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Sunday, 22 April, 2001, 12:30 GMT 13:30 UK
Age-old enmity in the Caucasus
Stepanakert as seen from the mountains
Azeri gunners used to target Stepanakert from the mountains
By Rob Parsons in the southern Caucasus

Azerbaijan and Armenia have been holding talks on the disputed territory of the southern Caucasus.

But the people living in the region are not optimistic about the outcome.

Julia steps out of the government guest house and smiles at me. What does she see, I wonder - what does she think I make of the madness that has pummeled and moulded her life?

The market in Stepanakert
The Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh cannot just forgive and forget
For Julia is an Armenian living in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. During her lifetime, she has witnessed the age-old emnity between the Azeris and the Armenians spiral into a full-scale war in the early 1990s.

It was a bitter conflict that left tens of thousands dead, and ended in the total disappearance of the Azeris from the region.

Julia transfers her gaze from me and looks out across the valley that slopes away from the back of the house.

It's early morning and the hills are wet and green. She points at a clutter of houses on the far side. "That's Meli Beylu,' she says. "It used to be an Azeri village but it's empty now."

Deserted village

She says this in a matter of fact sort of way. There's no malice or gloating. I think she expects me to understand.

I follow the line of her finger and can just make out the village, barely visible in Karabakh's April mists, and can think of nothing to say.

Who can imagine the terror that caused an entire village to abandon everything it had ever lived for and flee?

"During the war, the Azeris in Meli Beylu shelled this house every day," says Julia.

"Every day when they had finished, I'd go out into the yard and gather together the shrapnel from the explosions. By the end the piles were mountains."

I ask whether she knows about the talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan on the future of Karabakh. She say she does.


If we let them back, everything we fought for will have been in vain

Julia, Armenian villager
Can she imagine allowing her former neighbours to come back? "Never," she says, looking out over a hillside of blossoming peach trees. "If we let them back, everything we fought for will have been in vain."

What is it that can turn this otherwise kind and gentle woman into something of stone?

Embedded hatred

Seven years have passed since the fighting stopped and a ceasefire confirmed the Armenians' crushing victory, but their hearts haven't softened towards a beaten and humiliated enemy.

Memories in Nagorno-Karabakh are too long. Seven years is but an instant. They still talk of the Turkish genocide of Armenians in 1915 as if it were yesterday.

And Azeris to the Armenians are indistinguishable from Turks.

The two peoples have shared the mountainous region of Karabakh - the black garden of shared legend - for centuries.


Now, for the first time in all those years there is not a single Azeri left - not one. All their villages are empty, their houses violated, their cemeteries and places of worship left to decay.

Restored city

The capital of Nagorno-Karabakh is Stepanakert (Khenkendi to the Azeris). To look at, it's nothing remarkable - not unless you had seen it at the end of the war.

Seven years ago, there was scarcely a building in the city that had not been damaged by shellfire.

You wouldn't know it now - Stepanakert is without doubt the tidiest, smartest town in the southern Caucasus. The transformation is remarkable - testament to a people's determination to rise from the ashes of war, and to justify the sacrifice made in blood.

But the surface orderliness of brick and cement belies a psyche buckled and twisted by six years of savagery.

Thirty five thousand people died, and whole families, sometimes villages, were cut down with merciless cruelty - victims of a Caucasian vendetta impervious to reason and the healing qualities of time.

Stepanakert market
Stepanakert is now a thriving city

Seven years after the war ended, Nagorno- Karabakh remains one of the most militarised patches of earth on the planet - its people frozen in a perpetual grimace of defiance.

Iron wills

On the parade ground of the Karabakhi army, the deputy commander cuts an alarming and unusual figure.

She's known by her nickname - Khanum, the lady. The name is a deliberate irony that refers to her years as a fighter in the war.

Khanum is middle-aged and what one would politely call stout, but I don't doubt for one moment that she struck terror in Azeri hearts.

Her face does not appear to smile - bitterness seems etched in every crease and fold. Before my eyes she berates a soldier for sloppy dress. She punches him in the face - not once, not twice, but three times, while his comrades look on in horror.

There is iron in the soul of the Armenians of Karabakh, and not without reason. When the Azeris had the upper hand, they showed no mercy. In fact, at times they behaved with sickening cruelty.

For years on end, the people of Stepanakert were sitting ducks for Azeri gunners in the strategic heights above. So perhaps there is little wonder that compromise is not part of the Armenian Karabakhi vocabulary.

But it is as if no lessons have been learned. Less than 100 miles away, the refugees from those empty villages are thinking of nothing else but taking back what is their's - by force if necessary.

The Armenians and Azeris of Karabakh are still feeding their wrath, still blowing on the embers of ancient hatreds.

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See also:

04 Apr 01 | Europe
US pressure over Nagorno-Karabakh
25 Oct 97 | West Asia
Karabakh: Are Things Moving?
24 Nov 98 | Europe
New plan for Nagorny-Karabakh
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