Author: Namig MAILOV
“Climb up the mountain and light three fires on top of it.
One fire signals the people to gather for a feast;
two fires calls them to defend against the enemy.
Now, when they see three fires, let them come with ploughs.”
From Dede Gorgud
For 28 years Azerbaijanis have celebrated Novruz with a single wish to light ceremonial fires in Garabagh! One could hear this wish in every family, in every event. Not so much because Azerbaijanis believed in the mystical power of Novruz, but also because they were confident that sooner or later the historical justice will triumph and Azerbaijan will restore its territorial integrity. Azerbaijanis have lived with this dream for 28 years. Now it came true! The flame of ceremonial fires can be seen all over Garabagh! Their light illuminates the long-term darkness of the occupation, their warmth warms the souls of friends and burns the evil, which Garabagh had to endure for so many years.
Ceremonial message from Shusha
Just a few months ago, perhaps, many would not have believed that the main ceremonial fire of Azerbaijan would be lit in Shusha liberated from occupation, on Jidir Düzü. This is now a historical reality.
“This year we celebrate Novruz in Shusha, on Jidir Düzü. This is a historical event. Since 2004, in my annual congratulatory address on the occasion of the Novruz Bayram, I have promised my people to return our lands. I told you that we will restore the territorial integrity of the country. I said that after the liberation of our lands, we will celebrate Novruz in Garabagh. That day has come. Today we celebrate Novruz in our ancient city, the cultural capital of Azerbaijan – Shusha,” President Ilham Aliyev said in his congratulatory address to the Azerbaijani people from the city of Shusha.
This event is not only of moral and historical value, but also of great political significance. Aliyev's message from the ancient cultural capital of Azerbaijan was addressed not only to his own people, but to the whole world.
“In recent years, I have repeatedly said in my speeches and interviews that we did not need a half-hearted solution to the issue. The people of Azerbaijan probably understand very well what this means. I said that everything must be done in a timely manner. I know what, when and how to do it. For me, there has never been a more important task than the liberation of our lands. I have spent the entire period of my presidency to solving this issue. This objective was behind every decision, as long as it would bring us closer to the victory. I said that each of us must bring victory closer every day. My speeches are in public domain, now they are part of the history. Every day we must bring the victory closer. We did so, got prepared, came and defeated the enemy; we destroyed him. We came and we are standing here. I stand on the ancient Azerbaijani land as the Supreme Commander of the victorious army. No one will be able to force us leave these lands any more,” President of Azerbaijan said.
Azerbaijan makes a significant contribution to the regional development, global economy, security, the dialogue of civilizations, preservation of cultural heritage, fight against global challenges. Therefore, it has the right to expect an adequate attitude to its efforts from the world community. We do not expect some special, privileged attitude, but a fair approach, as required by the international law. However, because of the double standards reigning the world today, many years of peace negotiations on the settlement of the Garabagh conflict through international mediation were unsuccessful, hence compelling Baku to liberate its lands on its own. No one has ever asked Armenia why almost one million Azerbaijanis had to be deprived of shelter and all basic human rights if the idea was to materialise the so-called right of a handful of Garabagh Armenians to self-determination.
Even now, when the world has seen the terrifying scale of devastation left behind the Armenian occupation forces, there are attempts to put an equation sign between the aggressor and the victim. Often the aggressor is presented as a victim. Instead of make Armenia accountable for the use of the scorched earth tactics, bombardment of peaceful cities with ballistic missiles, desecration of religious and cultural monuments in the occupied lands, Azerbaijan is accused of destroying the Christian heritage in the liberated lands. At the same time, the world community remains silent about the fact that Azerbaijan has carefully preserved these monuments, which it considers its own cultural heritage, for centuries in contrast to Armenia, which destroyed almost all traces of Muslim civilization on its territory.
Baku is not going to stop, as there is a lot of work ahead on the territories completely destroyed by Armenia.
“We will restore not only Shusha, but all the scorched lands. We started to create, and we launched a series of infrastructure projects. We calculate the damage and develop master plans for the reconstruction of the cities. A general reconstruction plan for the city of Aghdam and the entire district will be completed first. The initial version has already been presented to me. We continue to work on this document in line with my instructions. The master plan will be approved soon. Then we will begin restoration works on all the liberated lands,” President Aliyev said in his public address.
Clearing the path to peace
In the meantime, mines are exploding in Aghdam. But now they do not kill but save the lives. This is the difference between Armenia and Azerbaijan. While Baku has been investing money in the development of the economy of the entire region, large-scale international projects, the restoration and preservation of the world cultural heritage, Yerevan for decades has invested in mines and the construction of multi-level fortifications in the occupied lands. Now Azerbaijani sappers have to search every inch of land before builders begin restoration works there.
