Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan: How I learnt the true meaning of a 'Do not travel' warning

It is under fire. It is on fire. The news crew scuttles, the camera shuddery, but that is unmistakably the plaza two blocks from my friend's guesthouse. Cut to rows of lifeless soldiers, face-down beside a mountain road. I punch Saro's name into Facebook. His usual daily posts freeze abruptly one week ago. Oh, no…

This was September 2020. SBS World News led with a story about war erupting in Nagorno-Karabakh, between Armenia and Azerbaijan. It would be the first time that many (by now locked-down) Aussies had heard of this miniscule disputed territory in the south Caucasus, but not me.

One year earlier, I walked through that plaza every day. I followed Shushi's cobbled alleys and explored stone ruins sluggishly submitting to advancing undergrowth. I bought sugary and salty things from a nan-and-pop shop under a Soviet-era tenement, now maybe reduced to fuggy rubble. Back then, Nagorno-Karabakh's cultural centrepiece dawdled through its day like two old guys playing park chess.

Fellow-travellers in Armenia had lackadaisically recommended Nagorno-Karabakh like you would a 'secret' island or off-TripAdvisor restaurant. Most governments recognised the disputed territory as part of Azerbaijan, even though ethnic Armenians predominated, but 'it' hadn't 'kicked-off' there in a few years, they said. It's basically part of Armenia now, they said. It had felt like it – at the time.

Baffled, grinning border-guards dipped their cartoonish Soviet-style caps at me as I un-squeezed out of the mini-bus, which had chirped and complained seven hours from Armenia's capital, Yerevan, calmed only by dillydallying flocks of sheep hogging pock-marked roads. As I filled out my entry paperwork, the men shared their pretzels and brandy with me, then bid me a fine trip with hearty handshakes and one, rather awkward military-strength hug.

The week's adventures still make me smile. I hiked poppy-peppered valleys where green reigned supreme; lunched at mountain villages on the Silk Road's filigrees. I strolled the sloping European-like boulevards of shiny (unofficial) capital Stepanakert. I marvelled at kitschy Vank village; its giant 'rock lion', ship-shaped Eclectic Hotel, and roadside Michelangelo's David bankrolled by a businessman who had perished in a Russian jail.

Saro made me feel at home like no other guesthouse owner has. We drank his spirits with spirit, talked big ideas and baloney until the gloaming lost its glow. I left Nagorno-Karabakh reinvigorated, bursting with stories of this 'undiscovered' utopia.

The Australian government's 'Do not travel' warning therefore seemed comically extreme. Before COVID-19 blanketed the world in restrictions, this level was reserved for places where the faeces were currently circulating deep in the fan's mechanism. An historical anomaly or plain geopolitical obliviousness, perhaps?

From my lockdown-couch sanctuary one year on, in pale-faced shock, I sifted through my roseate recollections, trying to reconcile how slumbrous villages now flickered with surreal catastrophe.

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I flashed back to images of people wearing military fatigues like active-wear. Remembered too many glimpses of young and old men on crutches; trousers pinned precisely at amputations. Recalled two museums where walls bowed with black-and-white photos of serious-faced men and women kept alive the legacies of dead and still-missing soldiers; actualising a pain that could never scab over.

I asked Saro how many of its 150,000 citizens were in the army. "Everyone is a soldier," he joked. "Look, we are very relaxed and very much forget about the danger." So had I. The atmosphere didn't come close to the uneasy tension I had felt on the borders of Israel and Palestine in the late-noughties.

For outsiders, Nagorno-Karabakh is a complex geopolitical salad to digest. The territory had been under control of ethnic Armenians since they 'won' the First Nagorno-Karabakh war (1991-1994). The Azerbaijani population were expelled and the 'breakaway territory' unsuccessfully attempted to unite with Armenia.

Saro still carried shrapnel in his leg from that conflict between the recently separated Soviet states. Born in, Baku, Azerbaijan, he headed to Nagorno-Karabakh – his Armenian father's birthplace – as the USSR began to disintegrate in 1988. Refugees from Armenian's catastrophic earthquake and others fleeing from claimed mistreatment in Azerbaijan followed.

Nagorno-Karabakh's post-war townscapes became a canvas for nationalistic symbolism that embodied the population's ardent, long-ignored call for self-determination. The flag of the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh hung strategically from every high-spot (essentially an Armenian flag overlaid with symbolic, Space Invader-esque steps).

Hewn from red volcanic rock, the commanding We Are Our Mountains monument was installed on a hill outside Stepanakert; its two figures stare like hyper-protective grandparents. The 'international airport' even got a refurb, even though no airlines would go near it.

Saro conceded that our chats were just one passionate side to this internecine nightmare. When I had travelled through Azerbaijan, five weeks earlier, no one had talked about the tensions, but obviously this country felt its territory loss profoundly. Anthony Bourdain was put onto a 'persona-non-grata' list after a visit to Shushi "for his disrespect of Azerbaijan's territorial integrity and sovereignty".

This exquisite wedge of the Caucasus has never recovered from being the geographical meat in an Ottoman-and-Russian-empire sandwich. With the dispute never far from their minds or bedrooms, the next-generation of both sides now bears the burden. Saro's son, Samo, was injured in the 2016 border flare-up.

"You must know the psychology of these two sides," Saro told me. "Two different civilisations meet here. Armenia sees Azerbaijan as part of Turkey, which has a problem with genocide recognition."

The 2020 war lasted six weeks. Azerbaijan reclaimed significant parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, including Saro's hometown (Shusha in Azerbaijani). Like the first war, both sides accused each other of war crimes and thousands died. Saro, however, was not one of them.

"It's life and sometimes she is dangerous," he says, from a relative's flat in Stepanakert (not under Azerbaijan's control), just 15 kilometres from the home his family fled. His son lost a leg in the fight.

Would I go back, once COVID travel bans lift? Not yet. Sadly, the peacekeeper-controlled situation is just too raw. Was I wrong to ignore the warnings back then? Well, like Nagorno-Karabakh, that's complicated.

Every time I have disregarded a serious travel warning, I have undertaken a traveller's due diligence. Identify specific live conflict zones and keep the hell away from them. Ask and re-ask questions before proceeding anywhere. Know when to turn around – a lesson I accidentally learned (by getting arrested) on the edge of the battle-zone between Sudan and South Sudan. I think I covered these this time.

If I had obeyed every stern travel warning, I would have missed seeing what West Africa, Iran, Palestine (etc, etc) are really like. And I would have never come to know Saro's family – the very idea of which makes me sad.

Most world governments have yoked Nagorno-Karabakh with a territory-non-gratis status since the 1994 cease-fire without ever stepping up to help negotiate a peace-treaty. The unforeseen problem with perpetually labelling somewhere a "dangerous place" is that its people are stripped of the ability to tell their own stories – and nothing changes.

What did my journey to Nagorno-Karabakh teach me? As always, travel with eyes peeled and mind open, but also seek to understand both sides of a story before you slip across a border. And don't always trust the-powers-that-be to tell you who the goodies and baddies are.

See also: The trip that nearly put me off travel, forever

See also: How Belarus incident could change air travel

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