Travelling Light: Into the Ruined City

In Agdam, the past is the only thing present

by Conor MacHugh

A few days in an unrecognized state gives one the feeling of floating in a fantasy land – nothing is ever quite as it seems. I came to Nagorno-Karabakh, squeezed between Armenia and Azerbaijan, to see a new country and visit the ruined city of Agdam, destroyed during the war which raged after the collapse of the Soviet Empire. I had been there for some time before being issued a visa. Entering from Armenia one must promise to report to the Ministry of the Interior, or the border guards will be ‘in big trouble’. Next morning I listed the places I intended to visit and left the forbidden zone of Agdam off the list. A visa was issued but not stuck in my passport, Tiny, mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh is very serious about its right to exist, and has the scars to prove it.

In the capital, Stepanakert, I met a smattering of solo travelers who had also bowed to curiosity and we decided to try together. With me would be two Spaniards and a young Israeli whose fluent Russian proved invaluable. Our voyeurism stood in sharp contrast to the attitude of Franco, a Croatian who declined the trip. He had had enough of guns and ruins for one lifetime.

At the main taxi stand, no-one wanted to know about Agdam, and we settled for some of the tourist highlights nearby (everything is nearby). Medieval Gandzasar Monastery was spectral in the mist, and that afternoon we bumbled round the old capital of Shousha, reveling in the atmosphere as ruins loomed out of the fog. Shousha was tactically crucial as the religiously Orthodox and ethnically Armenian statelet fought to secede from Muslim and Turkic Azerbaijan.

From this elevated town in 1992 the Azeris pounded Stepanakert with rockets until the Karabakhi army scaled the cliffs to prevail in a savage three day struggle. We wandered around thinking about the battle, but appearances were deceiving – many of the buildings were wrecked during a pogrom in 1920.

The following morning we were thirty metres from the door when a cabbie agreed to take us. Suren couldn’t have been cooler. He didn’t blink when asked to go to Agdam. His only response was – “Now?” Perhaps his sangfroid was hard-won, from repairing tanks during the war, or after being run out of Moscow by the Mafia. The most dangerous part of the entire morning came from driving at break-neck speed across pitted roads as Suren calmly reached for and lit a cigarette – all the while overtaking one-handed, against the on-coming traffic.

The approach to Agdam was dead flat, and as we drove the tension mounted. We started the approach to the city centre past rows of burnt out walls – which turned out to be houses. Though I’d spoken to a few travelers who had been out there, it felt like we were crossing the line. And we were near the front line, which is what the Karabakhi army didn’t want us to see – and especially didn’t want us to photograph. Towards the centre, we passed the shells of some grand public buildings. A military station sat in there, a soldier walking toward us half-heartedly before we turned off to circle round toward the mosque.

Time then to exit the car, and the Catalan said to watch out for mines. I’m not sure how one does this exactly, but Valencia pointed out that with the amount of cow shit on the path we would be eating hamburgers for lunch if there were any. The mosque was the only building that retained a roof, and the mine-detecting cattle knew it. In the gloom we made out grubby white walls covered in the graffiti of Armenian soldiers, and tourists. We climbed the twin minarets and poked out our heads to see the ruined city. One hundred metres from us was the base we had just driven around, with soldiers going about their daily chores.

Some of them must have been aware of our presence but as long as this was not overstated, no one acknowledged us. Tension diffused, until the Israeli Avi, who was pressed too close for comfort, began a manic question and answer routine directly into my left ear, “What are they doing? They’re coming for us! Can they see us? They can see us!” All of this was punctuated by “Oh God, we have to get out of here!” and the frenzied snapping of his camera. Afterwards, he assured me he had been involved in the last Lebanon war, but I’m not sure he was fully operational.

The mosque still stands in Agdam – strangely, because the Karabakhis spared it as holy ground, where a church once stood. The detritus conjured images of intense street fighting and again, we were wrong. A lot of the destruction was after the battle – officially to rebuild the shattered capital. But one got the feeling that the Karabakhis have made a rough and ready statement of intent in this formerly Azeri city – ‘there is nothing for you here’.

Agdam serves to illustrate a convoluted history. As the tottering USSR gave up supporting or policing Azerbaijan in the early nineties, Karabakhi guerrillas became an army, while the newly independent Armenians soon entered the conflict. The Azeris were well armed with Soviet weaponry and assisted by Turkish officers and Afghan and Chechnyan irregulars, while both sides employed mercenaries. Some of the opposing officers were good friends from Soviet Army days in Afghanistan. This international little war ended with thirty thousand dead and Karabakhi victory in 1994, but it could start again any day.

After a quarter of an hour we felt that we’d had enough, and shouldn’t really press the point. Suren though was happy to – and drove directly toward the base trying to find a way past a burnt-out tank. Soldiers started moving towards us quickly, and as Suren negotiated a leisurely three-point turn away and back past the mosque, they were running and shouting. He muttered something filthy in Armenian and we glided into the ruins as if on a shopping trip. After a bout of nervous laughter, we were soon cruising back down the potted tarmac through the outskirts. In Stepanakert I asked for Suren’s phone number in case of further adventures. He coolly signed me an autograph.

Later, I traveled north towards Azerbaijan, the only tourist seen for months in one small village. The police stopped to check my papers then plied me with bbq pork and vodka, and passing villagers gifted a pomegranate, an orange and a loaf of bread. The next day I was on the side of the road attempting to hitch a ride up and over into Armenia, past the gold mines of Zod – in case I needed any further proof I was in lala land.

All seemed lost when an engineer from the re-opened mine doubled back to pick me up. Major Dadash had served in the artillery, and had the limp and scars of a veteran. He had studied for his PhD in Russia but that day, wanted to practice his English. He drove me well past the mine to the next village where an old comrade was Mayor, and instructed me on how to be on my way. I asked about the war and received the best analysis in a week here, “We need to forget these things. My friends tell me we cannot love the Azeris. You don’t need to love your neighbour – just fucking talk to him !”