Eclectic Titanic-shaped hotel, Vank

Sad bear in the zoo :(, Vank

Angry lioness in the zoo, Vank

New government buildings and a sign for the zoo, Vank

The lobby in the Eclectic Hotel, Vank

Excellent interior design taste, Van Gogh Restaurant, Eclectic Hotel, Vank

Gandzasar Monastery, Vank

Stone carvings, Gandzasar Monastery, Vank

Gandzasar Monastery, Vank

Relief carving on the exterior, Gandzasar Monastery, Vank

View into the mountains, Vank

Carvings at Dadivank Monastery

Close up of a cross, Dadivank Monastery

Dadivank Monastery

Dadivank Monastery

Dadivank Monastery

Tank monument in northern Karabakh

New walkway to the stadium in Stepanakert

The Nagorno-Karabakh monument

The road runs through the Tigranakert ruins

New college in Stepanakert

Seriously old buses in Karabakh

Statue with fresh flowers in Shushi

There once was a building here, Shushi

Items left on shelves, Shushi

Rusted signs on abandoned building, Shushi

Just the facade is all that's left, Shushi

Tables left in place, Shushi

Abandoned mosque, Shushi

Looking through the key hole into the abandoned mosque, Shushi

Local boy in front of a bombed out apartment building, Shushi

Local boy in front of an apartment building, Stepanakert

20th anniversary of "independence"

Bustling streets of Stepanakert on a weeknight

Fountains and carnival rides, Stepanakert

Visa for Nagorno-Karabakh

Stepanakert, Azerbaijan

The Country that Might Never Be

June 27, 2012

And the wars go on with brainwashed pride

For the love of God and our human rights

And all these things are swept aside

By bloody hands time can't deny

And are washed away by your genocide

And history hides the lies of our civil wars

- Guns N' Roses

I am staying in a hotel shaped like the Titanic, standing on the balcony listening to lions and bears roar, or whatever it is that bears do, all within the borders of a country that doesn’t officially exist, at least according to every single member of the United Nations. It is a fitting introduction to the bizarre intricacies of a country that hasn’t been and might never come to be.

Welcome to the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, or Artsakh, a self-declared independent republic on land officially owned by Azerbaijan, accessible only from within Armenia, now populated exclusively with Armenians, yet not officially part of Armenia. Like the rest of present day Armenia and the surrounding territories this land was successively fought over by multiple empires, the Ottomans, the Persians, and the Soviets at various times in history. Perhaps it is fitting that I write this from a barely functional desk in a dilapidated room of an ex-Soviet Intourist Hotel because the Soviet Union played a large role in this conflict yet also did next to nothing to resolve it.

As can be envisioned in such a contentious place, even history takes sides, depending on whose telling the story. Debated ancient history aside, which itself is crucial, when this region was taken over by the Soviet Union in 1921 Nagorno-Karabakh was made an autonomous republic within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) in order to curry favor with Turkey. Then, according to my tour guide at the history museum in Stepanakert, the Azeris undertook a government policy forcing immigration to this zone to specifically increase the Azeri population in order to bolster their claims on the region. In a matter of years the Armenian percentage of the population decreased from 94% to 75%. From the Azeri side, it seems that natural population growth within the Azerbaijan SSR led to this increase. Even at this time, again according to the tour guide, Azeris and Armenians coexisted peacefully with inter-ethnic friendships between the children being common in the schools. However, in the face of this migration, a growing discontent within the majority Armenian population led to a request to assimilate with Armenia and leave the Azerbaijan SSR in 1989. This request was rejected by the Soviet Union and inter-ethnic fighting soon began. From here the darkness ensued.

For almost five years fighting wracked the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Like all other conflicts the “facts” are neither black nor white but what is true is that both sides are stained with the blood of large scale massacres. While the Soviet Union played its role in engendering the crisis by dividing the land, its descent into anarchy and subsequent dissolution in the late 1980s and early 1990s made the matter suddenly less important to them. Its early support of the Azeri armies quickly disappeared and battles turned into a civil war between two ethnicities that had been previously been living side by side.

The current capital city and then Armenian occupied city of Stepanakert was constantly bombarded with rockets from the Azeri held mountain high-ground of Shushi. Somehow the Karabakh fighters were able to launch a surprise night time assault that eventually captured the city in 1992. Traveling up this mountain on a seemingly endless steep and winding road which the bus can hardly handle, I can only wonder how this was accomplished with only 60 deaths. This proved to be a key turning point in the war that led to a 1994 cease-fire that was signed after over 30,000 people had died and over 150,000 Azeri refugees were forced from their homes.

