Author: Namig MAILOV, Baku-Shusha-Baku
It’s dawn. We are driving to Shusha. Just like 30 years ago. We used to travel from Khankendi to Lachin for summer holidays, when I was a child. We would wake up early to avoid the scorching rays of the summer sun. Fortunately, there are air conditioners in buses now.
At that time, the road from Khankendi to Lachin was running through Shusha. Soviet PAZ buses puffed along the mountain passes, leaving fabulous landscapes behind. But many things have changed so far. Now this road is called the Lachin Corridor. After the liberation of these lands from the Armenian occupation, it is under the temporary control of the Russian peacekeeping forces. However, everything will return to normal soon.
Although Azerbaijan was forced to return its lands by force, it returns to Garabagh with peace and for the sake of peace. As soon as the war was over last year, Baku launched a number of large-scale projects to restore the liberated territories. Life is returning to the lands scorched by Armenia. Together with the true owners of these lands expelled 30 years ago.
Following the heroes
Administration of the Shusha State Reserve gathers the residents of the city, and takes them to Shusha in groups. The cradle of the Azerbaijani music, the then resort town has now turned into a place of pilgrimage for Azerbaijanis. Like the new road to Shusha.
The Victory Road! Valiant Azerbaijani soldiers sacrificed their lives to clear it from enemy weapons for us. And here are the ruins of the city of Fuzuli. They remind me of civilian Azerbaijanis who were freed from Armenian captivity during the First Garabagh War. Crippled and exhausted... But with eyes sparking with hope. Here it is, the long-awaited freedom!
Life will return to these places soon. These are new realities that we saw all the way to Shusha. It is our martyrs that sacrificed their lives so that we could enjoy these realities. It is our army that conquered these realities for us. It is us that are creating these realities now. Road signs with the inscriptions of Victory Road and the city and village names flash past our bus. With their original names, not the fictitious ones assigned to them during the years of occupation.
We are heading to Shusha. A group of modern minibuses is shimmying up the winding passes of mountains before us. Climbing up from the village of Dashalty, you start realising the heroism of our soldiers, who liberated Shusha climbing these steep cliffs full equipped. There was no other way to conquer this impregnable Azerbaijani fortress from this direction. I remember how the Le Monde team working in Khankendi in those days was amazed at how the Azerbaijani special forces dragged their wounded and killed fellows on their backs to the fortress.
And here is Shusha! Everyone in the bus holds breath and freezes. We look around. “Look! This is our school!” says suddenly one of my colleagues Gunel Shahmaligizi. Her family was subjected to ethnic cleansing by the Armenians along with the entire population of the city in 1992. Her father died as a hero while defending Shusha.
Soon she is joined by other fellow journalists, the natives of Shusha Nazim Sabiroghlu, Nurshan Guliyev, and Bakhtiyar Mammadli. “Here was the building of the district party committee”, “and this is where my aunt lived”, “we went to school along this road”, “there they baked bread, remember how it smelled?” Pictures from our lost childhood flash before our eyes like a film. We do not have time to look back as the buses stop near a large meadow.
Passport of Shusha
Our first stop is Cıdır Düzü! Nazim calls this meadow, which had been known for centuries as a popular place of holding horse races, concerts, and festivals, a passport of Shusha. It is one of the several symbols of this medieval Azerbaijani fortress.
Residents of Shusha jump out of their cars and scatter along the meadow. It seems that everyone is trying to stay alone with their native mountains, to share their memories with them, to tell them their life stories of the past 30 years, to ask what it was like in Shusha under the occupation. I start to realise that they have longed for this meeting. Someone cries of happiness, someone greedily inhales the crystal clear air of the city, someone walks back and forth looking around in confusion, and not believing his eyes. Old neighbours hug and congratulate each other. Pandemic rules don’t work here, as this is a completely different world.
“When I left Shusha, I was 37. Now I am 67. I bow my head before our martyrs. We will forever be grateful to our soldiers and Supreme Commander-in-Chief Ilham Aliyev for taking us back to our Shusha. Our president did not want bloodshed, he wanted to solve the issue peacefully. But, you see, they didn’t leave him any other chance,” Shujayat Madatova says.
“I’m not afraid to die any more,” echoes her a woman in her 70s with tear-stained eyes.
These places are unique for the residents of Shusha. They rightfully believe that there is no other place in the world with such mountains, fields, gorges, and forests. Let alone xarıbülbül – a very delicate flower, which has become a symbol of Azerbaijan's victory in the 44-day war, is an object of jealousy for the Shusha residents. “Shusha is the only place where the original xarıbülbül grows. You won't find it anywhere else,” say the locals.
My colleague Bakhtiyar Mammadli is confident that the aroma of thyme also grown in Shusha cannot be found anywhere else. He collects thyme for his mother, who stayed in Baku. It's autumn, hence the grass on the meadow is dry and yellowish. So is the thyme. But Bakhtiyar wants to bring its aroma to Baku. A small bunch of thyme, a handful of land from Garabagh, water from a local spring, a few pebbles or some fruit from Shusha should bring his mother the tidings of great return.
In search of thyme, Bakhtiyar notices that the meadow has decreased in size. He remembers it as a huge and endless glade. “No, Bakhtiyar, it’s not the meadow that became smaller in size. You grew up. Together with your father, the war took away from you and the hundreds of thousands of other Azerbaijani children your childhood as well,” I say to myself.
We are back!
I hear the voice of my colleague Nurshan Guliyev: “Want to look at Khankendi?!” He shows me the city where I was born and raised. Nearby is the village of Malibeyli, where Nurshan spent his childhood. A wonderful view of Khankendi opens from Cıdır Düzü. It is hard to realise that we are standing very close to our home, but we cannot get there. But now it's a matter of time. The Azerbaijani flag, which after 30 years again flies in the sky over Khankendi, in the Shusha mountains, will soon be hovering in Khankendi too. Today no one doubts it.
In the meantime, we go to look for the houses of my friends from Shusha. Gunel Shakhmaligizi leads us along a cobbled street. This way she went to school and back until she was 9 years old. But we will be disappointed. The house where she grew up is in ruins. “Stop! But it was here! There were concrete slabs here. I think they were taken away by Armenians,” says Gunel. She can hardly find the location of their home. Tears ruin my vision. This bitter feeling is familiar to all Azerbaijanis who travel to liberated districts, expecting to find their homes among the ruins. And even in Shusha, where the Armenian population was resettled during the years of occupation, everything was destroyed and plundered. We wonder in awe how people could do this to what they had called their own?!
But now the true owners of these lands returned to Garabagh. Construction and restoration works are ongoing in Shusha. Residents of Shusha greet guests, take them to excursions around their half-ruined city, which could nevertheless preserve its Azerbaijani appearance, ply them with fragrant home-made bread.
Our visit to Shusha seems like a dream. We are afraid to wake up. We have mixed feelings. On the one hand, we feel happy for the long-awaited victory, but on the other hand, we grieve for those who sacrificed their lives for these happy days. But I strongly hope that now their souls may rest in peace. After all, the life is returning to Garabagh.