Battle Over Shusha Highlights Armenian-Azerbaijani Tensions

When Alvina Nersisyan’s husband told her to lock up their apartment and drive their kids somewhere safe, she thought they’d be away for a couple of days—maybe a month at most. “I only took a few documents and my laptop,” the 39-year-old university lecturer says. “No valuables and no family photos, because none of us believed we wouldn’t be able to return.” That was almost two years ago, and she hasn’t been back since to her home in the city of Shushi in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

The cliffside settlement of just a few thousand residents is known as Shushi by the Armenians who call it their home and Shusha by the Azerbaijanis that now own it. It has been renamed many times throughout its long history. Before their Azerbaijani neighbours drove them out, Armenians made up nearly half the population. They then destroyed their section of the city during a 1920 pogrom. Amid the collapse of the Soviet Union, a brutal war from 1988-1994 saw Armenian forces capture virtually all of Nagorno-Karabakh, displacing around 600,000 Azerbaijanis in the region including over 90% of Shusha’s population. In 2020, Azerbaijani troops invaded the region. Shushi was seized by Shushi on November 8. This prompted several thousand Armenians to flee. In the same city, around 2,000 soldiers from both sides were killed.

“This will be a great day in our history,” said Azerbaijan’s strongman President Ilham Aliyev, following Shushi’s fall. As part of a Moscow-brokered ceasefire agreement, signed in November 2020 and ratified by Armenians, large swathes of Nagorno–Karabakh were also transferred. This left Armenians with around one third of this region. The region.

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Azerbaijan is now looking to extend those dramatic wartime gains; in May 2021, Azerbaijan declared Shusha its “cultural capital” as part of a bid to cement control of both the city and the wider Nagorno-Karabakh region, where Armenians form a majority of the population. A number of conferences and events are planned for the city to be a place where art, music and learning can flourish. And throughout September, Azerbaijanis across the country and as far afield as Germany and France are celebrating what they say is the 270th anniversary of Shusha’s founding. “We have restored the territorial integrity of our country and national dignity by selflessly fighting and shedding blood,” Aliyev said, at the end of August.

But, given the city’s complex, multi-layered past, the celebrations and March declaration risks inflaming wider Armenian-Azerbaijani tensions.

“Shusha is ours”

In recent months, the city has become a hive of activity amid Azerbaijan’s plan to enshrine Shusha as its cultural capital. Two glitzy new hotels have been built for approved visitors—mainly official delegations and those Azerbaijanis privileged enough to pull strings and get hold of the government permits needed to visit, given that the military is still in charge of much of the region. The construction workers work tirelessly on floodlit sites to put up apartment blocks or conferences centers. “It’s very hard to forecast how much all the work here will cost,” says Emin Huseynov, the Special Representative of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh. “It’s a massive project but there’s no doubt it will transform the region forever.” Most officials and experts TIME speaks to can’t put a dollar-sum on the construction blitz but agree it runs in the billions—a major undertaking despite Azerbaijan’s oil-rich economy.

Others parts of Shusha remain the same as when shooting stopped two-years ago. Named after an Armenian composer, Daniel Ghazaryan Music school in downtown Shusha still bears dusty footprints from when they were kicked in. Bricks remain piled high as it was during its time as a firing range. The school’s gymnasium has been barricaded, and documents written in Armenian are strewn through the corridors. To celebrate their victory, dozens of Azerbaijani soldiers have etched their names and hometowns on the walls of classrooms. One message, written in red marker behind a shattered Soviet-era piano, reads “Shusha is ours.”

A large tent with a white roof has been constructed for the young Azerbaijani diaspora to view soccer. It is located between unlit buildings. Qarabağ FK, which is based in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, is playing, and a cheer goes up from the crowd when they score. Ihan, 22, a 22-year old student of finance at University of Warsaw (Poland), is also among them. “This is my homeland,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how far away or if we change our passports—we belong to this land.”

One of the conference’s organizers, Gunel Atkinson-Nasibova, has traveled from France for the opportunity to be one of the first Azerbaijanis to see the city since the war. “It’s wonderful to see so many smart young people coming here to learn about our heritage,” she says, and hopes her own children will one day make the trip as well. Atkinson-Nasibova, like Ilhan, isn’t from Nagorno-Karabakh, but sees the region as a core part of her Azerbaijani national identity, even while living abroad.

On the city’s main Gazanchi street, plaques have been put up marking the former homes of major Azerbaijani cultural figures, such as Uzeyir Hajibeyov, who is touted as having in 1908 created the first opera in a Muslim-majority country. Hajibeyov, one of three cast-metal busts dominating the square’s central square are also among those who were honored. They all have holes left by shelling and gunfire. Bulbul and Khurshudbanu Navan, a poet, are also featured. Baku claims that the Armenians tried to make them scrap metal, which Yerevan denies.

