TRAVEL JOURNAL

of the representatives of the Azerbaijani Diaspora in Shusha on July 27th, 2021

by Zaur N. SadigBayli

Project of visiting the liberated territories and the city of Shusha

The idea of visiting the liberated territories and the city of Shusha has long been on the minds of all of us since the moment the 44-day Patriotic Liberation war ended. Unfortunately, our project had to be postponed due to the tragic death of two Azerbaijani journalists who lost their lives in a mine explosion in Kalbajar.

However, this idea persisted, so the State Diaspora Committee decided to unite all the compatriots who were in Azerbaijan during this period and organize a visit to Karabakh. Finally, 72 of us were able to take part in this unique opportunity, for which we are grateful and honored.

Preparations for the trip

The preparation

Everything had to be arranged: contacting each of us, planning the Covid-19 preventive tests, settling all the other modalities.

So it was with fear in our chests that we took the Covid-19 tests. My special thoughts are for those of our compatriots who were unable to join us due to the positive results.

The day before the trip we were received by the Chairman of the Committee who explained in detail the program, went through the safety instructions, and answered our many questions. Naturally, discretion was required. It was not possible for our family members and our loved ones to joins us – we clearly realized that it was not a simple tourist trip…

The officers of the Committee did an excellent job: they were always available, constantly sending us reminders to make sure that no one forgets anything…

The départure

Needless to say, the night before the departure was a sleepless one. We had to finalize the last preparations, organize the child-care during our absence… while our minds were tumbling violently so that neither of us could not sleep a wink.

All that was for a good reason: too few of us had seen those territories that were recently liberated and almost no one have ever set foot in Shusha. Like almost all Azerbaijanis by the way.

The weekend before the departure I had a family reunion and visited the family of a close friend of mine. At the table, I twice asked the same questions: “Has anyone ever been to Karabakh, to Shusha?” Only two people, the most elderly answered “I have”. That was a very long time ago…

This is the reason why in the early morning hours of July 27 we were all feeling as if we were on a cloud, especially those who were going there for the first time in their lives.

So we leave at dawn surrounded by special convoy in several medium-sized buses. The traffic police will escort us to Shusha.

For the last time we are all reminded that very strict identity checks will be executed once we arrive at the destination, and we go once again through the security instructions. Each of us is aware that we cannot communicate our locations, neither can we post anything on social media until we arrive, nor can we take pictures of our soldiers or of any sensitive information during our journey.

Zafar yolu – The Victory Road

Zaur and the photographer Maya Baghirova

We leave Baku by the deserted roads, while the city is just beginning to wake up. All the early morning workers notice our convoy and signal us with lights or wave their hands. Naturally we try to take some pictures of our convoy from the bus, but then trip talks begin.

The GPS navigator shows 274 km till Shusha and Wikipedia which has not yet been updated still displays a pro-Armenian comment – this free encyclopedia still dares to call this city by its Armenian name and declare that it is still in their hands… sure, in their dreams, perhaps ?

It goes without saying that we want to take the Zafar yolu, the Victory Road. The same road that runs along the frontiers of our armed forces, that passes through the places which ones were the enemy lines.

From time to time, we stop to take a break in the resting points. The fuel attendants, once they learn about the purpose of our trip, joyfully greet us. No one wants to linger around – as soon as all are done with the essential needs, we hit the road. We cannot wait to see Karabakh and Shusha as soon as possible.

We pass Imishli… as we move forward, the landscape becomes more and more harsh, we are in the deep Azerbaijani countryside. We observe crops and pastures. Finally, we enter the region of Fizuli. We are all aware that these are the last towns and villages that border the old ceasefire line of 1994.

After that the populated areas disappear, it is the military zone. We are passing through the first military roadblocks of our armed forces and identity checks are being done. Beware all who failed to take their papers with them. Finally, we see a sign telling us that we have entered the area of the liberated territories.

