Steeped in blood: the hilltop town at centre of the ethnic feud between Azerbaijan and Armenia

Colin Freeman
·5 min read
People grieve as bodies were removed from a central building in Shushi, hit by a missile on Sunday. Hostilities resumed between Armenian and Azerbaijan forces over the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh on Oct 5th - JULIAN SIMMONDS
People grieve as bodies were removed from a central building in Shushi, hit by a missile on Sunday. Hostilities resumed between Armenian and Azerbaijan forces over the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh on Oct 5th - JULIAN SIMMONDS

In a war with no shortage of random shelling, it was one shot that was unmistakably on target. The Azerbaijani missile plunged straight into the roof of a cultural centre in the Nagorno Karabakh town of Shushi, just as Armenian security forces were sheltering inside.

"We have lost at least six or seven men, with many more injured," one officer told The Telegraph, fighting back tears as he pulled dead comrades from the building's wreckage this week.

The missile salvo was just one of hundreds that Azerbaijan has exchanged with Armenia during the latest fight over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh, which broke away from Azerbaijan after a brutal war from 1988-94.

With both sides nursing memories of those six years of ethnic bloodletting, there is no shortage of scores to settle. But the town of Shushi, which sits on a hilltop overlooking the Nagorno Karabakh capital, Stepanakert, is where the grudges are bitterest.

In Soviet times, when Nagorno Karabakh was under Azerbaijani rule, Shushi was a mix of Armenians and Azeris, whose differences were suppressed under Communism.

All that changed when the Soviet empire collapsed, making Shushi centre stage for a battle laden with ethnic and religious symbolism.

First it was held by the Azerbaijanis, who used the town's Holy Saviour cathedral as a launch point for raining artillery down on Armenian-held Stepanakert, sometimes firing up to 1,000 shells per week.

Then, in a battle that Armenians still hail as their greatest victory in Nagorno Karabakh, Armenian forces laid siege to Shushi, fighting their way up its steep slopes to retake it in 1992.

"When we took Shushi back, we found the cathedral half destroyed, with missiles scattered around inside and animals grazing in there," said Erik Mangasaryan, 73, who took part in the assault.

"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, as it reclaimed the road that links Nagorno Karabakh to Armenia proper. A half-destroyed Armenian T-72 tank still overlooks the road as a monument to the battle.  

Today, the only reminder of the Azeri presence in Shushi is two mosques, both of which have been restored. Its only visitors, though, are occasional parties of Iranian pilgrims, Shushi's Azeri population having fled entirely.

Yet even now, Azeris still see Shushi - known to them as Shusha - as their traditional stronghold in Nagorno Karabakh, remembering it as centre for Azeri 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 enclave's national assembly would be moving from Stepanakert to Shushi.

Armenian Diaspora Allen Sayadyan, 40, from Los Angeles, USA, lights some candles at the Holy Saviour Cathedral (Ghazanchetsots Cathedral ) in Shushi, the hill town 8 miles from Stepanakert in Nagorno-Karabakh. He left the country aged 10 years and moved with his wife and son back to Armenia three weeks ago. He is willing now to fight for Nagorno-Karabakh - Julian Simmonds
Armenian Diaspora Allen Sayadyan, 40, from Los Angeles, USA, lights some candles at the Holy Saviour Cathedral (Ghazanchetsots Cathedral ) in Shushi, the hill town 8 miles from Stepanakert in Nagorno-Karabakh. He left the country aged 10 years and moved with his wife and son back to Armenia three weeks ago. He is willing now to fight for Nagorno-Karabakh - Julian Simmonds

In any other part of the world, this might be seen as a routine exercise in local government reorganisation. Here, however, it was viewed - and possibly intended - as outright provocation to Azerbaijan.

At the outset of hostilities last week, Azerbaijan's president, Ilham Aliev, also lashed out at 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," Mr Aliev fumed.

"These are deliberate attempts to drag us into conflict and provoke retaliatory actions."

While both sides have blamed each other for re-starting the conflict, Mr Aliev has warned that Armenian forces will be chased "like dogs" out of Nagorno Karabakh unless they make concessions.

He points out that the territory is still recognised internationally as part of Azerbaijan, and says that at the very least, Azeris who fled towns like Shushi should be allowed to re-settle. But with Shushi now under Azeri bombardment, the prospect of the two communities returning to Soviet-style brotherly love seems remote

On Thursday, the dome of the Holy Saviour Cathedral was hit by shellfire, outraging the town’s Armenian residents. And for many, the current conflict has also unwelcome parallels with the past.

A man walks in rubble on October 8, 2020 inside the Ghazanchetsots (Holy Saviour) Cathedral in the historic city of Shusha, some 15 kilometers from the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh province's capital Stepanakert - AFP
A man walks in rubble on October 8, 2020 inside the Ghazanchetsots (Holy Saviour) Cathedral in the historic city of Shusha, some 15 kilometers from the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh province's capital Stepanakert - AFP

Just as Syrian jihadists are now believed to be fighting for Mr Aliev, so too did foreign jihadists fight on the Azeri side during the original siege of Shushi. The defence against the Armenian assault was led by the notorious Chechen guerrilla Shamil Basayev, who later joined al-Qaeda and ordered the Beslan school siege in Russia in 2004.

Then, as now, Turkey was also involved, launching behind the scenes operations to help the Azeris, who are seen as fellow Turks. A more direct role was only stopped by Russia, who feared - as some do now - that it could start a third world war.

"Shushi is a very special place for us because it is the symbol of Nagorno Karabakh's war to liberate ourselves and connect our country with Armenia," said Ashot Gulyan, 55, drinking tea with two cousins outside one of Shushi's tatty Soviet-era housing blocks.

"In the Soviet era, yes, everyone was supposed to be friends, and I knew many Azeris,” he added. “But after all that has happened. I don't think it would be easy for us to welcome in Azeris again - even if they came in peace."