Steeped in blood: the hilltop town at centre of the ethnic feud between Azerbaijan and Armenia
People mourn when bodies were removed from a central building in Shushi that was hit by a rocket on Sunday. Hostilities between Armenian and Azerbaijani armed forces over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region resumed on October 5th - JULIAN SIMMONDS
In a war with no lack of arbitrary fire, it was a shot that unmistakably hit the target. The Azerbaijani missile fell straight into the roof of a cultural center in the city of Shushi in Nagorno-Karabakh, just as Armenian security forces were seeking protection.
"We lost at least six or seven men and many more were injured," an official told The Telegraph, fighting back tears as he pulled dead comrades out of the rubble of the building this week.
The rocket volley was just one of hundreds that Azerbaijan exchanged with Armenia during the recent battle over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, which broke away from Azerbaijan after a brutal war from 1988 to 1994.
With both sides cherishing memories of those six years of ethnic bloodshed, there is no shortage of items to be done. But in the town of Shushi, located on a hill overlooking the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, Stepanakert, the grudges are most bitter.
In the Soviet era, when Nagorno Karabakh was under Azerbaijani rule, Shushi was a mixture of Armenians and Azeris, whose differences were suppressed under communism.
All of this changed when the Soviet empire collapsed and Shushi became the focus of a battle full of ethnic and religious symbolism.
First it was held by the Azerbaijanis, who used the city's Holy Savior Cathedral as a launching point to rain artillery on the Armenian-held Stepanakert, sometimes firing up to 1,000 grenades a week.
In a battle that the Armenians still refer to as their greatest victory in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian forces besieged Shushi and fought their way up the steep slopes in 1992, only to retake it in 1992.
"When we took Shushi back, we found the cathedral half destroyed, with missiles scattered inside and animals grazing there," said Erik Mangasaryan, 73, who participated in the attack.
"Azerbaijan will never retake it, I tell you, because we will make it a bloodbath for them."
"Operation Wedding in the Mountains," as the Armenians called it, was a turning point in the war when they recaptured the road that connects Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia. A half-destroyed Armenian T-72 tank still overlooks the street as a memorial to the battle.
The only reminder of the Azerbaijani presence in Shushi today are two mosques, both of which have been restored. The only visitors, however, are occasional groups of Iranian pilgrims, whose Azerbaijani population has fled the Shushi entirely.
Even today, the Azeris see Shushi - known as Shusha - as their traditional stronghold in Nagorno-Karabakh and remember it as a center for Azerbaijani music and poetry. Hence their anger last month when Arayik Harutyunyan, a war veteran who has just become Nagorno Karabakh's new president, announced that the National Assembly of the Stepanakert enclave was moving to Shushi.
The Armenian diaspora Allen Sayadyan, 40, from Los Angeles, USA, lights some candles in the Holy Savior Cathedral (Ghazanchetsots Cathedral) in Shushi, the mountain town 8 miles from Stepanakert in Nagorno-Karabakh. He left the country at the age of 10 and moved back to Armenia with his wife and son three weeks ago. He is now ready to fight for Nagorno-Karabakh - Julian Simmonds
In any other part of the world this could be seen as a routine exercise in restructuring local government. Here, however, it was viewed as a complete provocation to Azerbaijan - and possibly intended.
At the start of hostilities last week, Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliev also resisted Mr Harutyunyan for choosing Shushi as the venue for his swearing-in ceremony in May.
"They held the so-called swearing-in ceremony for the so-called leader of the criminal Nagorno-Karabakh regime in Shusha, an ancient pearl of Azerbaijani culture," raged Aliev.
"These are deliberate attempts to get us into conflict and provoke retaliation."
While both sides have blamed each other for resuming the conflict, Aliev has warned that Armenian forces will be evicted from Nagorno-Karabakh "like dogs" unless they make concessions.
He points out that the area is still internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, and says that at least Azerbaijanis who have fled cities like Shushi are allowed to settle again. But with Shushi now under Azerbaijani bombardment, the prospect of the two communities returning to Soviet-style brotherly love seems slim
On Thursday, the dome of the Cathedral of the Holy Savior was hit by shells, which outraged the city's Armenian residents. And for many, the current conflict also has undesirable parallels with the past.
A man walks in ruins at Ghazanchetsots (Holy Savior) Cathedral in the historic city of Shusha, about 15 kilometers from the disputed capital of Stepanakert (AFP) of Nagorno-Karabakh province, on October 8, 2020
Just as Syrian jihadists are now believed to fight for Mr. Aliev, foreign jihadists also fought on the Azerbaijani side during the original siege of Shushi. The defense against the Armenian attack was led by the notorious Chechen guerrilla Shamil Basayev, who later joined al-Qaeda and ordered the siege of the Beslan School in Russia in 2004.
Then, as now, Turkey was also involved and started operations behind the scenes to help the Azerbaijanis, who are considered Turkish colleagues. A more direct role was only stopped by Russia, which - like some now - feared it could spark a third world war.
"Shushi is a very special place for us because it is the symbol of the Nagorno-Karabakh war to free us and connect our country with Armenia," said 55-year-old Ashot Gulyan, who was with two cousins sipped tea in one of Shushi's dingy Soviet-era apartment blocks.
"Everyone should be a friend in Soviet times, and I knew a lot of Azeris," he added. "But after all that has happened. I don't think it would be easy for us to welcome back to Azeris." even if they came in peace. "
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