A Visit To Shusha, A Ghost City Marked By Culture And Ethnic Cleansing
The capture of the city sealed last year's Azerbaijani victory against the Armenians — the latest change of control after a century of war and ethnic cleansing.
SHUSHA — Shusha is a city without women. It is also a city without children or the elderly. It has been like this for over a year since the battle in 2020 that violently converted it into a city without Armenians. In the same way, during the preceding 27 years, it had been converted into a city without Azerbaijanis.
Actually, it is difficult to see Shusha as a city. Ultimately, it ceased to be one a century ago, after the first attempt at ethnic cleansing — in that case of Armenians. Shusha has not raised its head again. Partially standing as a ghost town, its now small-town streets lead to squares flanked by the large hollow public buildings that seem to belong — more than to another era — to another civilization.
Today, the simulation of life is provided by the Azerbaijani police patrols and their military barracks, as well as the occasional bricklayer. At least three supermarkets, well-stocked with tobacco, and a brand new restaurant have been opened for them. A four-star hotel has also been inaugurated in record time, although not for them, but for visitors on business.
On the day of this correspondent's visit, the president of Azerbaijan appeared unannounced, interested in meeting with several former presidents and former prime ministers, flown in from the Baku Global Forum to which they had been invited. They had landed an hour away, at the optical illusion of Fuzuli International Airport. Where nine months ago there were no foundations, there is now a modern airport. It has the essentials, except passengers, since there are no candidates for miles and miles of this human-made wasteland.
Ilham Aliyev, the man at the top of the vertical power of the Azerbaijani petrostate, does not appear by chance in Shusha, the most precious trophy of last year's war. But we, the journalists, not only aren't able to see him but we aren't allowed to leave the lobby for an hour, "for security reasons", reducing by half the time available to visit this martyr and martyrizing city.
Fortunately, we have already gone through the experience of being immobilized as pedestrians on a Baku sidewalk, before the passing of the swift caravan of the hierarch.
It is difficult to see Shusha as a city.
Last year's war ended as soon as the Azerbaijani forces, preceded by Turkish and Israeli drones, managed to take over Shusha. This symbolic city is perched some 1,500 meters above sea level. From there you can see Stepanakert, the capital of the secessionist Republic of Artsakh, six hundred meters lower and just five kilometers to the north.
Just before reaching Shusha, the road takes a detour towards Stepanakert, now under the control of the Russian army. An imaginary capital that keeps fresh in its memory the attacks in 1992 against the civilian Armenian population, when up to 150 shells hit the city every day and its people had to survive underground. The president of Armenia, former journalist Nikol Pashinyan, had no choice but to sign an armistice that reversed 70% of all of the Armenian territorial conquests made three decades ago.
Earlier, in Stepanakert, they had expelled 10% of the population from the city, all Azeris, just as in Shusha they had driven out 10% of the city's population — the Armenians. The surprising Armenian takeover of Shusha in 1992 was the beginning of the end of that war. Almost thirty years later, the outcome is diametrically opposite, because the correlation of forces has also changed, due to demographic changes, the power of oil and the international alliances that it implies.
It is also thanks to Russia's support of Azerbaijan. Like in Georgia or Ukraine before, Moscow punishes with territorial losses the former Soviet republics that lurch in the direction of Washington. For Pashinyan's Armenia, it was a cold shower and a realization of its place in the world.
Airport and mosques first
Fuzuli airport, built by Turkish companies and co-inaugurated by Erdogan, still does not sell tickets, although it has a VIP lounge. In the same vein of starting at the top, the first thing that has been restored in Shusha are the mosques.
The renovation of the Great Mosque — Shiite — has been easy because it had been restored as an Iranian-Armenian cultural center a few months before the start of the last war, with the support of Tehran. The Armenian cathedral, they say, is also now under construction, although there is no time to see it. The surrounding Armenian neighborhood was razed to the ground that deadly 1920.
Russian poet Osip Mandelstam visited the site a decade later and came out terrified by what he called the "40,000 lifeless windows" of Shusha. They were still in ruins for another 30 years, when the U.S.S.R. passed the steamrollers through, after giving up on restoring the many facades that were left standing.
A man praying in the Central Mosque
The dream of returning
But ghosts continue to roam the place, they say, and the wounds have never truly healed. Although the Soviet age restored coexistence with an iron fist, the ruins of the Armenian quarter were swept away.
Meanwhile, thousands of displaced Azeris now dream of returning, even if most buildings remain hardly standing like skeletons. These include the great institutions of the Russian imperial era, when Shusha was one of the largest and most prosperous cities in the Caucasus, with four Armenians for every six Azeris or, as it was said then, Tatars.
Now Armenians, who had reigned here for almost three decades, have also disappeared from the city — a population made up of a small portion of former residents and many more displaced Armenians from elsewhere. A new clean slate done with meticulous viciousness, like the one that has erased Kurdish presence from the public space of Afrin in Syria.
There the walls of Shusha begin
Now it is the displaced Azeris who await their return, after three decades of overcrowding, many of them between Baku and Sumgait. If before huge blocks of flats were left behind with holes in them, now there is an almost Balkan desire to make a clean sweep.
Like a flying saucer on the edge of the abyss, looted but almost unscathed, remains the mansion with a swimming pool that Roma midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who is Armenian, built for himself in a demonstration of cosmic faith in the strength of the Republic of Artsakh. He never imagined that one day he would be a stone's throw away from the front line of the Azerbaijani army.
There the walls of Shusha begin, complementing the gorge that — on the opposite side, on the edge of the green Jidir esplanade — makes it almost impregnable. In Baku, after thirty years, there are still many Azeris who dream of having a picnic in what was once a place of recreation of the capital of the ancient Karabakh Khanate, an important part of their folklore.
Embers of hatred
One year after the 44-day war, many of Mandelstam's 40,000 lifeless windows are still there, and through them the sky is still visible.
At the victory parade in Baku at the end of last year, flags of Turkey, but also of Pakistan, fluttered alongside that of Azerbaijan. Faced with this alignment, New Delhi has made a move, with the first visit of an Indian foreign minister to Armenia last month. Everything indicates that the route of the alternative corridor with which India wants to get its products to Europe will pass through Armenia and Georgia, rather than through Azerbaijan, circulating from the Iranian port of Chabahar to the Black Sea.
Finally, on November 15, the Armenian prime minister Pashinyan accused Azerbaijan of crossing the ceasefire lines and dismissed its defense minister. A week earlier, there had been the first Armenian civilian casualty by the Azerbaijani army shooting on the line of control. A relative of the deceased then tried to take revenge at an Azeri checkpoint, even before Baku recognized the death of seven of its soldiers and Yerevan, later, that of six of its own. The last war is over, but the embers of hatred have not been quenched.
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