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Armenian passengers under Azerbaijani and Turkish flags (Winter evening in Shusha, Part One)

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BY EYNULLA FATULLAYEV, TUG-BOYUK TAGLAR-CHANAKCHI-SIGNAK-DASHALTI-SHUSHA

An unexpected evening call to the editorial office prompted painful thoughts. The sudden proposal required an urgent decision.

'This is the commandant of Shusha calling. I have read your "Karabakh Diary" with interest, but did not find the story of our Shusha in your chronicle. How can it be without the mother of Azerbaijani cities?!' said an unfamiliar voice in the receiver. Colonel Abilov tried to recall our meeting in Beylagan. In what wilderness or trench does the ill-fated fool-fate of a journalist throw him like a bullet? 'I have completed my Karabakh Diary. And a winter evening in Shusha falls out of the general narrative. Come on, throw away conventions... To Shusha!' thoughts whirled through my head. I made a spontaneous decision at the same moment...

Another cursed word from the past: Tug

And here I am in the car. I passed the painfully familiar crucified Fuzuli. The path lies to the village of Tug. To the very legendary village, to which I never managed to get from Hadrut. Everything is alien in Karabakh, high and precipitous Karabakh is an unread book, taken away from a childhood dream. But somewhere deep in the subconscious, two names are imprinted, as if in a strict Soviet typographic script: Papravend and Tug. The Karabakh tragedy began with Tug, a thin uncut sprout of Armenian separatism. In the vague and distant 1988, echoes of the first unrest and clashes came from Tug and the Shusha Topkhana forest, in which rare outlandish trees were cut down. And for the first time they began to expel Karabakh Azerbaijanis from Tug.

It is hard to imagine, but today Tug, empty and abandoned by the local population, has returned to the fold of the rejected Azerbaijani state. Ahead is the widest expanse of snowy Karabakh fields. To the right and to the left, mine detectors walk carefully along the crisp snow cover, step by step.

'To be honest, we are unhappy with their work. These are employees of ANAMA (Azerbaijan National Agency for Mine Action - E.F.),' the new guide caught my curious glance. 'My name is Pasha, glad to meet you.'

ANAMA is looking for mines, but Pasha is not happy

'Are you a general? (Turkish generals are called Pasha - E.F.)' I ask with a smile.

'No, I'm lieutenant of the Engineering Troops Pasha Mammadov.'

Pasha is not a carrier officer, but was called up after the announced general mobilisation. After completing the history faculty, immediately after graduation, he was drafted into the army as an officer in the Engineering Troops. He has established himself from the best side. As a competent specialist, he was offered to stay and continue his service. But Pasha chose the profession of a specialist in the installation and repair of heating systems. He lived a normal life, got married, raised two sons, but the war broke out. Pasha was called on as a specialist in the field of engineering structures and mine clearance, who has proven himself from the best side over the years. Pasha threw himself into the flames of war from the first day. Received three awards, promoted before term. 'Yes, we won this war. But all those who talk about war must understand one truth: war is a terrible hell. I don't understand how I survived. So many fellow servicemen and comrades were killed,' the Azerbaijani officer says with sorrow.

The road goes into the distance, gradually rising up the mountain. And Pasha speaks eloquently about the war. And this war for him, like millions of Azerbaijanis, is a matter of personal honour. In 1988, three-year-old Pasha, in his mother's arms, fled from Yerevan with his family.

Pasha Mammadov does not like to be photographed. 'If you take pictures, then with fellow servicemen. And so often you lose them in battle,' says Lieutenant Mammadov sadly

We rise high into the mountains. So we arrived at another legendary Karabakh village: Boyuk Taglar. In Karabakh, every village is saturated with the mystical spirit of legends and secrets. In this village, not far from the river, there is the famous Taglar Cave, which has a 50-thousand-year history. 'Before the Armenians and Azerbaijanis, people of the Stone Age lived here,' laughs Colonel Jeyhun Bagirov, commander of a military unit of the Engineering Troops.

One of the heroes of the second Karabakh war, Jeyhun Bagirov, will become our next guide on the Victory Road, in the true sense of the word. We will follow to Shusha along the valiant path of the Azerbaijani Army, which was opened through the forest to the village of Dashalti, near Shusha, in the literal sense of the word, with his own hands and with the help of bulldozers, by Jeyhun Bagirov himself, together with soldiers of the Engineering Troops...

