In a chapel of the Dadivank monastery, Armenians come to pray huddle together. This November 13, they wanted to meditate among the ocher stones of this thousand-year-old ensemble, which is one of the highest places of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Nagorno-Karabakh. Many cry. They keep their eyes fixed on the candles so as not to see the jackhammer that workers are installing in a corner of the room.
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Three young women begin a sad hymn. As if to give courage, as one holds the hand of a dying person. Suddenly the machine starts up. The jackhammer smashes a section of wall to detach the khachkar, a richly carved stone cross that the authorities hope to save.
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What will happen to the rest? The monastery is located in the Kelbadjar region, which is to be returned to Azerbaijan, as provided for in the peace agreement signed on November 9. All fear that the new arrivals will destroy the holy place and its khachkar, as was done in the neighboring region of Nakhichevan.
An inconceivable cohabitation
Guardian of the monastery, Father Hovhannès became angry when he saw soldiers carry the dislodged stelae on their shoulders. “ Where did this order come from? he yells over the phone. The monastery remains with us or it passes to the Turks? Nobody knows anything! “ From the bottom of the valley, smoke rises from a house that its owner burned down before leaving. Cohabitation is inconceivable.
“In six months, it will be a very beautiful Albanian church”, smiles Krikor (1), 30, who disguises his sadness in black humor. He fears that the Azerbaijanis will rewrite the history of the place. On Twitter, Azerbaijani Deputy Minister of Culture Anar Karimov claimed that the monastery was not built by the Armenians, but by the ancient kingdom of the Caucasian Albanians: a way to legitimize the takeover of this territory populated by Armenians, but which international law recognizes as part of Azerbaijan.
The emotion cut off their voices
Like many here, Krikor and his friends came from Yerevan early in the morning to admire the monastery one last time. Musicians, they had planned to organize a concert to say goodbye to this beloved place. Arrived there, the emotion cut their voices. The requiem did not take place. They pray in silence, then take to the road. The retrocession of the Kelbadjar region marks the end of the territorial continuity between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Two corridors are to be set up under Russian control, but no one knows when.
A flight to Armenia
The musicians decide to go to Stepanakert, the capital of the Republic of Artsakh, the name of the unrecognized state of Nagorno-Karabakh. On the road, they pass overloaded cars speeding towards Armenia, tables and chairs stacked on the roof. Here, a man climbs a pylon to cut the power lines. There, soldiers dismantle an electrical station. On the steep slopes, men fell trees by the thousands. “ Wood is all that’s left to sell when you have nothing left ”, confides one of them, loading the stere in a van. Behind him, a burnt-down school finishes burning.
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“Please don’t judge the people here. “ In the car, the musicians oscillate between sadness and excitement. Oaths are issued: they will not leave the region, even if the road were to be cut. They stop in front of a monastery, take a few photos, leave.
They arrive at Stepanakert at nightfall. An icy fog sticks to the deserted capital. A disaster evacuation on November 7 completed the emptying of the city of its population. The call for return launched by the President of the Republic of Artsakh, Arayik Haroutiounian, was followed by only a few. Some only returned to collect belongings before leaving for Armenia.
Trust is nonexistent
At the Armenia Hotel, the only one still open, the staff left. Reporters and officers took to the scene, sharing cans in a disgustingly dirty reception hall. Defeat can be read on the faces of the soldiers; mourning too. They drink to the health of lost friends.
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The truce put an end to the fighting, but confidence is non-existent. In the northeast, the region of Agdam must be returned to Azerbaijan by 1er December but, for the time being, Armenian soldiers continue to occupy their positions in the middle of this dead city, the desolation of which does not date from recent weeks.
Populated by the fall of the USSR with 30,000 inhabitants, most of them Azeri, the city of Agdam was crushed by bombs in the summer of 1993, during the first Nagorno-Karabakh war. The population fled the fighting. Agdam has since appeared in the pantheon of the largest ghost towns in the world.
“They have already started to desecrate the cathedral”
“ Sooner or later the war will resume, I am 100% sure ”, says an Armenian non-commissioned officer in the middle of the ruins. The Azerbaijani positions are only two kilometers away, the enemies observe each other in silence. “ They are not human beings, they do not respect anything. Look, they’ve already started to desecrate Shushi Cathedral! We never touched the Agdam Mosque. “
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In fact, the two minarets erected by the Persians in the XIXe century are still standing. For having inflicted it thirty years ago, Armenians know well what the law of the victors looks like. In the villages of the Agdam region, their nationals have almost all packed up.
