Legendary city 30 years later: a trip to Karabakh

Bus tour to Shusha / Shushi - story and photo
05:20 am. Baku International Bus Station.
- Are you also going to Shusha?
Two women approach us, one of them with a bouquet of carnations.
- Yes. Are you from Shusha?
- Yes. The bus doesn't seem to have arrived yet.
- Not yet. We are also waiting.
A woman in her fifties looks very agitated. Her daughters are in their early twenties and much more reserved.
- Well, calm down, everything is over, finally you are going to your homeland, rejoice, she says to her mother with a smile.
Shusha (Shushi in Armenia) is a city in Karabakh that came under Armenian control in 1992 during the first Karabakh war and was recaptured during the 2020 war. Both in Armenia and Azerbaijan, this city is considered a kind of sacred symbol, in addition, it is also an important strategic height (more information about the significance of the city can be found here). A year after the war, when the road leading to the city was cleared, bus excursions were organized to Shusha (in Azerbaijan they are often called “pilgrimages”) from Baku. Buses are escorted by policemen, the tour route in the city itself is strictly defined. The ticket price is purely symbolic.

06:30. After checking the documents and bags of passengers, the bus sets off.

- Hello, hello, I’ll be with you in the evening, set the table. Yes, I'm going to Shusha. I swear on your health! (laughs heartily). Do you remember my colleague from Georgia, we are going with him. And on the way back I will go to Akhmedbeyli and come to see you. So set the table (laughs again).

I understand that a man of forty or forty-five years old sitting behind us is very happy talking on the phone with his acquaintance from the village of Akhmedbeyli in the Fuzuli region, through which we will pass.

Along the way I involuntarily listen to the conversations of other passengers. The mother and daughter we met at the bus station are sitting two rows ahead of us.

- Mom, I wonder if your house survived?

- To hell with the house. I just want to find my father's grave. If it's destroyed, I won’t be able to stand it.

- Inshallah, we'll find it, don't worry. But I still want to see the house where you were born and raised.

So, while I was accidentally eavesdropping on fragments of conversations, we arrived in Ahmedbeyli. The last time I was here was a few years before the 2020 war. Then there were few people and cars on the local streets. Unemployed men with gloomy faces crowded in front of rare teahouses. But now the picture was completely different. A repaired road, on the side of the road there are numerous cafes, shops, and even an “depilation salon”. People are smiling and seem lively. There are also a lot more cars - you can immediately see that the influx of visitors has increased.

We stop at a roadside cafe to rest, have breakfast and talk to the owner.

Bakhtiyar was born in Ahmedbeyli, but lived in Baku for 12 years.

-I stayed there after my studies, because there was no work here. I returned ten months ago. I saw that after the war everything was moving here, there were a lot more visitors, everyone was opening shops, cafes and restaurants. So I also came here and opened this cafe. The local population is also doing well. All the food served in this cafe is made from products purchased from local residents. Everything is local - meat, chickens, eggs, butter, cheese, vegetables, fruits and bread, - says Bakhtiyar.

We take our seats on the bus again. “After the next post, the liberated territories begin, they will check the documents at the post, do not take any pictures of anything there”, the driver warns.

Shortly after the border post, the city landscapes of Fizuli begin to flicker outside the windows of the bus. More precisely - what is left - or what is not left of the city. The city has been wiped off the face of the earth. It is hard to imagine that here not only 30, but even 100 years ago there were houses, schools, kindergartens, hospitals, people were busy with their own affairs, hurried to work and home. There was silence on the bus. Everyone tries to photograph what is visible from the window. From time to time someone sighs.

We drive along a winding road leading to Shusha. As the bus goes uphill, there is more snow on the side of the road. Although it is sunny and clear today, it feels like it was snowing a couple of days ago. Every 10-15 meters, triangles of yellow-red ribbons wound on wooden supports warn of mines.

Having passed one after another devastated village at the foot of the mountain, we rise higher and higher.

The bus is noisy again. Two passengers are arguing. One says that no one has lived in these villages since the first Karabakh war, the other says that Armenians lived in Shusha itself and in the surrounding villages and left them after the second war. I want to intervene and confirm the words of the second, but I restrain myself.

We pass the post of Russian peacekeepers. Soon the pass ends and we arrive in Shusha.

The bus stops in front of the Qoç ət restaurant which reopened in October 2021, located near the abandoned post office. Passengers are asked to get off and gather together. A young tour guide first of all specifies which of the visitors are Shusha residents. A 35-40-year-old woman who was silent all the way, answering all questions with a confused look, finally speaks:

- Our house was near the Yukhari Govharaga mosque. May I go there?, - she asks in a trembling voice.
“Of course”, the guide replies, and entrusts the woman and her husband to two military men. “Thank you, thank you very much,” she says, and starts to cry. The husband hugs her, trying to calm her down. Separated from the group, they leave. Other Shusha families, accompanied by police officers, are also heading to their homes.