Fortifications of the occupant as far as the eye can see

Ruined Karabakh Photo © Maya Baghirova

At this moment we are entering the former demarcation zone of the Armenian occupying forces and our armed forces.

The first thing that strikes the eye: there is not a single building.

Only Armenian protected firing stations (bunkers) partly or completely destroyed.

The second thing – barbed wire as far as the eye can see, stretching out for several kilometers.

We realized that we are advancing inside the piercing corridor – the one through which our armed forces broke through the lines of the defense of the enemy’s occupying forces. Few buildings are still standing, though all of them, without exception are heavily damaged, most are completely destroyed.

The ruined city of Fizuli

Fizuli airport under construction

We realize that we are now in the city of Fizuli, the administrative center of the homonymous region.

To our surprise, we find the city totally destroyed. Certainly, the image is little less striking than the one in Aghdam, where the ground reveals the destruction as far as one can see, but the conclusion is clear: not a single house standing.

The city was made uninhabitable. Large parts of scorched earth can be seen everywhere, the signs of the fierce fighting of the last autumn.

Only two signs are encouraging: an electric station in the middle of nowhere and an airport that is in the process of construction. We can clearly see the mountains of Karabakh in the horizon. We start our ascend with winding roads. A new route is already being (re)built, as well as the rest of the infrastructure. I am thinking about all the hard efforts of all the Azerbaijani state authorities that work here day and night.

The occupied territories, looted and abandoned

As we are inside the liberated territories, in the heart of Karabakh, we see some luxury villas that the Armenians had built for themselves, some of which are in a very good condition. Such a disparity between this luxury and the general feeling of desolation. In nearly 30-year long occupation, the Armenian invader did practically NOTHING to develop the conquered territories.

The Armenian propaganda on Karabakh with its ear-breaking pronunciation, as on the one that is not going to be mentioned here either, are the only vestiges of the eternal whining of the Armenians. The so-called land they wanted to reunite with the other “motherland” was simply abandoned.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan pointed to this inconsistency when he tried to justify himself after Shusha’s release. Yes, indeed – why during these 30 years the city has remained in the same state, even though the official discourse of the Armenians and their acolytes was quite the opposite? So where did this de facto “state” go?

The answer is very simple: there has never been any state here other than the Azerbaijani State and sufficient time was given to avoid war and settle this issue peacefully! Only a gang of criminals stood in front of us who did nothing but plunder our lands, our resources, our archaeological, cultural and other heritage, poison our rivers and lands, plant illegal poppy plantations and so on.

Destructions in Susha, with photos from before the occupation

Shusha

Members of the diaspora discover Shusha

Even though the GPS tells us that we are very close to our destination, the mountains prevent us from seeing Shusha. Then at a turn we finally see the city that dominates the landscapes on its proud cliff. Our cameras immortalize these few seconds as soon as the angle gives us the opportunity to take pictures.

The city is still far away, and the road is bubbling with the work in progress. We still pass some ascents and descents to the post of the Russian peacekeeping forces – the only sign of their presence that we have seen so far. Armenians are forced to take this road to get to the lowlands.

Then we see the entrance to the city – through the fortress decorated with the inscription “Şuşa” in Azerbaijani. Finally, we have arrived. A few more minutes to the hotel “Qarabağ” – our arrival point.

The city is generally well preserved, except for a few neighborhoods – witnesses to the hand-to-hand combat during the liberation of the city by our special forces. Many restoration works are therefore underway.

The city already has a police station, a fire station, as well as all the commodities and infrastructure, such as a municipal bakery, shops, etc.

As we get off the buses, the members of the local administration and workers, as well as many journalists come to greet us.

Some of us readily rush to journalists to pour on them their first impressions and talk about things that pass through their hearts. Many others remain reserved, silent with emotion. I, too, am looking for a news channel reporter and a quiet corner to be able to share my feelings. Emotions overwhelm all of us. Some cannot hold back their tears.