“We have been fighting for centuries”
Most go to Armenia. Only a minority seems determined to stay in the territories that the Republic of Artsakh has managed to keep. “ What is the point of coming here, there is no work, no electricity ”, laments Lenoul Aïvazkian, 66, in the main street of Martakert, a small town about thirty kilometers from Agdam. A column of Russian armored vehicles is stationed in front of the ruins of the village hall called “Moscow”. All around, the buildings bear traces of cruel bombardments.
Lenoul points to the districts hastily built in the late 1990s to accommodate refugees from the anti-Armenian pogroms in Sumgait and Baku, in Azerbaijan. “ We have been fighting for centuries. Perhaps the following generations will make peace. But how can we live with a people who have hunted down and massacred our own? “
How to know with certainty, in this country of cliffs and mountains, where passes the invisible administrative line which must decide the fate of the Karabakhtsis? At the border between the regions of Martakert and Kelbadjar, men carry a calf at arm’s length to a cattle trailer. For safety’s sake, Seran Agadjanian, 39, exfiltrates around 20 of his cows to Armenia. Then he will come back. “ We don’t know if we can trust the Russians or others to keep us safe, he says. We’re right in the middle of the line, so we’re staying. If the Turks dare to come here, they are expected with arms in hand. “
Houses offered to the flames
Five kilometers further east, Tcharektar burns. Almost half of the homes in this small village in Kelbadjar district were burned down by their owners. On a garden table, next to a house whose roof has just collapsed, lie the remains of a final meal: bread, cabbage, tomatoes, some fruit. On the ground lie, half charred, gardening tools, some furniture, an empty vodka bottle, a stuffed monkey. Dadivank is very close.
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It was this Saturday, November 14, in the middle of the afternoon, that the long-awaited miracle finally presented itself to the gates of the venerable monastery, in the form of three armored transport vehicles flying the Russian flag. A hooded lieutenant announces that a surveillance point will be installed there, in order to prevent “Any violation of property or human rights” in the surrounding area. Joy breaks out on the faces. The heroes of the day are Russian.
“We will always be there”
Father Hovhannès comes forward to express his gratitude, then orders water to be brought to fill the baptismal font. Five adults and their children arrive in the cathedral church of the monastery to receive the baptism. The priest’s loud voice echoes under the dome as he anoints the temples, ears, outlines of the mouths and legs of the baptized. The ceremony over, he announces that he will not leave the monastery. “ If anybody tomorrow wants to be baptized, let him come. We will always be there. “
The exodus from Kelbadjar
The news of the arrival of Russian soldiers at the monastery quickly spread, without stemming the exodus. On the road to Armenia, the stopover restaurant for Archak Zakarian, 52, is empty. He drinks tea in small sips, his gaze lost in the fireplace. The furniture and windows of his hostel have already been sent to Armenia. He will not burn his restaurant down but leave nothing behind. The presence of the Russians does not change his decision. The peace agreement? A betrayal. “ We are on our own. No one came to see us to tell us what to do. “
Night is falling. Approaching the Armenian border, vehicles advance only bumper to bumper. Kalashnikovs fire slam through the frozen air. Some soldiers try as best they can to discipline the caravan of overloaded cars and cattle trucks which stretches for kilometers, endless metallic river which zigzags upstream, going up between the damaged vehicles and the military tow trucks, always higher , in the direction of Armenia.
Away from the road, men watch a house burn. They came from Armenia to help their friend stack whatever they could in vans. The task almost done, the owner of the premises gave instructions and drove off. His friends finished loading the furniture without him and then, at night, poured gasoline into the house. One last cigarette. A wave of the hand. The fire engulfed her in an instant.
Decades of conflict
► Rregion mainly populated by Armenians but officially attached to Azerbaijan during the Soviet era, Nagorno-Karabakh was the subject of violent clashes with the fall of the USSR, which in 1994 resulted in the takeover of the region by the newly independent Armenia, along with seven regions Azerbaijani.
► En despite diplomatic efforts within the framework of the Mins groupk (France, United States, Russia), the conflict remained at an impasse.
► Heavy fighting has resumed, September 27, 2020, between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
► After six weeks of clashes, the conflict ended on November 9 with the defeat of Armenia and the signing of a cease-fire.