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Thursday, 15 November, 2001, 06:09 GMT
Fear and loathing in the Caucasus
National Assembly building, Nagorno Karabakh
The war over Nagorno Karabakh ended in unsatisfactory ceasefire
By Chloe Arnold in the Caucasus

My dour Scottish step-father always says he supports two football teams - the Scots, and whoever is playing the English.

I'm sure Armenians and Azeris say similar things about each other.

The hatred between the two nations goes back for generations, culminating in the six-year war they fought over Nagorno-Karabakh, the rolling landscape that straddles the mountains between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Nagorno-Karabakh, many say, is the most beautiful part of the region, awash with vineyards and fig trees. I'm told watermelons as big as footballs grow in the fields and pomegranate and persimmon trees groan beneath the weight of their heavy fruit.

Nagorno-Karabakh's uncertain future

But that could just be nostalgia speaking. Humanitarian aid agencies working in both countries say parts of Nagorno-Karabakh are so thick with landmines, much of the region is now completely out of bounds.

Earlier this year, two little boys were playing football in the Fizuli district, near Nagorno-Karabakh. As they chased each other, one of them stood on a mine. He lost his leg and died later that day in hospital. His friend has shrapnel wounds so deep he will never be able to play football again.

The war ended in an unsatisfactory ceasefire - more unsatisfactory for the Azeris than for the Armenians, who got to keep most of the land and six of the surrounding territories - in 1994.

Baku's main square
The Azeri capital, Baku

Hanging on the wall of our home in the Azeri capital Baku is a map of the Republic of Azerbaijan between 1918 and 1920. It's enormous. It consists of all of today's Azerbaijan, huge swathes of Georgia and most of Armenia.

"You see," the woman in the map shop told me when I bought it. "All of this used to be ours. Those wretched Armenians have taken half our country."

I'm doubtful of the accuracy of the map - I think it was probably drawn in 1994 by Azeri politicians to prove to Armenians, foreign mediators and anyone else who would listen that Azerbaijan was a giant empire before the Armenians got hold of it. I've heard Armenians have similar inflated maps of their own country.

Suspicion and accusations

The extent to which the two nations despise each other has reached new depths since the attacks in America. Almost as soon as the first of the twin towers collapsed, Azeri commentators were blaming the Armenians. Azerbaijan's ANS network spoke to its New York correspondent the day after the attacks.

"The two planes took off from Boston, which has the second largest Armenian community after California," he told viewers triumphantly.

Over in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, there was speculation that the planes had both been carrying Azeri nationals.

Yerevan, Armenia
Going to Yerevan involves a detour to Georgia

Last time I went to Armenia, I took the car. The border between Azerbaijan and Armenia is closed, so you have to go via Georgia. Instead of an eight-hour trip, it takes the best part of two days.

On the Georgian-Armenian border, I had to unscrew my Azeri number plates and put on temporary Armenian ones. Ironically, the car, a bashed-up old Niva, comes from a part of Azerbaijan that's now under Armenian occupation.

The Armenian border guard held my number plates at arm's length as though they had gone bad. "If Armenians see your Azeri plates, you could be in great danger," he told me.

A couple of weeks ago, an envelope containing white powder turned up at the office of the head of Azerbaijan's Trade Union for the Media. The union head told reporters he was in no doubt that the envelope had come from Armenia.

Even the Russian pop diva Alla Pugachova, who has had more top 10 hits than most Russians have had bowls of borshch, is treated with suspicion because Azeri politicians say her husband is half Armenian.

When the Pope visited Armenia recently to celebrate the country's 1,700th year of Christianity, the Azeris said he was taking sides. They've even gone off the Chinese because a delegation of Armenians went to China last week and signed a trade agreement.

Nevertheless, for all the public hatred, you do hear stories of friendships between the enemies. A retired soldier I know in Baku told me his best friend in the army had been an Armenian.

They served together in Kazakhstan, near the border with Russia. "There were soldiers from all over the Soviet Union," he told me, "but the man I got on best with came from Armenia.

"For years we used to write to each other," he said. "But after a while it got too dangerous. He was my greatest friend, but sadly I'm Azeri and he's Armenian. What can you do?"

Chloe Arnold
"The hatred between the two nations goes back for generations"
See also:

22 Apr 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
Age-old enmity in the Caucasus
03 Jun 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
Tug-of-war for Nagorno-Karabakh
12 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
Nagorno-Karabakh negotiators end visit
28 Sep 01 | Europe
Timeline: Azerbaijan
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