Agdam, Azerbaijan (AFP) – Azerbaijani forces entered the war-ravaged ghost town of Agdam on Friday, reclaiming the once-darling city for a quarter of a century after Armenian forces drove it out.
Aghdam and the surrounding area of the same name is the first of several regions bordering separatist Nagorno Karabakh that were handed over under the ceasefire that ended six weeks of heavy fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said in a speech to the nation, “Today, with a sense of endless pride, I inform my people of the liberation of Agdam.” Agam us!
Crowds of people carrying national flags gathered in the Azerbaijani capital Baku to celebrate the handover of power.
Nagorno Karabakh is located within Azerbaijan but has been under the control of Armenian ethnic forces backed by Armenia since the separatist war ended there in 1994. This war not only left Nagorno Karabakh itself, but also large surrounding areas in Armenian hands.
The fierce fighting that broke out on September 27 was the largest escalation of the decades-long conflict between the two former Soviet countries in more than a quarter of a century, killing hundreds of people and possibly thousands more.
Aliyev described the takeover of the region as a “great political success” that would not have been possible without military gains.
The president said, “Azerbaijan was able to achieve what it wanted on the political arena after achieving a great victory on the battlefield.”
The agreement, which was celebrated as a victory in Azerbaijan, left many Armenians bitter. Immediately after the peace agreement was announced last week, mass protests erupted in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, and many Armenians left the lands to be handed over to Azerbaijan and set fire to their homes in a bitter farewell gesture.
Although the restoration of Aghdam is a victory for Azerbaijan, the joy of return is filled with grief and anger as Azerbaijanis face the devastation afflicting Azerbaijan.
Agdam was once home to 50,000 people, and is known for its white houses and a three-story café, but it is so destroyed that it is sometimes called “Hiroshima of the Caucasus”.
After residents were driven out in 1993 because of the fighting, Armenian looters followed, stripping the city from the open, looking for spoils and building materials. The Bread Museum has become one of the happiest weird things in town. The cognac factory went.
Today, the only structurally complete building is the mosque. From the top of elaborately decorated minarets, the view extends over a vast area of jagged concrete and shell houses, all encroached upon by the growth of vegetation for a quarter of a century.
Under Armenian control, the mosque was used for years as a stable for cattle and pigs, an impurity that greatly angered Azerbaijanis. The livestock are now gone, but the mosque is in ruins. A small number of soldiers and a cleric held Friday prayers amid its scraped and scarred walls.
“Now a new period begins for Agdam,” Aliyev said. “We have big plans.”
Aliyev said his government aims to reclaim Agdam and other lands after the areas are cleared.
The Armenians believed that after this destruction, the Azerbaijani population would not return to these lands. They were wrong. They do not know that in the heart of the Azerbaijani people – in the soul of our people, indigenous lands will live and will live forever. “
Agdam was a place that many Azerbaijanis felt with special attention, not least because of its position as the center for the breeding of the Karabakh horse which is considered the national animal.
Still another bitter and proud memory of Agdam – it was home to the first victims of the region’s slide into chaos.
In February 1988, two days after the Nagorno-Karabakh Parliament requested to link the autonomous region with Soviet Armenia, a group of angry men set off from Agdam to the regional capital, Stepanakert. Before they got there, the police and villagers of Armenian descent encountered them; Two protesters were shot dead.
News of their deaths sparked outrage in Agdam and a crowd assembled weapons to start heading to Stepanakert. But a local woman stood on the roof of a car and threw her scarf into the road – a sign that local tradition forbids men from going further. The dramatic accident was memorialized by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the most famous poet of the Soviet Union, who described her work as “almost insane / foolishness of kindness / only wisdom that saves us.”
In stark contrast to the complete destruction of the city of Agdam, the ethnic Armenians took serious interest in one of their major historical sites in the province. Tigranakert foundations, dating back more than 2,000 years, have undergone archaeological excavations and some of what has been found have been placed in an 18th-century castle.
With the handover of Agdam nearing, workers this week worked to remove some artifacts including the carved stone, which required the efforts of many men to lift them.
“These artifacts belong to this city, and we are taking these artifacts to our museum so that our Azerbaijani brothers will not get them,” said one of the workers, whose name was mentioned only as Arman. “Because they will deform them to the very last pebble.”
Associated Press authors Jim Heinz and Daria Litvinova in Moscow and Aida Sultanova in London contributed to this report.