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22 November 2022

Driving to Shusha – a Personal Experience

November 8 is "Victory Day" in Azerbaijan, commemorating the day Azerbaijani forces retook the city of Shusha during the 2nd Karabakh War. In this article, Mark Elliott takes us with him to see what's along the road to Shusha.

Shusha Karabakh

Image: Mark Elliott 

It was exactly two years ago today – November 8, 2020 - that Azerbaijan regained control of Shusha in a daring attack that will doubtless one day be the subject of movies. The city’s importance in strategic and emotional terms is such that November 8 is the date celebrated in Azerbaijan as ‘Victory Day,’ though the tripartite agreement that ended the conflict was signed a day later. However, the Shusha that was de-occupied was little more than a collection of ruins, as the Caspian Post illustrated in Orxan Azim’s fascinating photographic portrait, Snapshot of Shusha. In January, once bus tours from Baku started taking the families of former residents on gruellingly long day trips, we interviewed one of the first civilian visitors. He was taken aback by the degree to which the city had been left in a ruinous state after three decades of occupation. Since then, there have been a plethora of festivals and cultural events held in Shusha, but getting permission to visit remains complicated, especially for foreigners. When I was offered a rare opportunity to go, I jumped at the chance to see how one reaches the fabled city with my own eyes. So, this article focuses not on Shusha itself but on the fascinating journey to get there.   

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Road signs at Alat already indicate Shusha. Image:Mark Elliott 

As if to emphasize the city’s importance to the national psyche, the name Şuşa (Shusha) starts appearing on signboards less than an hour south of Baku when the place is still over 300km away. The fastest route takes the Astara-bound highway as far as Salyan, cuts west, bypassing Bilesuvar then roughly parallels the Iranian border to a small bazaar settlement called Mahmudlu/Ahmedbeyli. From here, the ‘Victory Road’ (Zəfər Yolu) to Shusha starts off through vivid green alfalfa fields and passes typical villages like Kurdmahmudlu made maudlin by repeated poster boards remembering fallen soldiers. After just over 20km, the scene starts to change. Agriculture stops. There’s an old sniper post north of the road. Then a police check post where matter of fact officers photograph IDs and check them for permission registration. The procedure is swift, and I’m surprised by the steady trickle of traffic on what I had expected to be a much quieter road.    

Into the De-occupied Area 

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Image:A.Aida88/Wikimedia Commons 

The skeletons of destroyed old stone homes have begun. There’s a sign in Azerbaijani to announce that the road has entered the formerly occupied area, and another warns of land mines and unexploded ordinance. A curious network of wires is apparent beside the road – former wine-growing equipment that had been refashioned pre-2020 into an anti-infantry trap. Just beyond, near Km 24/77, we stop to look at a roadside mound, topped with a commemorative rock installed to remember the Azerbaijanis who died here in September 2020: they were amongst the first casualties of the Second Karabakh War. Climbing the mound, it becomes rapidly apparent that this outwardly featureless hillock was, in fact, a carefully constructed warren of Armenian bunkers and trenches. Other than erecting the memorial stone, the site has been left consciously untouched, giving a shockingly visceral impression of the miserable realities of war – from rusty tin cans dumped everywhere by the former defenders, to dropped helmets, ammunition boxes and the odd military jacket strewn about the foxholes. It’s a searingly direct reminder of the battles that raged here so very recently.