolate ruins. It would
be easier to simply start over and build a new city somewhere else.
As I climbed down, I realized I had been up there too long. The officer was unhappy. He spoke sternly to Dov. An argument
followed. He spoke of honor and respect. His words seemed absurd to me. In this place, in this pillaged city, these values
had no meaning any more. There was no right and wrong, only purpose and deceit. A compromise was reached, and I popped open
the back of one of my cameras, exposing the film to the sunlight. We could go now.
On the way back to Stepanakert, there was very little said. We had been to Agdam. The game had finally ended, but it was
unclear who had won.
posted by Eric Baudelaire at 6:46 PM
Tuesday, August 30, 2000
We are back in Yerevan. This two-month journey is coming to a close. I feel worn and tired, but as I lay in bed at
night I am kept awake by images of people I have photographed, excited and impatient to see them on paper. I am constructing
sequences in my head, full of anticipation.
There are still several days ahead of us; the drive to Tbilisi and the planes back to London. I could easily have rested in
the cool hotel room in Yerevan, but I heard of a place called Silikian, not far from here, where Armenian refugees from
Shaumian live in exile. Their province, in the north of Karabakh, is in Azeri hands. These refugees could have returned and
settled in Green Villages near Martakert, but they have chosen not to go on with their lives. By staying in transit, they
hope to hasten their return.
I imagine Shaumian has known a fate parallel to Agdam's. An empty, captured city, occupied with vengeful force. To tell the
full story of Karabakh, I would have to go up there and photograph, like we did in Agdam. But there is no time left to fly
to Baku and talk our way into occupied territories on the other side of the line.
I have images of Agdam, so I needed to go to Silikian and photograph the refugees from Shaumian. I drove the short distance
from Yerevan through the rocky outskirts of town. Somebody told me Armenia looks like the surface of the Moon, and he was
not entirely wrong. In Silikian, fifty refugee households live in a row of metal tubes large containers converted into
houses. These makeshift shelters, barely more decent than a shantytown, were donated by Romania after the 1988 earthquake.
In the village there are only women and children. The men who survived the battles for Shaumian are either training in
Karabakh in the hope of taking back their lost region, or working in Russia to send money home. Those who didn't survive
are honored in small shrines that I saw in every single home. Hand-colored photographs of a husband or son on a table
surrounded by flowers and sometimes candles.
As I made my way between the boiling hot steel cylinders, women invited me inside. I asked to photograph them next to the
pictures of their fallen men. Each woman offered me coffee and spoke of their desire to return and visit the graves of these
heroes. I felt the same mixture of intransigence and fatalism I had seen among the Georgian refugees from Sukhumi in
Vanya Gzirian, Hamazasp Nahapetian, David Hovhannessian, Nerses Gharagadian... When the story of each one of these fighters
was told, tears flooded old wrinkled eyes. My translator, Naira, would squeeze the hand of the mother who had fallen silent
with sorrow and gently steer the conversation towards happier stories.
The Armenian Social Welfare Ministry pays a small pension to these families - $20 a month for a family of five; not quite
enough to live decently, and somewhat humiliating to proud Armenians who would prefer to work than receive aid. No pensions
have been paid since May, and there is no visible presence of UN or humanitarian support.
I asked Gayane, a strong and still youthful woman, why she stays in Silikian. Wouldn't life be better in a real house, even
in a resettled Green village, but in Karabakh? There are government incentives to return and live in the Kelbajar and
"What is the point of returning to that land? There are no men left to farm it. How would we survive? I will only return
to Shaumian, where my son is buried."
"Do you think that day will come soon?"
Gayane looked at me with resignation and shook her head. Around her, young children played in the dusty street. None of
them were younger than seven years. The course of life seems to have stopped when they moved here from Karabakh. I feel
that if I come back to Silikian in a few years time, the children will be a bit older, the tubular houses a bit more rusty,
but the photographs and conversations will be the same.
Tomorrow we will drive back to Georgia and retrace our steps to the other end of Europe. There is still much work ahead.
Making sense out of the tangled stories we have heard. Sifting through thousands of frames on contact sheets. Organizing
words and images to create a coherent whole. More memories and thoughts need to be jotted down.
I expect we will also know the fear that what we have brought back is not enough, not sufficient to understand and perhaps
explain. And so there will be the desire to return, to visit new friends, track the passage of time, and continue our
journey through the periphery of a crumbled empire, tasting the pace of life in these states caught in limbo.
posted by Eric Baudelaire at 6:49 PM
Thursday, August 31, 2000
The telephone line was weak. I could barely hear. "Can you come now?" a voice asked. "I will come right now," I
answered. A voice ran through a list of instructions of how to get to the office. "Right, I am coming now. See you soon."
I remembered "...HSBC Bank...", and "...around the corner".
Off I went, across Yerevan's Republic Square, past the Armenia Hotel, then beyond the bank. I came to a theatre. Where was
the corner? I looked around; I could not see one. I walked on. Any corner would come in handy. The street sign was in
Armenian and there was no one around to ask. I retraced my steps back to the bank and then to the theatre. There was a
small side street after the theatre building. "Third entrance" returned to me. I walked down the alley. One entrance.
Another one. I could see a third entrance further down. I had found the office.
I left my bag with the guard at the door. "Fifth floor," he pointed. On the fifth floor, I entered a reception area filled
with books and papers. A woman stood up behind a desk.
"You must be Anna," I said, putting out my hand.
"No, I am certainly not Anna."
I looked around to see whether there was another woman there. Was this the right office? A doubt crept into my mind. "I
just called and spoke to the Director. He said that he would meet me now." It was the correct office. But where was Anna?
