Author: Namig MAYILOV, Baku-Zangilan-Baku
I remember the last time I travelled along this road when I was a child. I was travelling not from Baku, but from Khankendi – the city where I was born and raised. We first stopped in Lachin, where my relatives lived. From there, we reached Fuzuli through Gubadli, Zangilan and Jabrayil. Back to Khankendi, we took another, shorter route through Khojavend.
All the way from Lachin to Gubadli, my father was talking to me about a gas pipeline they had constructed from Garabagh to the border regions of Armenia – Goris, Kafan – the unknown to me names of Armenian cities, whose residents were warming their homes using the Azerbaijani gas. Zangilan was our next stop. Here, in the village of Minjivan, there is a railway station, where trains from Azerbaijan used to go to Nakhchivan and back through the territory of Armenia. I was too young to understand why trains from Azerbaijan to Azerbaijan had to travel through Armenia. Apparently, I missed something in my history class. I also learned that Azerbaijanis also lived on the other side of the Araz River, and there are even more of them than us, living in the north. But they lived not in the USSR, but in a different country named Iran. And again, I had to rewind my memories to recall my history class, which didn’t do the trick though.
Back in those carefree days, I did not yet know that there would be a time, when my family would hardly escape ethnic cleansing in Khankendi and would be called internally displaced persons, as a result of the Armenian occupation. Families of my relatives from Lachin, friends from Zangilan were also forced to save their lives through the same road along the Araz River. Whole families from Zangilan had to cross the river in search for salvation in Iran. They have been informed that Armenians had already captured Horadiz and blocked the road, approaching the Iranian border.
Almost 30 years later, I had a chance to drive along the road of my carefree childhood. For security reasons, it is not yet possible to visit Lachin, but Zangilan. I have many questions again, but not because of childish curiosity. As a journalist, I would like to learn and write everything about the efforts that Azerbaijan put to liberate its lands from occupation, showing the scale of devastation in the region.
Looking outside from my car, I can see the ruins of the once warm and cosy rural houses. Many of them are completely destroyed. The invaders have moved to the neighbouring Armenia or the Armenian-populated regions of Garabagh everything that could be taken out as building materials. Rural cemeteries were mercilessly razed to the ground. The picture is heartbreaking. Now I understand why the former residents looking at photos and watching the video footage of these places cannot find the houses where they spent their happy childhood.
Thirty years ago, the villagers were rejoicing wedding parties and bonfires at the Novruz holidays. Now all it remains is the scorched earth. Indeed, the scorched-earth campaign is prohibited by the 1977 Geneva Convention. But did Armenia observe any conventions when it occupied these lands? Has Armenia fulfilled the UN Security Council resolutions on the immediate, complete and unconditional liberation of the occupied territories of Azerbaijan? Has Armenia ratified the Convention on Transboundary Waters? Weren’t it Armenians who tossed toys filled with explosives in the rivers?
My emotions go wild. It is difficult to express my feelings when I realise that now the roads to our native lands are not blocked by military checkpoints any more. Temporarily, until demining operations and the restoration of the liberated territories are over.
Rise from the ashes
The city of Horadiz, Fuzuli. There is a monument to Azerbaijani soldiers who fell in the April 2016 battles. Having liberated several thousand hectares of its territories, Baku sent a clear message to Yerevan and international mediators that it had both a sovereign right and all the means to liberate these lands. The message, of course, was heard, but the mediating countries, instead of speeding up the process of a peaceful settlement by putting pressure on the aggressor, preferred to preserve the status quo again. But this is already in the past. Last autumn, it took Azerbaijan only 44 days to liberate the occupied lands and restore its borders. Now these lands are double as sacred for every Azerbaijani, because every inch of it is watered with the blood of valiant soldiers.
Next to the monument to the April Martyrs in Horadiz is the first checkpoint, where everyone who travels to the liberated territories on duty is checked. Temporarily, of course. In the coming years, only museums and monuments will remind of the war on these lands.
"Which company do you work for?" the police officer asks me going through his lists. “I’m a journalist,” I answer, hinting which list to look for my name. Employees of Azerishig are standing nearby, holding their identity cards. They and other employees of public utilities will face difficult, sometimes even dangerous, situations. Nevertheless, they seem happy to work in areas that have just been cleared of mines, where it still smells of war, as if they have just received lucky tickets to spend a couple of weeks in a resort. They can't wait to see the liberated lands.
All the way to Zangilan, we can see pick-ups and minibuses of various companies go by. There are still many military vehicles. The roads are still cleared of mines. After the sappers finish their work, excavators are levelling the terrain, digging trenches – not for war this time, but for peaceful infrastructure.
There are tens of hectares of arable fields all around the ruins of villages. It can be seen that the land was cultivated. These are the same fields, which Armenians have exploited for years and which provided exactly half of its own grain harvest during the years of occupation. Here you can also find the feuds of Armenian oligarchs – greenhouses with a relatively fresh plastic cover.
