The Karabakh Conundrum: A journey to the frontlines of Azerbaijan and the Armenian occupied Karabakh.
On the early morning of April 29, we landed at Heyder Aliyev International airport in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. The airport is named after the late President Heyder Aliyev, whose son Ilhem Aliyev is now the President.
We were there to report the latest flare up on the Azerbaijan-Armenia frontline, where a large territory is occupied by Armenian separatists. The region has been the centre of one of the longest running territorial disputes in the world. Hundreds of people have been killed in fighting between Armenia-backed separatists and Azerbaijan over nearly three decades.
As the Soviet Union’s grip over its Azerbaijani enclave loosened, Karabakh’s ethnic majority of Armenians insisted on their right to being independent or to accede to Armenia. Azerbaijan retorted that Karabakh and its people belonged to Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory. The Armenian army invaded and occupied the part of Azerbaijan between Armenia and Karabakh---that particular area, which is larger than the size of Sri Lanka, is referred to by the Armenians as Ngorno-Karabakh and by Azerbaijan as Occupied Karabakh. A ceasefire was agreed upon in 1994 between Azerbaijan and Armenia but contesting claims over territory remain.
Violence along the disputed area were renewed earlier this year and has brought the two countries to the brink of conflict. Armenian rebels have been firing mortar shells into Azerbaijan, killing and injuring many. Azerbaijan has responded with mortar attacks of its own.
On a bus full of journalists travelling to the frontline, we met Murad Orujov, an Azeri journalist working for Russia’s Sputnik news agency. Orujov had lived in Azerbaijan for most of his life but had also spent a few years outside of the country. “During my time outside, I came to understand something about Azerbaijan”, Murad told me. “We, Azerbaijanis are often struggling between our Turkic roots and Soviet past,” he said.
Azerbaijan, which means, “the land of fire,” is situated on the banks of the Caspian Sea. Georgia and Russia are its neighbours to the North. Iran lies to its south and Armenia borders to the West. Azerbaijan's rich oil reserves helped transform the country borne out of the fall of the Soviet Union into a major energy player. Rising oil prices in the past decade also helped Azerbaijan buildup its armed forces; Israel, Russia, and the United States have supplied the bulk of its sophisticated weaponry.
Acquiring weapons has been a top priority for the Aliyev government, which is concerned about the conflict with Armenian separatists occupying Karabakh since 1988 and the Armenian army occupying Azerbaijani lands beyond the disputed territory.
Many people have also been injured on both sides. Some of the injured were being treated at the Barda medical centre. Abdullah Ifnizami, a Karabakh resident was comforting his son, who had been severely injured in Armenian shelling. ‘My son was hit by shrapnel in the shoulder and lower abdomen,’ said Ifnizami.
Azerbaijan has the support of a varied number of countries in its position on the disputed lands. Some of its supporters are Turkey, Pakistan, and Israel. Some might find the Israeli support unexpected but it has roots in the story of the persecution of European and Soviet Jews and also has a major arms and energy trade relationship.
After the hospital, we travelled for two hours, inching closer to Agdam, an area on the frontline, where Armenian mortars had destroyed buildings including a school. Meheremova Aybeniz Familgiz, the school principal, saw the building shaking before she heard the explosion. Fortunately, the classes had ended and the children had left for their homes. Nobody was hurt.
‘Four of our classrooms were completely destroyed and the roof caved in’, she said. I asked her if she feared schools in Armenian controlled lands were also hit by Azerbaijani shelling. ‘Never,’ she said, in agitation. ‘Azerbaijan doesn’t shell Armenian civilian areas’.
Armenia accuses Azerbaijan of firing mortars into Occupied Karabakh and targeting Armenian separatists. Azerbaijan retorts that it only responds to Armenian shelling, and ‘only targets areas with known armed presence’. Unlike missiles, mortars and rockets aren’t guided and can land within a fifteen-kilometre radius.
Azerbaijan continues to reject direct contact with Armenian separatists in control of occupied Karabakh. The separatists for their part maintain they will not accept any agreement, where their approval is not featured and insist on being included in the conflict resolution process.
The country which complicates the picture is Russia's, which continues to provide weapons to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. No solution seems to be in sight. ‘It’s time we fixed the Armenian problem,’ Ifnizami, the father of the injured son at the Barda hospital told TRT World.