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The battle for Shusha: the cauldron of generational pain at the heart of the Nagorno-Karabakh war

The capture of the fortress city of Shusha, known as the “Jerusalem of Karabakh”, became the defining moment in the six week long war.

November 12, 2020 - Francis Farrell - Articles and CommentaryHot Topics

Shusha in Nagorno-Karabakh. Photo: Francis Farrell

On the southeastern outskirts of the hilltop city of Shusha, a narrow street lined with the forlorn ruins of old stone houses gives way to an open grassy field. Walking in the direction of a distant opposite cliff face, the land abruptly begins to drop away underfoot, opening into a dramatic gorge hundreds of metres deep. Among the grass on the edge of the ravine, great blocks of karst jut out in near-perfect rows to form a natural grandstand on which locals gather to drink tea and watch the sunset. 

In the early days of November, these cliffs, and the mountains stretching to the south became the new front line in the renewed outbreak of bitter war over Nagorno-Karabakh. On 8 November, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev announced the capture of Shusha (Shushi in Armenian), adding; “We have won this historic victory on the battlefield, not at the negotiating table.” The announcement has been met with jubilation in Azerbaijan, with thousands taking to the streets of Azerbaijani cities to celebrate. Though isolated firefights in the city continued at first, by the next day, the Azeribaijani Ministry of Defence posted a video showing Azerbaijani troops travelling freely through the streets of central Shusha, with the state flag raised over the local administrative building. 

The key to Karabakh 

Shusha is a formidable natural fortress, with sheer cliffs surrounding the city on three sides, and only one steep road leading through the gates of what was once the citadel of the Karabakh Khans. However, as in 1992, when the city was captured by Armenian forces from a depleted, retreating Azerbaijani garrison, taking the city seems to have been easier than expected. For Armenia, defeat at Shusha was a damning blow to the notion that while the flatter region to the south of Nagorno-Karabakh could be captured easily, Azerbaijan would incur heavy losses in futile attempts to take the mountains themselves. If Azerbaijani maps of the conflict are to be believed, the victory was the result of a concerted penetration deep into Armenian lines. This high-risk move paid off; in addition to seizing Shusha itself, the Azerbaijani push also cut off the vital Lachin highway, one of only two roads from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia proper. 

The loss of Shusha proved to be the decisive moment in this conflict. Late on the night of 9 November, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced the signing of a Russian-brokered peace deal on Azerbaijani terms, ending the war but leaving what remained of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Republic as an isolated rump state, completely surrounded by Azerbaijan-held areas and guarded by Russian peacekeeping forces. The agreement reads similarly to the Basic Principles put forward by the OSCE Minsk Group back in 2009: the return of all Azerbaijani territory surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh, the establishment of a land corridor to Armenia, the deployment of peacekeepers, and the return of internally displaced persons to their homes. In reality, there is one major difference in 2020: territory already taken by Azerbaijan within Nagorno-Karabakh are treated as spoils of war and will not be returned to the Armenians. For Azerbaijanis, the greatest prize of all is undoubtedly Shusha. 

The city holds a commanding position over the heart of Nagorno-Karabakh and its capital, Stepanakert. Upon news of the alleged takeover of Shusha on 8 November, thousands of the Armenians who remained in Stepanakert were seen fleeing the capital, some to Armenia via the only remaining road in the north, and some into more remote areas of Karabakh. A humanitarian catastrophe loomed, as Azerbaijani forces closed in on Stepanakert and calls to negotiate a corridor for the evacuation of civilians continued to fall on deaf ears. For Armenia, a negotiated evacuation would have been an admission of total defeat. Ultimately, with the Armenian defence of Karabakh on the brink of complete collapse, that admission of defeat was to come first anyway. 