The centre of the village is buried in impassable mud, and it seems that everything is about to drown in slush. Here I meet sociable and empathetic Turks, in particular, with the head of the Turkish construction company KOLIN Enis Buka. Turks are pleasantly surprised by the appearance of a journalist. They can't wait to talk about their current programme. The flags of Azerbaijan and Turkey are hung everywhere in the village, and on the hill at the entrance there are photographs of Ilham Aliyev and Erdogan. 'We are almost at home,' the Turks joke.

Поднимаемся высоко в горы. Вот и подъехали к еще одному легендарному карабахскому селу - Большой Таглар. В Карабахе каждое село пропитано мистическим духом легенд и тайн. В этом селе неподалеку от речки расположена знаменитая Тагларская пещера, насчитывающая 50-тысячелетнюю историю. «До армян и азербайджанцев здесь обитали люди каменного века», - смеется полковник Джейхун Багиров, командир войсковой части Инженерных войск.

Как раз один из героев второй карабахской войны Джейхун Багиров станет нашим следующим путеводителем по «дороге Победы» - в истинном смысле этого слова. Мы проследуем в Шушу по доблестному пути азербайджанской армии, которую открывал через лес к селу Дашалты, что под Шушой, в буквальном смысле этого слова собственными руками и с помощью бульдозеров сам Джейхун Багиров вместе с солдатами Инженерных войск…

Центр села утопает в непролазной грязи, и такое ощущение, что все оно вот-вот утонет в слякоти. Здесь же знакомлюсь с общительными и чуткими турками, в частности с главой турецкой строительной компании KOLIN Энисом Букой. Турки приятно удивлены появлению журналиста. Им не терпится рассказать о своей насущной программе. В селе повсюду развешаны флаги Азербайджана и Турции, а на холме у въезда фотокартина Ильхама Алиева и Эрдогана. «Мы почти как дома», - шутят турки.

У въезда в Большой Таглар встречает портрет Алиева с Эрдоганом

Турецкая компания начала строительство новой дороги из Физули до Шуши, которая пройдет ниже села Большой Таглар.

- А что будет с этой, нынешней? – спрашиваю турков. – Не логичнее ли было оснастить и построить магистраль на проторенной через лес Инженерными войсками дороге?

Строители не соглашаются. У них своя логика. Но обещают построить 17-километровую дорогу в ближайшие годы.

Турецкие строители, а рядом герой войны - Джейхун Багиров

At the entrance to Boyuk Taglar we are met by a portrait of Aliyev with Erdogan

The Turkish company has begun construction of a new road from Fuzuli to Shusha, which will pass below the village of Boyuk Taglar.

'And what will happen to this, current one?' I ask the Turks. 'Wasn't it more logical to equip and build a highway on the road beaten through the forest by the Engineering Troops?'

The builders disagree. They have their own logic. But they promise to build a 17-kilometre road in the coming years.

Turkish builders, and next to them is a war hero, Jeyhun Bagirov

In the meantime, food, equipment and ammunition are delivered to the Azerbaijani troops along the forest road, which has an amazing, if not to say, fabulous story.

At the height of the war, there were bloody battles for every village in upper Karabakh. And the Azerbaijani Army fought its way to the cherished dream: the fortress city of Shusha. The Armenian command hoped to resist the Azerbaijani Army in the area of ​​the Girmizi Bazar settlement, from where the way to Shushikend opens, and further to the Karabakh capital itself. The second direction from which the enemy expected the breakthrough of Azerbaijani units was the Lachin direction. But the command of the Azerbaijani Army made a decision that was unprecedented in design, scale and consistency: to open a new road to Shusha through the dense Karabakh forest.

35-year-old Jeyhun Bagirov, whose life, like a passing shell, ran through the army trenches and minefields - but still he was not mistaken twice - is set a seemingly impossible task: to open a road from Taglar through the forest to the outskirts of Shusha -- villages Chanakchi and Signak.

Azerbaijani Engineering Troops turned the fairy tale into reality. How could you made a 42-kilometre road in the forest in 3 days?

'The Armenians did not even suspect that we were moving forward through the forest. And they were waiting for us in another direction, where there were also heated battles. And our troops also tried to advance, creating the illusion of a desperate offensive. Meanwhile, the main shock group passed through the forest. In three days, with the help of bulldozers and our own hands, we managed to cut this road through,' recalls J. Bagirov.