Since the 2020 war, Yerevan appears to have conceded it could have done more to protect that heritage, and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan raised eyebrows in November by describing it as a “sad, gray city” that never received the investment it deserved. “Did we need Shushi?” he asked, “and if so, why wasn’t it left in better condition?”

Contested history

Despite Pashniyan’s comments, the city has a near-mythical status for Armenians, as it does for Azerbaijanis. “From the 1820s, Shushi became one of the major cultural centers for Eastern Armenians,” says Raffi Kortoshian, the co-director of the Research on Armenian Architecture foundation, who is based in Yerevan. “Now Azerbaijan is trying to neutralize that history from all the territory under its control.”

Numerous reports of Armenian graveyards being desecrated and churches in Armenia have been reported since the conflict. This is a direct attack on their historical presence. There have been videos online showing Azerbaijani troops destroying sculptures. Meanwhile, plans were published to transform one chapel into another mosque.

In March, the European Parliament passed a motion that condemned Azerbaijan for “erasing and denying the Armenian cultural heritage in and around Nagorno-Karabakh,” which it assessed to be part of a “systematic, state-level policy of Armenophobia, historical revisionism and hatred towards Armenians.”

Baku however denies that the campaign is to wipe out any Armenians who live in the region. Ruslan Anvarli, who is in charge of cultural heritage protection for Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Culture, argues its officials are trying to reverse “the overall destruction caused during 30 years of occupation by Armenia” and “protect sites that require urgent intervention.”

Restoration work has already begun on Shusha’s mosques, which Anvarli says were allowed to fall into ruin over the past three decades. “We found this as you see it now,” says Farid, the supervisor of a crew working on the Ashaghi Govhar Agha mosque, pointing at its crumbling walls and missing minaret.

At the same time, the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, which was the main place of worship for Armenians, has been fenced off and covered completely with scaffolding—virtually shielding it from view. It was bombed during the 2020 war by Azerbaijani forces while journalists and civilians sheltered inside, in what Human Rights Watch has described as a “possible war crime.” “No visitors are allowed because of construction work,” a Kalashinkov-carrying soldier outside tells TIME, but declines to explain why there are no workers or building machinery to be seen.

A man walks inside the damaged Ghazanchetsots (Holy Saviour) Cathedral in the historic city of Shusha, October 2020. (Aris Messinis—AFP/Getty Images)

In October 2020, a man is seen walking inside Shusha’s Ghazanchetsots (Holy Saviour Cathedral) damaged Ghazanchetsots (Holy Saviour).

Aris Messinis—AFP/Getty Images

Continue reading: Amnesty Says: War Crimes in Nagorno Karabakh by Armenia and Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan is planning to relocate Nagorno-Karabakh’s residents who fled the violence in the 1990s. Local officials claim that Shusha would eventually be home to 30,000 people. Nearly 20,000 Azerbaijanis, who lived there 30 years ago, will then go on the hunt for homes. The rubble-strewn capital is home to mainly Azerbaijani residents and their families.

Mohubbet Samadov (69), was one of many Azerbaijanis who were forced from Shusha and surrounding areas in the 1990s. He claims that he is an agricultural worker who has lived in poverty as a refugee for the past 20 years and dreams of his return to home. On the day that the ceasefire in 2020 was signed, he returned to Agali, his destroyed village. “I wouldn’t wish being displaced on anyone,” he adds, with a sigh, “and even if they were Armenians, I would try to help them if I could.”

Many thousands of Armenians are now in the same situation that Samadov and the other Azerbaijanis were in in the 1990s.

Protection of the Past

The chances of both sides coming together to save their common heritage seem slim considering the recent hostilities. But, international mediators are being sought to help them resolve their differences.

Elman Abdullayev, Azerbaijan’s permanent delegate to the U.N.’s cultural heritage agency, UNESCO, says that Baku would “welcome a mission from the organization to our territory as soon as possible.” According to him, that would help demonstrate “Azerbaijan is committed to preserving rich cultural heritage in this special place.” He says that such a move has previously been blocked by Yerevan.

Gegham Stepanyan (the human rights ombudsman in the Nagorno Karabakh-Recognized Majority-Armenian Republic of Artsakh), responded that he is open to a visiting expert group. “Work by a prestigious international organization like UNESCO could be a valuable step,” he says, “and it would have a deterrent effect in preventing further cases of vandalism.”

Nersisyan feels that this history is already passing away. He lives in Stepanakert, an Armenian-held town in Nagorno Karabakakh. “I can always find a new apartment to live in, so I don’t feel pity for myself. It’s the churches that I cannot enter. I feel pity for the ancient streets I can no longer walk on,” she says. “I can’t believe I won’t ever be able to go back.”

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