I had talked to her twice today on the telephone. But the lines are bad; it is possible that she is someone unassociated
with the institute that I had wanted to visit. Oh Anna. And we had got along so well...
The Director greeted me in his office. Coffee was served. Cigarettes offered. The conversation started. He spoke slowly,
as if chewing his words. As if I were slow to grasp, he liked to draw analogies. Later, I read that he had gone to the
theological academy. A dry face and a dry mind.
"This is not a nationalist conflict. This is not a religious conflict. This is a civilizational conflict."
What do you mean by civilization?
"Imagine a Swiss canton, yes, do you follow? Imagine a Swiss Canton in the middle of some kind of Caliphate! What do you
think would happen?"
I struggled to imagine this and failed. I looked at him confused. He looked back at me expectantly. This analogy should
have cleared everything up for me. Why didn't I understand? A Swiss canton. A Caliphate. We looked at each other, both a
bit lost. I wondered where we might go from here. Thankfully for both of us, the expert on the conflict had returned from
his afternoon walk. The Director swiftly passed me over to him. We thanked each other and parted quickly. We both left
somewhat embarrassed and glad.
The expert led me to a back office. The climb to the fifth floor had left him completely out of breath. He had a gray face
and thick tainted glasses, but he had an easy laugh. He smoked continuously and never really succeeded in getting his breath
"What is Karabakh?" I asked.
"It is a state."
"What makes you think that it is a state?"
"It has all the attributes of a state."
"But it is not recognized. Why is it not recognized?"
He laughed. It was fun for him as well. He looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. "How can you say it is not a state? It
has power. It has a territory and it has a population. It acts like a state."
"But then, why is it not recognized? What has it done to find itself in this position? Does it have something to do with
fact that it occupies all this land that was never Karabakh? This is aggression, no?"
"Of course not! We will give this land back as soon as we have security guarantees." He had switched from referring to
Karabakh as 'they' to using 'we' and 'us'.
"But this land is being resettled with Armenians. How will you give it back?"
He lit another cigarette now. He was still breathing heavily. The blue smoke lifted and rested above us.
"Excuse me for the smoke. I am very sorry." He paused. "Ethnic cleansing has been the instrument to resolve the
ethno-political conflicts of the former Soviet Union. This is perhaps unfortunate, but it is true. Look at Abkhazia. Look at
Karabakh. These situations are more stable now."
I had not known what to look for when we started talking. Just a direction and a sense of the man. This statement was it. I
smiled to myself and we continued talking for an hour.
I had risen early that morning. My first thought was that this was to be my last day of interviews. I have interviewed
every day for the last eight weeks. I met civilian officials in barren rooms, rich generals in offices that spoke of
permanence, careful and watchful security men, poor mayors and broken farmers. I had slept badly the night before.
Images of the past weeks spun through my mind. Thoughts of future necessity, work to be done and knots to untangle kept me
But I awoke with purpose. Another day of interviews ahead. A first at 11, a second at 2, a third at 3.30, and a final
one to arrange for later in the afternoon. I love doing this. I love meeting people for the first time, finding out where
their office is, walking up cool stairways. The first greeting, a walk around a desk, a look into the eyes, a hand shake
and an exchange of cards. I explain the project, coffee arrives and we start. I love the patience in it, the unravelling
that occurs, the soft provocations and the twisted responses.
For eight weeks, I have asked the same questions. What are you? How do you exist? Do you exist if no one recognizes that
you do? When does something exist and when does it not?
As they always must be, states are relative. They do not exist in absolute terms. Each state that we have travelled through
exists in its own terms. For seventy years, they all co-existed within the Soviet Union, that straitjacket of nations.
The USSR itself had an ambiguous relationship to its statehood. Marx had proclaimed the 'withering away of the state'. But
Stalin had built one of history's most centralized states. That Armenian expert had said to me wearily in conclusion: "What
is Georgia? What is Armenia? What is Azerbaijan? These states never existed before Stalin." And he is correct.
And yes, it is correct also to ask: What is Transdniestria? What is Abkhazia? What is Karabakh? It is difficult to answer.
But it occurs to me that we have travelled through unique combinations of space and time. Each of these states exists because
it has defined its own space in terms of land, and its own time in terms of history.
Transdniestria has seized control of that sliver of the East bank of the Dnestr River. This is a fertile land and rich in
industrial resources. Its time starts before its incorporation into the Moldovan Republic. The result is a strange
disjointed place, caught between the stagnation era of Brezhnev and savage capitalism. It is Russian. It is Moldovan. It is
Ukrainian. It is almost nowhere at all.
Abkhazia is a poor state driven by the fear of its extinction. Its small population clings to a steamy Black Sea coast,
caught between the drive of the Georgian nation and the weight of the Russian state. History there starts even before the
Russian empire, with the existence of the Abkhaz kingdom, and it picks up again in the 1870s with the final arrival of the
Russians. The state is almost impossible; people live their lives through gritted teeth.
In Karabakh, time and land are almost biblical. It stands like some proud outpost of a Christendom that no longer exists,
holding off the hordes, swaying under the weight of its ideas but unable to provide for itself. The land has been seized.
A line has been drawn with the enemy. They live in a different space and time.
I look back on these eight weeks with such excitement. We have walked through the lands of the new Eurasia. Time will move
on here, as it should. And the lands may change again. They have done so in the past. But we have seen this moment. We have
been witnesses to time and space as they stand now. And it has been extraordinary.
posted by Dov Lynch at 11:04 PM