Shusha Armenians recall their bittersweet victory

Report
from Institute for War and Peace Reporting
Published on 10 May 2002
Armenians in the oldest town in Nagorny Karabakh remember how a decade ago their forces captured it from the Azerbaijanis - and then burned it.
By Thomas de Waal in Shusha (CRS No. 128, 10-May-02)

Each morning from his veranda Albert Khachaturian stares across at his former place of work with infinite sadness.

Built at the turn of the last century, the magnificent neo-classical three-storey college of Shusha lies in ruins ten years after Armenians captured the town from Azerbaijanis on May 8-9, 1992, in the pivotal battle of the war over Nagorny Karabakh.

"There are plans to restore it," Khachaturian said last month. "The first step is to put a roof on to stop the rain coming in."

For Khachaturian, who used to teach in the college, and other Armenians still living in Shusha (or Shushi as they call it) the bitter irony is that it was Armenians, not Azerbaijanis who burned their town. After a battle that lasted less than 24 hours, the Azerbaijanis abandoned their last stronghold in Karabakh almost intact. However, Armenians came in and set the town on fire. Ten years on, at least 80 per cent of Shusha is still in ruins.

After Armenian forces captured the town, hundreds of people swarmed into it, looting and burning. Mher Gabrielian, a Shusha Armenian, recalled how he and a group of friends managed to prevent the destruction of some of its cultural landmarks. They stood in front of one of the town's elegant mosques and stopped an armoured personnel carrier firing shells into its façade. Then they barricaded themselves into the town museum to ensure its carpets and paintings were not looted.

Gabrielian took part in the capture of Shusha and recalled his excitement as he rushed home to his apartment in the abandoned city on the morning of May 9, 2002. He wrote his name in large letters on the sitting-room wall, so that when his brother, who was in another part of the Armenian attacking force, headed for home as well, he would know that Mher was alive.

But Gabrielian said that the town of his youth is gone for ever, destroyed in a couple of days after the Armenian victory. Blaming "teenagers" and petty vandals for burning the town, he said that he and other Shusha Armenians share the sadness of their former Azerbaijani neighbours about what happened to their hometown. "I know it's very painful for them and it is for us too," said Gabrielian, who now lives in the Armenian capital, Yerevan. "I personally do not consider myself the victor of this town."

In an interview, Arkady Ter-Tatevosian, the Armenian commander who masterminded the capture of Shusha, blamed the burning of the town on aggrieved Armenian citizens living in neighbouring Stepanakert who had endured months of Azerbaijani shelling. "The [Armenian] Karabakhis have a very bad habit, a superstition, of burning houses, so the enemy cannot return," said Ter-Tatevosian.

The seizure of Shusha was a strategic necessity for the Armenians, if they were to break the siege of Stepanakert and link Nagorny Karabakh to Armenia. The battle turned the tide of the war. Ter-Tatevosian is credited with leading an operation, which resulted in relatively few casualties, considering the scale of the task. He made sure that two roads out of Shusha were left free, with the result that most of the demoralised defending force simply fled the town, as the Armenians attacked.

Shusha, situated dramatically on a cliff-top, is the oldest citadel in Karabakh. The town was built in 1750 by the Azerbaijani dynastic leader Panakh Khan in his drive to dominate the region. After that it grew into the third largest town in the Caucasus, home to a prosperous population of both Azerbaijanis and Armenians, famous as the "cradle" of Azerbaijani poets and musicians and the hometown of many Armenian architects and sculptors.

In 1920, at the height of warfare over Nagorny Karabakh, an Azerbaijani army burned the Armenian quarter of the town and killed hundreds of its inhabitants. As a result, 90 per cent of its population was Azerbaijani in Soviet times. All of them were driven out in 1992 and now live in exile in Azerbaijan.

The status of Shusha is one of the thorniest issues in the protracted negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorny Karabakh. For Azerbaijan, the right of its citizens to return to Shusha is of paramount importance, while Armenians say they cannot surrender a strategic fortress right in the middle of Karabakh.

Since they captured Shusha in 1992, the Armenians have rebuilt the imposing church of Gazanchetsots (the mosques are abandoned and in a poor state of repair, but still intact). Recently, a hotel opened in the town. But the population of the once great town is still less than 3,000, compared to 20,000 in 1988 and more than 40,000 in 1900. The Armenians who live there are mainly refugees from Azerbaijan. There is little work and many of them go to Stepanakert to earn a living.

Khachaturian is unusual in still living in his native town and working there. He teaches mathematics in a school on the main street. But there is melancholy in his voice as he looks around the ruins of Shusha. "We used to live very well here, very well," he said.

Thomas de Waal is IWPR's Caucasus Editor. His book on the Nagorny Karabakh conflict will be published at the end of this year.