And we, non-Shushanians, begin the tour. We are shown the houses where legendary people lived - the khan's daughter, the famous poetess Khurshudbanu Natavan and the singer Bul-Bul. The mausoleum of Molla Panah Vagif (poet and politician of the 18th century) has already been restored. Other sights are awaiting restoration - for example, many mosques. Refugees from Shusha always talk a lot about mosques; some say that Shusha used to have a mosque for every quarter.

Saatli Mosque
Yukhari Govkharaga Mosque
The Yukhari Govharaga Mosque, in addition to its historical and architectural value, is also known for the fact that in 2019, the authorities of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic initiated its restoration in cooperation with Iranian specialists, which Azerbaijan regarded as an attempt to turn the Azerbaijani mosque into a “Persian” one.
But after that there was a war, and then another year passed. There is no information about the stage at which the restoration stopped, nor about the current state of the mosque.

Saatly and Yukhari Govharaga mosques are in disrepair and are being restored now, the guide tells us, so we look at them from a distance. But only ruins remained from the Ashaghy Govkharaga mosque.
This bust of Khurshudbanu Natavan, along with several other busts of Azerbaijani artists, was evacuated from Karabakh in the early 1990s, during the first war. Bullet-marked busts stood in a semicircle near the State Philharmonic in Baku. Now they have been brought back home.
The house of the Khan's daughter Natavan is in a dilapidated state.

Bul-bul's house has been preserved, but not a single exhibit of the museum has survived, so now the exhibition consists of his photographs. But the mulberry tree in the yard survived, on which the future artist liked to climb in childhood, when he was still called Murtuza Mammadov. According to legend, he received his nickname Bul-Bul (“nightingale” in Azerbaijani) for the ability to imitate the singing of birds while sitting on the branches of this very tree.

A newly restored hotel called is "Karabakh". Visitors are not allowed to stay overnight in Shusha - the hotel, apparently, is for “official” guests only.

The walls of the Shusha fortress, built in the 18th century, rise as if nothing had happened, safe and sound.

It was in no way possible to go beyond the strictly defined limits of the tour route, and the tour organisers were reluctant to answer questions about the destruction. They only said that "with time, everything will be restored”.

The guide warned us that even if the doors of the houses say “Checked, no mines”, it is strictly forbidden to go inside - it can still be dangerous in there.

We are heading to the last stop of our tour - the clearing of Dzhydyr Duzu. This is a large flat area above a cliff, with a beautiful view of the mountains.

We are gradually joined by residents of Shusha, who have already managed to visit their homes.

One of the first to return is the silent woman and her husband. This time she smiles. "Did you see your house?”, one of the fellow travellers asks. “I saw it,” she replies with a smile. The man obviously expects details, but the woman falls silent again.

When, after passing through the gate, we go out to Dzhydir duzu, we are overtaken by a family consisting of two sisters aged 50-55, the son of one of the sisters and their elderly parents. One of the sisters says, addressing it no one:

“We spent our youth here. At school, we would skip lessons and come here, to Dzhydyr Duzu. I was 22 years old when I left Shusha. My best years have passed here. And I have spent my whole life away from home.

- And thanks for that. I was so afraid that we would die away from home, never seeing Shusha again. Praise be to Allah, after so much torment, after all this longing, we are here again”, her mother says.

I'm talking to auntie Javahir. It turns out that although she had seen Shusha, she could not find her house. The war did not spare the "teacher's house", where they once lived with their children and their husband Sabir, who worked here as a teacher.

“I still keep the key to our apartment, but the door that it once opened is no longer there”, she shows the key hanging around her neck.

- Oh, all our holidays, all events, passed on Dzhydir duzu. They stole our lives from us.

Talking to auntie Javahir, I notice the same mother and daughter who brought a bouquet of carnations from Baku. They no longer have the flowers.

"Did you find your father's grave?”, I ask involuntarily. The woman's gaze freezes, she shakes her head, tears running down her cheeks.

The daughter hugs her mother tightly and says: “On the way back, we went to the new Alley of Martyrs, and laid flowers there”.

The tour is over, we gather again near the Qoç ət restaurant and get back on the bus.

Ahead is a half-hour stop at the same cafe in Ahmedbeyli and the journey back to Baku.
The bus is quiet again. I guess everyone is tired and everyone has mixed feelings, just like me.
Samira Ahmadbeyli

İsa Musayev
Trajectories is a media project that tells stories of people whose lives have been impacted by conflicts in the South Caucasus. We work with authors and editors from across the South Caucasus and do not support any one side in any conflict. The publications on this page are solely the responsibility of the authors. In the majority of cases, toponyms are those used in the author’s society. The project is implemented by GoGroup Media and International Alert and is funded by the European Union
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