Europe should stand up to Turkey and protect the cultural heritage in Nagorno Karabakh

When we arrived in the war zone in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno Karabakh, a patch of land in the southern Caucasus disputed between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the signs of the raging battle were everywhere. We visited the destroyed homes of citizens, bombed schools and we had to sleep in anti-aircraft shelters to avoid the night bombings of the dreaded Azerbaijani drones.

We met again the drones at the frontline when, running from one trench to another and keeping our heads down, we had to maintain a distance of a couple of meters from each other, not to observe the rules imposed by Covid-19, but to avoid becoming the favourite target of Bayraktar, the Turkish-made drones that had been decimating the Armenian army from the start of the conflict.

And precisely the hum of those drones was the only thing more terrifying than the thunder of the Azerbaijani artillery that was approaching our positions. That’s also why while we were in the vehicles going from one front line to the other, we always had to listen outside the open window to be ready to catapult ourselves outside of the car at the first drone buzz or when the siren was sounding to warn the whole population that a potential bombing was arriving. 

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The war, which erupted on Sept. 27, lasted six weeks and around 5,000 were killed with 8,000 injured. But the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has much older roots and it is since the early 1990s when, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the two newly independent Republics clashed for the control of a territory that they both consider the cradle of their civilizations and that, despite being inhabitated mainly by Armenians, is de jure part of Azerbaijan.

But the end of the war doesn’t mean the beginning of peace. The peace agreement wanted by Moscow and signed on the night between Nov. 9 and Nov. 10 is a real capitulation for Armenia. Armenians will now have to leave a large part of Artsakh, how they refer to Nagorno Karabakh, the region that in the 4th century became the first Christian kingdom in history. Above all, they will have to leave Shushi, a symbolic city nicknamed the Armenian Jerusalem, whose cathedral was bombed by the Azeris during the first days of the conflict. There was nothing the Armenian soldiers could have done against the Azerbaijani army, the thousands of jihadist militia supported by Turkey and the political and military support of Ankara, Baku’s best ally. The same Turkey which obtained a great geopolitical victory from the peace agreement. Indeed, there is a clause in the deal, little discussed in the media, which provides for the establishment of a corridor between Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan on the border with Turkey. Through this corridor, Erdogan has now gained access to the Caspian Sea and its energy resources passing only through Azerbaijan, its very faithful ally.

Currently, the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh, women, the elderly, children are lining up in their cars. They are running away, bringing with them everything they can. There are some who are even carrying the coffins of their loved ones on the roof of their cars. They lost the war and don’t want to lose anything else. The houses are burned by those who have to leave them behind so as not to give them to the enemy.

But leaving those lands also means abandoning Christian churches, monasteries, basilicas. It means abandoning sacred and symbolic places such as the Cathedral of Shushi, symbol of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Dadivank monastery, whose chapel dates back to the 1st century and was built by the fathers of Christianity who had arrived from Syria. It means leaving behind the remains of the fortress-city of Tigranakert erected in the 1st century BC. to defend the eastern borders or the sanctuary of Martuni from where the monks of the 5th century began to spread the Armenian alphabet.

But now this cultural heritage is at risk. As historians and academics point out, after the conquest of Azerbaijan in the demographically Armenian region of Nakhchivan, 89 churches and 10,000 stone crosses, the famous “khachkars”, were destroyed. There was no trace left of a millennial Armenian presence in that region. Now allthis risks repeating itself in a wider territory. Despite the deployment of Russian peacekeeping forces, there is a real risk that the millennial physical and cultural presence of Armenia could be erased forever from Nagorno Karabakh, as it happened in Turkey after the 1915 genocide.

Erasing historical memory is – unfortunately – common among the winning forces of wars. Safeguarding Armenia’s artistic, cultural and religious heritage must be everyone’s priority. It would be desirable that, to make up for the absence of any sign of solidarity with Armenia on the part of Europe, the European Union would take up such role which, in collaboration with UNESCO, could send a mission to monitor the situation in Nagorno Karabakh and thus avoid a dreaded “cultural genocide.”

Photogallery © marcogombacci