The Armenian side woke up and noticed the advance of the Azerbaijanis only in a forest glade, a few kilometres from the village of Chanakchi. But the deed was already done. Azerbaijani units, having covered several dozens of kilometres off-road, managed to transfer artillery mounts to the clearing. Here a new artillery duel ensued. However, a successful attack by the mountain infantry broke the last resistance of the unawares Armenian soldiers. Further on, the Azerbaijani Army did not stop.

That is why, in early November, an inexplicable from a military point of view, a panicky appeal by the leader of the separatists Arayik Harutyunyan about the unexpected offensive of the Azerbaijani Army, which found itself several kilometres from Shusha, appeared. Arayik foreshadowed the fall of the fortress. Although with a sober mind and cold calculation, Harutyunyan's anxiety defied any logical explanation. The village of Girmizi Bazar and city of Martuni were still in the hands of the Armenian army. How could Azerbaijanis find themselves at the gates of Shusha? All that remained was to think out: either Harutyunyan replicated another insinuation, or Azerbaijani troops made their way to Shusha on wings. The third was not given.

During the heroic offensive, it was the 'absurd third' that predetermined the victory of the brave Azerbaijani soldiers. Under bullets, in a dark forest, uprooting trees and bushes with their hands and axes, the fearless and brave Engineering Troops expanded the narrow path to the forest road.

We are driving along this road, and the dramatic events of those days unfold before our eyes. I get out of the car. And mentally I try to imagine this hellish work of our engineering troops, brave soldiers.

Victory Road opened the way to Shusha

'Our hands were bloody. The forces were leaving. But we understood that there was no turning back. Death could be the only deliverance. And the best of us perished,' the great man standing in front of me narrates in a trembling voice. In my eyes, Jeyhun Bagirov is a great Azerbaijani. And for him the Karabakh war is also a personal challenge, as a boy he and his parents were driven out of the village where his ancestors lived, from the crucified Fuzuli district.

Here we are in the ancient village of Chanakchi in the Askeran district of Upper Karabakh. Azerbaijanis were expelled from here in the immemorial 1989. 'Damn it. Forgot the cigarettes for the soldiers. They will ask again,' our driver, 33-year-old Fariz, curses.

And here is Chanakchi

And then the road to Signak

He is not a military man, but works for a road company, which clears the road from snow and slush several times every day. Otherwise, even military trucks can get stuck in the forest. Sometimes Fariz, as in the circles of hell through the Hellish gorges, several times a day has to get to Shusha and return back. He is one of those responsible for the serviceability of the Victory Road -- the only transport artery. For Fariz too, Karabakh is a matter of honour for his family. As a young boy, he was expelled from Armenia in 1988.

It seems that I am beginning to understand the reason for the bitter, uncompromising, selfless and angry attitude of the new generation towards the aftermath of the first war. Children who lost their parents and homeland a quarter of a century ago are on the fields of this war. These are the children of the first war. They cannot forgive our generation, which lost the first war, and the reality that took away their most precious things. Therefore, they, coldly gazing into the eyes of the demon of death, with a sense of accomplished duty, are looking for death on the battlefield. Not for the sake of death itself, but for the sake of victory!

In Chanakchi there is an idyllic picture of a patriarchal village, the tranquillity of which is disturbed by soldiers who have moved into empty huts. Somewhere, after all, the stationed army must live!

Above the village there is a clear blue sky and a view of the mighty snow-capped Karabakh mountains opens up. These mountains exude some kind of invisible power, natural anger and the eternal call of war. As if this land, born of war, and there will never be peace here.

Some damned beauty of Karabakh

Flocks of feral pigs are walking around. After the liberation of the village, Azerbaijani soldiers opened the doors of all barns and sheds, and released the pigs. Some have gone into the woods, while others are still roaming the snow-covered streets of the village in search of food. For Muslims, even ethnic non-religious ones, pork is a strict taboo. Better to wait for the delayed provisions along the forest road...