Since then Nagorno-Karabakh has made great strides. Walking down the busy main street of Stepanakert there is a new university with a pleasant café in front and much on-going construction and renovation of buildings. The main street ends at a central square with a fountain surrounded by benches, nearly all occupied at all hours of the day and evening. Banners everywhere denote the 20th anniversary of the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh, from 1992 to 2012, though what that independence actually means is a little less clear. Brand new government buildings line the surrounding street with the grandstands from that May independence celebration still standing. All of this makes it easy to forget about the not too distant past of the region, but walk one block behind these and reminders of the carnage are clearly evident.

On the front lines of the conflict there is no need for reminders. The city of Agdam sits right at the edge, it is a modern ghost town, devoid of inhabitants and occupied by troops guarding the border. A road out toward the city literally passes through the ruins of the walls of the 18th century fortress of Askeran while just past this sit the remains of tanks destroyed in the fighting. From the hilly vantage point surreal views stretch forward of an array of uninhabited roofless stone buildings, all that’s left of a city that once had more than 100,000 inhabitants. This abandoned former city is currently being reclaimed by nature with trees and vegetation growing up through the houses and threatening to devour them whole. At the other end of the spectrum the people of Shushi are trying to reclaim their own city.

Shushi was the strategic high-ground at the heart of the conflict, a mere 10 kilometers away from Stepanakert. Here you walk through the disconcertingly empty town to see the remnants of buildings overgrown with plants. Trees sprout up from walls and staircases, shrubs obscure the entranceways, and weeds grow from roofs and balconies; where a full building once stood, only the façade remains, somehow standing on its own. Many of these buildings are completely abandoned with rusting signs speaking to their disservice, but a glance through the barred and broken windows gives a glimpse of a life that suddenly ceased to be with bottles left on shelves and factory equipment collecting dust.

Other buildings are only partially abandoned, and this is the most difficult thing to see. For every completely bombed out and gutted building there is one that is partially occupied. Some people live in rebuilt apartments, sometimes adjacent to huge gaping holes in the exterior caused by rocket explosions during the war. Many have firewood stacked on their balconies, a sign that there probably isn’t gas or electricity for heat or cooking. Small businesses display signs just below trails of bullet holes that have been poorly filled in or painted over. An abandoned mosque sits idle off the main square, its doors are locked but through the keyhole visions of its past glory seep out. Seeing all this, it is hard to imagine that the fighting ended only 18 years ago. With all these powerful images one stands out above the rest. Rounding a corner I passed a small stand where an older woman was selling vegetables in the shadow of a mostly abandoned apartment building. She was going through her log book and adding up her sales with an abacus. In 2012, as cars drive by and people talk on cell phones this woman was using a 4000 year old invention to balance her books.

The impression as a whole is strikingly similar to scenes of Hiroshima or Nagasaki after the atomic bombs, almost like a living museum of the effects of war. But it is a living museum and importantly, despite whatever happens, life always goes on. Many people survive but refuse to move on, preferring to stay amidst the chaos and rebuild, hoping to resume their lives. Notwithstanding the tens of thousands that died in this conflict, the secondary tragedy is the wasted lives of everyone that survived it and lived through the hard years of the aftermath.

Only now, 18 years later, is a new generation moving forward; amidst all this depression children play happily on the streets, buildings are being rebuilt, and the president campaigns for re-election in a local headquarters occupying a renovated building that also houses a tourist information office. Large group tours are a common occurrence, leaving Yerevan a few times a week from various agencies. External support from the Aremenian diaspora has rebuilt roads and buildings, strengthening the economic potential of the region and fueling its resurgence. In Vank, home to the amazing Gandzasar Monastery, native Levon Hayrapetian who made his fortune in Russia funded the aforementioned Titanic-shaped hotel that I stayed at and the development of the town into a sort of tourism center. While clearly not an advocate of animal rights, as the heartbreaking zoo attests to, at least he is pouring some money back into a region that seems to lack a clear source of sustainable income, despite all the ongoing redevelopment.

Even as it seems that things are turning around there is no end in sight to this conflict. Just days before I visited the region 8 people died during fighting along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. Armenia says a group of Azeri forces crossed the border while Azerbaijan says that an unaffiliated militia was fired upon first. Events like this prove that deep seeded resentment and hatred still fuel this conflict and that it is no closer to being resolved, even 18 years later. For now, an uneasy status quo prevails, but for how much longer can it last?