There is one more checkpoint at the entrance to Zangilan. “Welcome,” the policeman smiles at us through the car’s window. The closest way to the Minjivan settlement goes right along the Araz River. Apparently, once there was running a railway with trains stopping at the station of the same name. At the last checkpoint local police officers kindly help us with navigating the rough terrain. One of them recognises me: "I am Fazil’s son. Remember me, we lived next door, in an unfinished building in Khirdalan?" Of course, I remember him. The boy born in Baku to a family of migrants from Zangilan now serves in his native district and is proud of it, like the rest of his peers who liberated these lands.
Then I remembered the words of President Ilham Aliyev, which he said during his recent trip to the liberated Shusha. “I am very glad to see in Azerbaijan strong young generation raised in patriotic and national spirit. These lands have been liberated by the generation of young people, which has grown over the years I have been the president of Azerbaijan, that is in the last seventeen years. Nationals of Azerbaijan from all the generations have made a great contribution to our common victory. But it is the younger generation that carried the major burden of fulfilling this mission. Those who were 10 or 15 years old in 2003 are now 27-32 years old. Thanks to their patriotism, hatred for the enemy, we could make this victory happen and restored the historical justice. The younger generation, the older generation, the experienced people, entire nation, as well as the representatives of all ethnic groups living in Azerbaijan came together as a single fist. It is no surprise that a fist was chosen as a symbol of our victory,” Ilham Aliyev said at the Jidir Düzü famous for horse races and concerts held there since the time of the Garabagh khans, as well as Novruz celebrations.
Time to start three fires
By the way, Novruz is coming soon. Now we will be able to see the Novruz fires in Shusha, Lachin, Kalbajar, Zangilan and other liberated regions. Just like in the ancient Turkic epic about Dede Gorgud. Remember what he said to Garaja Choban after the devastating war?: “Climb up the mountain and start three fires on top of it. One fire will be a sign that the people should gather for a feast; two fires will call them to defend against the enemy. Let them see three fires now to gather with their ploughs."
With these thoughts in mind, I did not notice how my colleagues from the newspaper Yeni Musavat and I reached the village of Minjivan. Even after the devastation, one can see how beautiful the settlement once was. It is located on a beautiful landscape very close to the Azerbaijani-Iranian border. Now there is a post of the border service of Azerbaijan. Along the main road, there is a ditch with crystal clear and icy cold water. You can still see the famous Zangilan plane trees that survived the war. But before the war, the area around the settlement was covered with large forests under state protection.
A narrow road between the ruins of houses takes us to the Minjivan railway station, that is what is left of it. In the past, it served numerous passenger and freight trains going from Baku to Yerevan and back through Nakhchivan, as well as to the Armenian station of Kafan. It is not difficult to imagine the significance of the station for the economies of regional countries. For Azerbaijan, it was also the road of life, connecting the mainland with the enclave of Nakhchivan.
One can only guess that there was once a railway station. You can see the ruins of the building on the photograph. And you can notice the railway itself looking at traces left from the sleepers. The sleepers and rails have been dismantled and taken away long ago.
Nevertheless, Minjivan is going to play an instrumental role in the implementation of the post-war agreements of the parties to unblock regional communications. This issue is one of the priorities confirmed in the trilateral statements signed by the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia right after the 44-day Second Garabagh War.
“This area can boost the development of the region, as well as strengthen its security. Unblocking of transport communications meets the interests of the peoples of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, and our neighbours. I am sure that neighbouring countries will also actively participate in the development of transport corridors and an extensive network of transport infrastructure in our region,” President Aliyev said in his press statement after the January 11 meeting in Moscow.
Mr. Aliyev also briefly explained the benefits of the rehabilitation of transport infrastructure for the region. “This is of great importance for us, because after more than 30 years, Azerbaijan will have communication with the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic through transport communications through the territory of Armenia. Armenia will have a railway connection to Russia and Iran through the territory of Azerbaijan. Also, through Nakhchivan, we will have access to the Turkish market. Turkish and Russian railway infrastructures will be connected too. In other words, the trilateral statement opens up great prospects,” Ilham Aliyev said.
Now this issue is under consideration by a trilateral working group led by the vice-prime ministers of the signatory countries. It is expected that a working group meeting will take place on January 30.
“All topics of discussions are defined in the statement signed by the Russian President Vladimir Putin, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. At the first stage, we’ll try to solve the problems of development and restoration of transport infrastructure,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexei Overchuk said.
Whatever the decisions of politicians are, it is clear that after the victory of Azerbaijan and the surrender of Armenia, the process of unblocking communications in the region has become irreversible. This means that both the Minjivan railway station and the Zangilan region of Azerbaijan will regain their strategic importance for the entire region. We will soon see the trains running here again, and life in Minjivan, as well as in all the de-occupied territories of Azerbaijan, will restart.