Necrotic architectures are symbolic reminders of cities undone, but also hopeful sites of development and rapprochement.
“This city was one of our largest, oldest cities. There were once tens of thousands of inhabitants”. The city our guide was referring to was Shusha, the former Azeri stronghold in the breakaway Armenian republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. As we walked over broken pavements, past rusted Ladas and roofless houses, we were watched, not without suspicion, by those families and children who still live among the not-yet expired apartment blocks of the city’s ruined centre. Stepping over smashed concrete, dust, and steel rods, we proceeded quietly as our guide highlighted the violence committed both to the population and the urban fabric itself.
The war which led to the destruction of Shusha was the Nagorno-Karabakh War, or Artsakh Liberation War (Artsakhyan azatamart, in Armenian), which ran from the late 1980s to May 1994. During the breakup of the Soviet Republics, the emergent Armenia and Azerbaijan became entangled in a messy, “undeclared” conflict which would eventually involve direct Armenian military support in aid of the separatist guerrilla fighters. It was a war which fully “erupted” in the winter of 1992. The ceasefire, brokered by Russia, was only signed in 1994. During the war, Shusha was used initially by the Azeris to shell the capital of Stepanakert. When captured on 9 May 1992 by Armenian forces, the Azeri population fled, while the city was looted and burned. Estimates suggest that, by 2002, 80% of the city still lay in ruins.
I asked how many lived in the city today. “Perhaps three thousand?”. It seemed strange to think of three thousand people, the inhabitants of a small village, living within the ruins of a once large regional centre. The roads that had led to Shusha from the country’s new capital, Stepanakert, were clearly new, yet they terminated among the smashed rubble and litter of the capital’s old squares. Muted tones pervaded the cityscape: grey, sand, the pale green of plants that had taken root among the split stones. And in the distance, the broad, sharp shoulders of the region’s mountains. In the embassy, I had been told that “Nagorno” means “mountainous”. Mountainous Karabakh, a “black mountain garden”. […]