I remember the images of the General Gaul on August 25, 1944 in Paris and his powerful words: “Paris outraged! Paris shattered! Paris martyred – but Paris liberated! “, and I realize that this is truly the same for all of us as far as Shusha and Karabakh are concerned! Yes, my friends “Shusha outraged! Shusha shattered! Shusha martyred – but Shusha liberated!”

Lunch in the liberated city

Bulaq source

As promised the day before by the President of the Diaspora Committee, a lunch in the liberated Shusha awaits us.

The restaurant “Khari Bulbul” opens its doors for us. It does not take long for each of us to realize that the bread we are about to eat has been kneaded and baked in Shusha – this is Shusha’s bread. Similarly, the water served at the table is that of the water source passed to the city in 1889 by the financing of the poetess Khurshudbanu Natavan.

After almost ten hours of bus trip, we enjoy a traditional Azerbaijani meal with kebab and plov followed by the tea served in armudi (pear-shaped) glasses. Everyone present at this meal, at least once will tell his or her table neighbor – “finally, we are here”.

Flag ceremony – sign of our unity

Flag ceremony

After the meal we head to the city square called Khari Bulbul. Over there on the stairs, our compatriots from different place wave the flags of their countries of residence together with the flags of Azerbaijan.

Many journalists take pictures of us all and film the scene that culminate several times with this slogan, dear to all of us: “Karabakh is Azerbaijan!”. I have the honor to participate in the live broadcast on AzTV – Azerbaijani national television. I begin with the phrase that our President told us last year: “We, our generation, are happy because we have seen the liberation of our lands”. I share my childhood memories of Geytcha and Zangezour of the West Azerbaijan provinces, and those of this trip, these images that I have seen with my own eyes: kilometers of barbed wire, desolation, the hard work of all Azerbaijani state authorities. In short, a sense of pride overcomes me, pride to belong to the Nation that was able to defeat the occupant and liberate our lands!

After that we go on a sightseeing tour of the city.

Sightseeing tour of the city

Destroyed house of Natavan

We visit various city sites: the Khan Palace, Natavan’s House, next to which the Declaration of Shusha was signed, the forecourt of the city’s executive authorities with the bronze statues stolen by the Armenians and then recovered by the Azerbaijanis, the entrance to the fortress of Shusha, the Natavan Water Source, the mosque of Yukhari Govharagha.

Many of us express our dismay as we stand in front of the Khan’s ruined house and Natavan’s House as we see our bronze sculptures riddled with bullets. I had the opportunity to share this feeling with the CBC channel in Russian.

As we pass through the Natavan’s Water Source, I am looking for a way to get some water, as I have promised by loved ones that I’d bring the water of Shusha to have a tea ceremony together.

We also spotted a Bolmart market, its Shusha subsidiary. Each of us entered it to buy something for the simple purpose of having a shop receipt with the words “subsidiary of Shusha” on it.

While walking along the streets of Shusha, we talk with our garrison soldiers, with the workers who are carrying out the rehabilitation works and especially with the children whose parents are stationed in the city.

Inside Yukhari Govkharagha Mosque- Photo ©Maya Baghirove

True, Shusha is reliving. There soon will be a school again, and then the life will return to its normal course. Not far is the day when we will celebrate the first wedding in the city and then the first birth of a little Shusha resident.

The visit to the Yukhari Govharagha Mosque was a special moment for all of us. Regardless of one’s religious beliefs, everyone felt that it was a sacred obligation to take off their shoes and enter the mosque to see it from the inside. Muslims prayed and those who master the Mougam sang a few tunes.

What struck me the most was that our compatriots of the Jewish faith did the same. Azerbaijan is also their homeland.

Visit of the Jidir Düzu – the Jidir Plain

The clock is ticking, and we are a little behind the schedule.

So now we are headed to the Jidir Düzü – the Plain of Jidir, which overlooks the surrounding landscape. The scenery is beautiful. In fact, you must be here to clearly feel that we are at a certain altitude. The gusts of wind that that come from all the sides are moderately strong. Some of us take pictures as low as possible from the cliff.