Azerbaijani officials, including Aliyev himself, have stressed that Armenian civilians in areas coming under Azerbaijani control would come to no harm. Presidential advisor Hikmat Hajiyev claimed that they would be “provided with all kinds of assistance and support based on international principles of humanism.” Verified video as well as isolated eyewitness accounts of executions in settlements already retaken by Azerbaijan cast immediate doubt on these claims. 

Cultural cradle

If a history of pogroms, massacres, and expulsion of civilians on both sides is anything to go by, “international principles of humanism” are hardly likely to enter the equation, let alone be met in Shusha. More than anywhere else, the overwhelming pain and mistrust felt by Armenians and Azerbaijanis to their respective neighbours can be felt in the crumbling walls of the mountaintop city. The ruins speak as to why peaceful coexistence in the region, once made possible by the iron grip of Soviet rule, is now a distant dream.

The city has been described as the “cradle of Azeri culture”, home to dozens of poets, composers, and writers, as well as its own unique traditions of folk art and music. While controversial efforts have been made recently to restore the city’s Yukhari Govhar Agha Mosque, most of Shusha’s Azeri cultural sites remain in ruins, such as the mausoleum of 18th-century poet Molla Panah Vagif, which now stands as a great ambiguous cage-like structure on the town’s edge.

Housing a sizable Armenian population since its conquest by the Russian Empire in 1828, Shusha also holds great cultural significance for Karabakh Armenians. The great Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, gleaming in white limestone in the city’s central square, is the seat of the Diocese of Artsakh of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Damaged and restored many times through its lifetime, the cathedral was used as an ammunition depot by Azerbaijani forces in the 1990s war, and in this round of the fighting, suffered extensive damage to its roof from Azerbaijani shells in early October.

“Deliberate, methodical annihilation”

The pain caused by damage to cultural sites pales in comparison to the countless human tragedies experienced by the people of Karabakh over generations of conflict. Again, Shusha is where opposing narratives come to blows, as both Armenians and Azerbaijanis are able to share historical stories of ethnic cleansing and eviction from their homes. During the short-lived rule of the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic at the end of World War I, brutal pogroms were carried out against the Armenian population of Shusha, with estimates of the dead ranging from 500 to 20,000. 

The historical Armenian quarter was ruined, and it was not until the mid-Soviet period when new housing was built for Armenians in the form of typical five-story 1960s khrushchevki [Khrushchev-era apartment blocks]. As war broke out in 1988 and dozens of Armenians were murdered in Baku and Sumgait, Azerbaijani authorities expelled Shusha’s Armenian population again; by the time of the 1989 Soviet census, 98 per cent of residents were Azeri. In turn, upon the city’s capture by Armenian forces in 1992, all Azeri citizens were forced to flee Shusha in what marked the beginning of a long series of Azerbaijani settlements being cleared of their residents and left to ruin. 

Driving north of Stepanakert, one can barely make out the ruins of Agdam, an Azerbaijani city that met a similar fate, and now stands completely empty in the no man’s land near the contact zone. According to UNHCR figures, a total of 684,000 people were forced to flee from Armenian-controlled areas during the war, becoming internally displaced peoples in Azerbaijan, most of which continue to live in temporary accommodation. 

In Shusha itself, now presumably once more reduced to a population of close to zero, it can be difficult to tell which ruins belong to which peoples, and in which war they were destroyed. Details from the ground are scarce as of yet, but it is unlikely that many Armenian residents of Shusha remained in their homes as the city was captured, and more unlikely still that any will ever return. 

The next chapter 

So in Nagorno-Karabakh
In the predator city Shusha
I tasted these fears
Natural to the soul.
Forty thousand dead windows
Are visible from all directions,
The cocoon of soulless work
Buried at the mountains.

