Saturday, September 16, 2006

Vee Have Vays Of Making You Talk

My main reason for coming to Karabakh, was actually to see something that isn't in Karabakh itself, but in the area occupied by Armenian forces. When I was in northern Iran I travelled along the road that hugs the border with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and in the parts of Azerbaijan controlled by the Armenians one could see whole towns and villages completely empty and gutted. Those ghost towns intrigued me and I wanted to know what they would look like up close. Would there be signs of conflict, of the lives that were led before having to flee, of resettlement? So for me the attractions of Karabakh were not the pretty churches that tour buses are shuttled to, but the signs of what was before, the communities living together and then, suddenly, split apart. That might sound morbid to some people, but I don't believe that visiting a country should be confined to seeing the pretty churches and museums, but one should also try to get an impression of a place's history, its roots, its passions, its problems. Therefore I don't believe one should visit India without seeing the poverty as well as the Taj Mahal.

So with that in mind, my aim here in Karabakh was to visit the ex-town of Agdam. Agdam was an almost entirely Azerbaijani town, lying in the plain just to the east of Karabakh proper. In July 1993, as the Armenian forces were poised to attack, the entire population of Agdam, numbering some 150,000, fled. The attackers arrived to find an empty city, and, to make sure that it remained that way, they started to loot the place. Everything that was of any use was stripped and taken off to rebuild damaged Armenian homes, leaving nothing but the skeletons of buildings. Interestingly enough, the only building to remain (more or less) intact is the central mosque. It is possible to climb the minarets to get an eerie view of the town as it is slowly reclaimed by mother nature. Of course, I was not given permission to visit Agdam as it is right next to the front line, but well, that's not something that should discourage a tourist, eh? So I got on a marshrutka (minivan used as a bus, the standard mode of transport in ex-Soviet countries) and got dropped off as it passed through the town. Then I just walked around. Not particularly difficult. And even though there's less and less to see all the time (you can always hear some hammering in the background as somebody works at removing another girder for their house) just knowing that so many people used to live, love and laugh there and now the place is all but empty, left over to a couple of families, their pigs, an army barracks and fig trees and brambles makes one feel an odd sense of emptiness. I spent a couple of hours pottering about through the rubble and rusting ovens (apparently everything was of use except the ovens, of which there was probably a surplus amongst the Karabakh Armenians) and taking pictures and was just about to catch a marshrutka back when a soldier (captain? sergeant?) noticed me and asked me if I had permission to take pictures. This ended up with me in a police station trying to explain to some befuddled officers that I wasn't an Azerbaijani spy and that, in fact, this is the sort of thing that independent travellers seek out to see. In Karabakh they only have busloads of tour groups coming for a day or two from Yerevan to see an old church or two. It took a lot of persuading, going through my passport ("so, you've been to Azerbaijan, Iran and Pakistan, eh?"), going through my previous photos (needless to say they forced me to delete the ones of Agdam), and asking strange questions (I still think that at the end of it all they didn't get why I was travelling). In the end they let me go but kept my passport until I left Karabakh. In the end it was quite a surreal experience, and obviously the Karabakh police really have far too much time on their hands as they spent well over 5 hours with me and even got a local English teacher in to interpret for them (it was quite interesting to chat to her about working conditions and pay, which are abysmal). So, anyway, I've had encounters with the military in all three Caucasus countries now (I'm placing NKR in with Armenia for this) and I prefer the Georgian military. At least they feed you and let you keep your passport.

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