So we reached one more Karabakh village: Signak. From here it is a stone's throw to the district centre of Askeran. The Victory Road leads us along the paths of the Azerbaijani Army. My fellow travellers convince me to stay in this small picturesque village with a beautiful view of the mountains. They can't wait to show the main attraction: the magnificent mansion of an Armenian general. Although I did not manage to find out the name of this Armenian general who built an exquisite rest house far from the eyes of the Karabakh people. A rich and cosy home with luxurious appliances, accessories and beautiful furniture on a marble floor. Who is this Armenian count Monte Cristoyan, who hid his wealth from the poverty stricken Karabakh Armenians? But the Azerbaijani command was satisfied with the gift of heaven: they could not even dream of a better trophy of war.

Luxurious house of the mysterious Armenian Monte Cristoyan

Our car glides along the mountain road like a village sled. I am frequently thrown out of seat. And suddenly an indescribable panorama opens before me. The village of Dashalti, tragic for Azerbaijanis, seems to be laid under huge blocks of sheer Shusha rocks, over which a proud and glorious Azerbaijani fortress rises. The joy of victory and the bitterness of tragedy are mixed together.

A terrible picture: the hellish Dashalti, and above it the glorious Shusha

I asked to stop the car. And for a long, very long time, from afar, I was peering into this gloomy, blackened valley of death. In my subconscious, since childhood, the metaphor of the valley of death has been identified with the name Dashalti. In another January, tragic for Azerbaijanis, in the distant 1991, an entire Azerbaijani elite battalion, led by the legendary KGB officer Riyad Ahmadov, was killed in this village. National Hero of Azerbaijan, R. Ahmadov, was the son of a famous Soviet-era deputy prime minister, a popular among the people KGB officer, from the first day of the war, he walked along the edge of the Karabakh separatist knife. After this battle, the name of Riyad became a legend. To this day, the brave scout is considered missing. Legend has it that, being surrounded near the village, but saving his comrades, R. Ahmadov blew up on a grenade, destroying many Armenian soldiers.

Paradoxically, R. Ahmadov was the husband of the sister of the former head of the Ministry of National Security, the punisher Eldar Mahmudov. Here they are the vicissitudes of human life: two fates, two friends and relatives, but one died a hero's death in the name of Azerbaijan, and the other was cursed by mothers whose children the executioner threw behind bars. Without trial and investigation!

I approach the village and cannot understand and accept. The thought does not fit in the head, it is not subject to a reasonable argument. How did the Azerbaijani troops, controlling Shusha, suffer defeat in the valley under the mountains? Unanswered questions. After all, 28 years later, having jumped out of the forest, Azerbaijani soldiers immediately captured the village. And then, fighting, they began to climb these impassable, insurmountable steep cliffs to Shusha.

Our brave soldiers climbed these steep cliffs with battles into the city

Some sad cry from the soul. The event of days gone by is flashing before my eyes: a bloody, many-day battle for this gloomy village under the blackened rocks.

I don't want to stay here any longer. And our car rushes along the good asphalt road of the low Dashalti-Shusha pass.

And now we are on the Lachin-Khankendi highway, well known to me. We pass the checkpoint of polite little green men. Then we overcome the post the Azerbaijani soldiers too. And now we are finally under the Shusha fortress.

I can't believe my eyes. But the flags of Turkey and Azerbaijan proudly fly over the fortress. And literally under these flags a line of cars of Armenian passengers, following from the corridor to Khankendi, runs.

I've reached the fortress

And on this highway, under the flags of Azerbaijan and Turkey, the Karabakh Armenians are passing

Passengers often turn around. Looking intently at our faces and flags flying in the wind, the fortress, the license plates of cars in front of the fortress... What does their look say? Confusion. Misunderstanding. No, this is not a protest or even resistance. A lack of understanding. Disbelief. Mirage... As if every glance asks: what's next? How can we all live on? It is very difficult to break away from this tense psychological atmosphere. People on both sides of the hellish gorge communicate with eyes. Many questioning, perplexed looks. But there is no dislike. I have not met a single, even accidentally thrown hostile glance. Only misunderstanding.

We are driving along a rocky road. To Shusha. To the feet of the mother of Azerbaijani cities. Here is the city gate. And the same Shusha stands before me.

In February 2005, I entered this city together with the Armenian journalist Karina Ohanyan. And her question sounded again with the same force: 'Do you understand what you have lost?' I stand at the feet of Shusha. And finally I realise what we have returned!

Part II, Shusha buried alive (Winter evening in Shusha series)

Part III, Alone among Armenians: But there are peacekeepers nearby (Winter evening in Shusha series)

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