– Osip Mandelstam, excerpt from “The Phaeton Driver” (1931)

For Armenia, the 1992 capture of Shusha is symbolic of the Armenian war narrative as a whole. In a fierce uphill battle against the odds, the brave, tireless Armenian soldiers did what had to be done to secure an ancient homeland from an enemy with destructive, genocidal intentions. Many were forced to flee their homes, a topic best not talked about, but it was a necessary measure for the security of the Armenians of Karabakh. In the words of Karabakh army colonel Arkady Karapetyan, speaking in the joint Armenian-Azerbaijani documentary Parts of a Circle, “It was a case of ‘to be or not to be’. The enemy was annihilating us, deliberately and methodically. The choice was stark: if we do not take Shushi, we shall die.” On the road up from Stepanakert, an Armenian T-72 tank involved in the assault stands as a monument to this do-or-die spirit. Since then, as in Azerbaijan, a generation has grown up in independent Nagorno-Karabakh without the memory of coexistence in Soviet times, with their only understanding of the history of their homeland being black-and-white, us-and-them, kill-or-be-killed. 

For Azerbaijan, taking the city back in 2020 presents its own symbolic triumph. As more and more Azerbaijani settlements were returned in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, and thousands of refugees being preparing to make the difficult move back to their homes after thirty years, a collective sense of justice for perceived wrongs committed against the nation grew, and deeply-held trauma began to be eased. Seizing Shusha represented the crossing of a threshold, the entering of a new phase of a war where Azerbaijan would advance relentlessly until control was restored over all lands within her borders. Given the city’s unquestionable cultural significance, it goes without saying that the victory is an immense propaganda triumph for the authoritarian government of Aliyev, in a country where support for the war was always resolute. In the words of his late father Heydar Aliyev, “without Shusha there is no Karabakh, and without Karabakh there is no Azerbaijan”.

Since fighting stopped in 1994, the peaceful status quo was equivalent to complete Armenian victory. However, this left Azerbaijan with all the strategic initiative, all the legal and moral grounds for war, and all the time in the world to prepare. With Azerbaijan’s overwhelming economic and military superiority utilised to the fullest in the latest round of war, defeat in Nagorno-Karabakh was always looming for Armenia. It’s difficult to stomach for many Armenians, but once Baku’s war of reconquest began in earnest on 27 September, the unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh Republic was living on borrowed time. Ultimately, a settlement like that which Pashinyan signed, where Stepanakert and surrounding Armenian areas are saved, can only be described as a favourable result, from a humanitarian if not a nationalist perspective. 

The Lachin corridor, soon to be the last link between Armenia and Stepanakert, passes under the walls of Shusha before descending the mountain to the Karabakh capital. It is thus no accident that a clause of the peace deal specifically calls for a new section of road to be built so as to bypass Shusha and distance the city from the remaining Armenian presence in the region. Shusha has become the jewel in Aliyev’s crown, the triumphal arch of his victory. Any hopes that the city could serve as a future point of peaceful contact for Armenians and Azerbaijanis remain faint. Caucasus expert Thomas de Waal aptly describes the fortress city as “the Jerusalem of Karabakh”, but for now, even Jerusalem is a paragon of interethnic harmony compared to Shusha.

In the space of six weeks, the pendulum of Nagorno-Karabakh has swung in Azerbaijan’s favour, and with it, has opened a new but familiar chapter of destruction, expulsion, and civilian deaths. It’s hard to look into the near future with much optimism that this time will be different. The tale of Nagorno-Karabakh is the tale of Shusha, one of two nations long unable to accommodate the other’s existence, let alone guarantee their security. Whatever the next chapter brings, its traces are sure to be left in the ruins of Shusha. 

This article is part of a collaboration between Lossi 36 and New Eastern Europe. Lossi 36 is an online media project publishing news, analysis, and photography from Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Since 2018, we are committed to providing high-quality content while shining a spotlight on the work of students and up-and-coming professionals. Read the original post in its entirety here.

Francis Farrell is a Budapest-based graduate student at the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies at UCL, with an interest in post-Soviet conflicts as well as elections, media freedom, and opposition politics in authoritarian regimes. He has lived previously in Albania and Ukraine, working for international organisation field missions. He is passionate about engaging with the human stories of the region through language-learning and photography.

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