By Guest Writer – Gwenan Edwards in Stepanakert.
It’s Sunday morning in Stepanakert and Nikolai Nersisyan sits on a bench in the sunshine gazing at the comings and goings of the sleepy town centre. Dressed smartly in a suit and mesh trilby hat, the 81-year-old plays with worry beads, and has a pensive expression on his face that is interrupted only when his pet dog, Laika playfully rubs against his feet. I have never seen a dog like Laika before. She has doleful eyes and is very friendly – but her coat is so badly matted, she looks almost like a creature from another planet. My translator cries out in fear as Laika tries to get close to her. I discover that she does not like dogs.
The scene is typical of Stepanakert – the capital of Nagorno Karabakh. When I tell friends I am visiting – the common question is “where on earth is that”? Even a well-travelled journalist friend asks the same. The answer, I say, is in the south Caucasus. It is an Armenian enclave – about the size of Luxembourg, in Azerbaijan (hence my need for a translator). But in the eyes of international law, it is a country that does not exist – no UN member state officially recognises it.
Despite the apparent peace in the capital, Nagorno Karabakh has faced conflict on and off for years – the result of an unresolved dispute between Azerbaijan and its ethnic Armenian majority. It has a population of around 150,000 and the region is backed by neighbouring Armenia. It is often described as one of post-Soviet Europe’s “frozen conflicts”. The latest outbreak of violence on its borders was in April. For many it was unexpected, with dozens of soldiers killed on both sides and allegations of elderly civilians being targeted in brutal acts of violence.
The history of the dispute is complex. After the Soviet Union lessened its control at the end of the 1980s, the region’s parliament voted to join Armenia. During the fighting that followed, it is estimated that up to 30,000 people lost their lives, with ethnic Armenians eventually gaining control of the region. In 1991, with the break-up of the Soviet Union, Nagorno Karabakh – which is predominantly Christian, declared its independence, although its de facto status is not recognised internationally. A Russian-brokered ceasefire was signed three years later in 1994 – but there have been sporadic flare-ups ever since.
Currently, there is one mountainous road into the region – a six hour drive from Armenia’s capital, Yerevan. A new airport which reopened in 2011 has never been used, as Azeri troops threaten to shoot down any planes which take off.
I ask Nikolai what daily life is like. He says it has become more difficult since his wife died two years ago. He looks down at his worry beads and reflects. He was in charge of a building company for 40 years, he says. He had four children – three sons and a daughter – but two of his sons are now dead. He does not go into detail, but says one of them died as a result of injuries sustained in the conflict. I try to ask him more about it, but the moment is lost when we are interrupted by a series of loud ‘squeals’ in the road. Laika has wandered into the path of a car and it catches her paw. Nikolai shouts for her to come to him, but she limps off, and he looks on with an air of resignation.
Returning to our conversation, Nikolai says that now, life is hard for him – his pension is low, so he has little money, but he is being looked after by one of his grandchildren. “Karabakh is the best place in the world,” he says, but he does not know when the conflict will end. In a comment which catches me off guard, he ends our conversation by saying it will take another Stalin to sort out the country’s problems. Then, at least he says, “the state looked after its people”.
As I walk across town, we chat to a group of uniformed men who work as rescuers for the Ministry of Emergency Situations. They are relaxing, enjoying the sunshine, and ask where I am from. I explain I am a journalist from the UK. The local taxi drivers also look intrigued. They talk little about April’s violence, but as I walk away – one of them shouts out after me. I wonder if he has thought of a response to my question about the conflict, but it seems his retort is unrelated. My translator laughs and tells me; “He says Brexit is good – the UK is strong enough without Europe”.
Downtown I meet up with two young people – Argishti, 25 and Lilit, 22. Both speak excellent English and are very articulate. Around 40% of the population of Nagorno Karabakh speak English – the official language is Armenian with Russian close behind. Lilit studied Economics at university and is now working. Argishti is studying for a Masters in Political Science. Both live at home and are dressed in fashionable, western clothes. Every so often, I notice Argishti checking his Samsung smart phone. He tells me that he believes education is vital. “My mother has a PhD and I also need to be well educated in order to get a good job”.
I ask Lilit about the conflict and how much it affects her daily life. “I’m not that interested in politics, it doesn’t play a big part in my life, but my mother watches the news every day to see what’s going on – that’s just her character”, she says. I ask what they feel about Azerbaijan and the Azeris – especially since April’s renewed violence. Emotions obviously run deep, but the response is measured. “We don’t hate them”, says Argishti, “they are people just like us, we don’t describe them as enemies, we call them opponents”.
Both say they want to stay in Nagorno Karabakh and have no intention of leaving. “Our lives and families are here. This is our homeland. I would be surprised if our friends moved away,” says Lilit. I ask them what sort of social life they have. They grin and say there are no pubs in Stepanakert – most of their socialising is done at one another’s homes. Argishti says he acts as a DJ when friends are having a pool party. A pool party? I repeat – thinking I have misheard. Lilit laughs at my reaction. “Yes, we’re young, we’re just the same as everyone else!” she says. And as I take photos before they leave, I conclude that wherever you are in the world – whatever the circumstances, life has a determined way of carrying on…
** Armenia and Azerbaijan have agreed to resume negotiations in June with the aim of reaching a settlement to the dispute. In a statement, Armenian President, Serzh Sargsyan and Azerbaijan President, Ilham Aliyev reiterated their commitment to the current ceasefire.
Gwenan Edwards is former BBC News anchor and is now a freelance journalist.