AGHDAM, Azerbaijan (AP) – Azerbaijani forces on Friday entered the war-torn ghost town of Aktam, chased by Armenian forces and recaptured a beloved city more than a quarter of a century ago.
Akhtam and the area around the same name are the first of many areas near the separatist Nagorno-Karabakh under a ceasefire agreement that ended six weeks of intense fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
“Today, with endless pride, I declare to my people the liberation of Akhtam,” President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan addressed the nation. “Aktam is ours!”
A crowd of people carrying national flags gathered in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.
Nagorno-Karabakh is within Azerbaijan but has been under the control of Armenian forces backed by Armenia since the end of a separatist war in 1994. That war left not only Nagorno-Karabakh, but also considerable territory surrounding the Armenian hands.
The fierce fighting that erupted on September 27 marked the largest escalation of decades of conflict between the two former Soviet countries for more than a quarter of a century, killing hundreds of people and thousands.
Aliyev called the takeover of the region a “major political victory” that would not have been possible without military gains.
“After a spectacular victory on the battlefield, Azerbaijan was able to achieve what it wanted in the political arena,” the president said.
The agreement, which was celebrated as a victory in Azerbaijan, has made many Armenians bitter. Mass protests erupted in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, shortly after the peace agreement was announced last week, and several ethnic Armenians fled territories to be handed over to Azerbaijan and set fire to their homes in a bitter farewell gesture.
Although the recovery of Aktama was a victory for Azerbaijan, the joy of returning is seen with sadness and anger as the Azerbaijanis face its catastrophe.
The city of Akhtam was once home to 50,000 houses, famous for its white houses and three-story dவுhouses, but it is in a state of disrepair, sometimes referred to as the “Hiroshima of the Caucasus”.
After the people were evacuated by fighting in 1993, they were followed by Armenian pirates who drove them out of the city, seeking both plunder and construction materials. One of the happiest attractions of the city, the Bread Museum is on the verge of collapse. The cognac factory is gone.
Today, structurally the entire building is only a mosque; From the tops of the elaborately designed minarets, the view is reduced to wide-cut concrete and houses into tiles, all of which are occupied by the growth of quarter-century vegetation.
Under Armenian control, the mosque was used as a stable for cattle and pigs for many years, which angered Azerbaijanis. The cattle are now gone, but the mosque is in ruins. A few soldiers and a Muslim cleric prayed inside its graffiti-scar and flame walls on Friday.
“Now a new era is beginning for Akhtam,” Aliyev said. “We have big plans.”
Aliyev said his government aims to reclaim Akhtam and other areas after the mines were cleared.
“After this destruction, the Armenians believed that the people of Azerbaijan would never return to these lands. They made a mistake. In the hearts of the people of Azerbaijan – in the soul of our people, they do not know that the native lands live and live forever, ”he said.
Akhtam was a place where many Azerbaijanis felt a special affection, at least because of its status as the breeding center of the Karabakh horse, which is considered the national animal.
There is also another bitter and proud memory of Akhtam – the home of the first victims of the region’s chaos.
In February 1988, two days after the Nagorno-Karabakh parliament demanded the annexation of the autonomous region to Soviet Armenia, an angry group marched from Aktam to the regional capital, Stephenkurt. Before they got there, they were confronted by police and Armenian villagers; Two of the protesters were shot dead.
News of their deaths provoked outrage in Aktam, and a mob began to gather weapons and march on Stephencourt. But a local woman stood on the roof of a vehicle and threw her scarf on the road – a gesture that local tradition forbade men to go further. This dramatic event was recalled by the most famous poet of the Soviet Union, Yevgeny Yettushenko, who called his act “almost insane / the great madness of grace / the only wisdom that can save us”.
In stark contrast to the complete destruction of the city of Akhtam, the Armenians have observed one of their most important historical sites in the province. The foundations of Digrancourt, more than 2,000 years old, have been archaeologically excavated, and some of the finds have been placed in an 18th-century castle.
As the Aktam handover approached, workers this week worked to remove some artifacts, including carved stone, which required the efforts of several men.
“These artefacts belong to this city and we take these artefacts to our museum so that our Azerbaijani brothers do not receive them,” said one of the workers, who only gave his name as Armaan. “Because they will harm the last pebble.”
Associated Press writers Jim Heinds and Daria Litvinova in Moscow and Ida Sultanova in London contributed to the report.