Another anti-tank mine is destroyed in front of dozens of representatives from local media and NGOs. Those who take photos involuntarily shrug from the explosion. There is a mixed feeling of joy with a question: how much time and effort will it take to get rid of this dangerous legacy? Armenia stubbornly refuses to provide maps of the minefields. Previously this territory hosted railways connecting Baku with Stepanakert (in Soviet times, the Azerbaijani city of Khankendi was called Stepanakert as a tribute to the Armenian Bolshevik Stepan Shaumyan).
At least, minefield maps are needed to relaunch this railway route again, to establish the peace in the region, so that the Armenian and Azerbaijani populations can peacefully coexist again. But why does Armenia need peaceful coexistence of these two peoples, if the leading Armenian politicians consider Azerbaijanis and Armenians "genetically incompatible"?! That is why the Armenian separatist regime in the mountainous part of Garabagh surrounded itself by seven occupied Azerbaijani cities and hundreds of villages almost wiped off the face of the earth. Just like Aghdam...
We visited Aghdam on the eve of Novruz. But I did not write a report immediately. I needed some time to relax from what I saw there and present it to our readers as discreetly as possible, without getting emotional. Just imagine how difficult it was to return to these lands for a person who had personally experienced all the hardships of the war, let alone the foreign journalists, who could not restrain their emotions.
“I thought I could see the rails of the Aghdam railway as I knew them. But now I can see only the last meters left from the old line. If these old rails could spoke, they would tell us the great story of the ordinary people of Aghdam. They would tell us about a million inhabitants of Garabagh that became refugees, about the destroyed cities, the silence of the world community turning a blind eye to the tragedy of the local population, as well as the fading out of great expectation. This road has witnessed thousands of children, women and elderly leaving behind love and tears,” Lithuanian journalist Ricardas Lapaitis shared his impressions of what he saw in Aghdam. He is a living witness of the First Garabagh War.
Now imagine one of the refugees that Ricardas writes about. I was only 13 years old when my family moved from the then Stepanakert (Khankendi) to Aghdam, having barely escaped ethnic cleansing. The passenger train on which my family left their hometown was one of the last ones following the Baku-Stepanakert-Baku route. I remember how my parents did not allow us to look out the windows, as the train was stoned on its way through the Armenian settlements to Aghdam.
Later, Aghdam itself became a victim of the occupation. It was a refuge for thousands of exiled Azerbaijanis, including those who miraculously escaped the genocide in Khojaly. Today Aghdam is sometimes called a "ghost town" or "Hiroshima of the Caucasus". For the sake of being as objective as possible, I hereby present a paragraph from the Lithuanian journalist’s report again.
“We returned home many days ago. Yet every night we see the completely destroyed city of Aghdam in our dreams! It cannot be compared to Chernobyl. It was a victim of a human error. But Aghdam was destroyed deliberately! I noticed that there are very few birds here. Everything looks like in Tarkovsky’s famous film Stalker. We thought what if we could stay here for the night?! How would we feel there? The city has been destroyed gradually for thirty years. There are tens of kilometres of fortifications around it, a whole underground world. It is striking to see the human bones at the Aghdam cemetery. Abandoned cats and dogs die of hunger. Gardens have turned into shrubs. Ruins, ruins, ruins everywhere... Everything was done to kill people,” that’s how R. Lapaitis describes his trip to the ‘ghost city’.
Today the only structure that has survived in Aghdam is a desecrated medieval mosque. If Armenia used its minarets as a reference point for firing, then for Azerbaijan it is a reference point for restoring the former appearance of the city.
Another reference point is the grave of Allahverdi Baghirov, the National Hero of Azerbaijan. In total, the Aghdam cemetery has become the resting place for about 1,500 victims of the First Garabagh War. Most of the graves in other Azerbaijani cemeteries in the former occupied districts also suffered the acts of vandalism. But none of these acts can be compared with what you can see in Aghdam. The only things left from the graves are the pits and human bones scattered around the area. All the gravestones have been taken away. There is only one ‘surviving’ grave that can serve as a reference point, using which the relatives of the buried can guess their graves. Perhaps, it is the karma of the National Hero A. Baghirov – to assist people in finding their loved ones even after his own death. Indeed, thanks to Baghirov, hundreds of Azerbaijanis, including the residents of Khojaly, could save their lives in the early 1990s.
Armenian occupants did not spare the Imaret complex in Aghdam either. It was the resting place of the khans of Garabagh and their descendants buried there in the 18th century. The grave of the khan's daughter, poetess and public figure Khurshud banu Natavan was also destroyed. The Imaret complex itself was looted and turned into a pigsty. This is how Armenians understand ‘self-determination’.
But now all this is over. It is spring in Garabagh. Years will pass, and Azerbaijan will turn this place into the most prosperous region of the South Caucasus. As President Ilham Aliyev said in his congratulatory address, “Armenians have been destroying our lands for thirty years. And we will restore them, because we, the Azerbaijani people, are the owners of these lands."