Here on this plain, together we send a message to the world by unfolding a giant Azerbaijani flag. Then we sing together the National Anthem. The scene is filmed by a special drone and by many journalists that are present on the site.

Some of us visit our soldiers at their outposts. From here we can observe the city of Khankendi through our binoculars. An idea comes to mind: to return here to Jidir Düzü with my compatriots, to lunch with our soldiers in their tanks, to sleep here under the stars, to dance together Yalli – our traditional millennial dance on this very plain.

Departure from Susha

It is almost 9 pm when we leave Shusha.

Tired after a very busy day but all joyful and happy. We are aware that we are in a protected area in which by the current security requirements the network is not available.

Those who want to warn their families about their late returning have an opportunity to do so.

We know that a difficult night road is ahead of us.

As we were leaving, each of us took something form Shusha. For my part, I took some liberated earth and some water for the tea.

We are all aware that this land is that of our ancestors, that it belongs to us, and that no invader will ever take it from us again!

As our President Ilham Aliyev justly said: “We have achieved this all with our might and with an iron fist!”

Conclusion

On the way back our compatriots discussed and debated a lot. About everything: Karabakh, the future, whether peace with Armenia is possible and also on the internal issues. Many of our compatriots who live abroad regret that the good things from there have not (yet) arrived here.

Photo © Maya Baghirova

I listened carefully to all the opinions, comparing them with my points of view. I give here my thoughts in response to what I have heard.

With regards to Karabakh, I think we all agree: Azerbaijan has created a new political reality and the world must now cope with it. There is no longer a ceasefire line, no status issue, no more questions of what the Armenian dashnaks and their acolytes would like to achieve.

The other lesson is that of the paralysis of the United Nations. In fact, now any country in the world that is facing the same problem as we do (with the UN Resolutions violated by one of the parties) must do the same thing as we did: take the matter in their own hands and enforce the decision(s).

There remain of course the questions of the responsibility of the Armenians and Armenia for all the crimes that were committed and all the reparations for the destructions inflicted upon our country and our fellow citizens.

The future will show whether Armenia is able to learn the right lessons from the past, whether the Armenian politicians would be able to make efforts to detoxify the Armenian society from the xenophobia and territorial claims towards all its neighbors.

By definition peace is always possible between nations and after the war always comes the time for the peace. But to achieve a lasting peace, much work remains to be done. As I have often said, many Armenian realists understand the failure of the policy pursued by their country for more than three decades.

Unfortunately, the extremists are also numerous, and it is the fear that keeps people in Armenia from confronting the dashnaks.

The Jidir Duzu figurines – Photo © Maya Baghirova

Armenia’s territorial claims and the undeclared war against our country since 1988, the Armenian aggression since 1991 and the occupation of a part of our territory since 1992 have slowed down the development of our country by at last 15 years. Today, with the reconstruction of the liberated territories, this task is even more immense.

It will take time and effort. Every one of us is responsible to do our part. The international community will also have to contribute, of course, financially!

In the long term, some of our compatriots, former internally displaced persons, will have to return to live in the liberated territories, in Karabakh, as well as in Shusha and around it. We will also have to integrate our fellow citizens of the Armenian origin who will be willing to live in Azerbaijan, respect the Constitution and the laws of the Republic. The separatists, for their part, will have to leave the territory of Azerbaijan!

Azerbaijan will therefore move forward and adopt the best experience of all the developed countries. Over time we will give the world and exemplary model of society!

The mentality and conscience of all our fellow citizens, our collective conscience will also have to change. If something displeases us or does not alternate, it is because of us, of our attitude. Therefore, there is no need to compare our society with those of elsewhere all the time. We must start the change on our own before we impose it on others. Think about it!

Yet for the time being to achieve this, let us unite, my friends, as the struggle continues, together!

Baku, 30 July 2021


[1] Unité administrative territoriale équivalent à un département.

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