Nagorno Karabakh: Forgotten People in a Forgotten War

Article excerpt

Man and nature appear to conspire to inflict suffering on some people. The history of the Armenian people is beset by tragedy. They have been subjected to repeated massacres, including the genocide of over one-and-a-half million by the Turks in 1915. In 1988, they have also suffered from one of the world's most devastating earthquakes, which left 25,000 Armenians dead, and half a million homeless. Add to this toll of suffering the legacy of Stalin's cruel policies of enforced dislocation of people, when he cut off part of historic Armenia and relocated it as an isolated enclave in Azerbaijan and the brutal, bitter war which has raged in and around Nagorno Karabakh in the early years of this decade. This war has cost the lives of tens of thousands of Armenians and Azeris, and left a trail of destruction of towns and villages, with tens of thousands more people displaced from their homes.

Many people have never heard of Nagomo Karabakh; six years ago, I could not have found it on a map. But it has significance for us all. Not only is it a crucible of suffering for the Armenians and Azeris who live in and around it; it is also a territory which epitomises the type of conflict being waged in many parts of the world today: conflict stemming from a clash between the principles of self-determination and territorial integrity. This conflict is still not resolved.

A fragile cease-fire has held since April 1994, but there is a constant possibility that Azerbaijan may use the massive investment of millions of petro-dollars by international oil companies to purchase new weapons to try once again to achieve a military 'final solution' to the political problem of Karabakh. If war does break out again, the Armenians of Karabakh would defend themselves again; if it appeared likely that they might become subjects of another Armenian genocide, Armenia itself could not stand passively by. If Armenia were to engage to defend fellow-Armenians in Karabakh, the conflict could broaden to involve other neighbouring powers and a regional war could develop, with repercussions spreading far beyond the countries immediately involved. For Armenia lies not only on a geological fault-line, prone to earthquakes; it also lies on a geo-political fault-line, where West meets East and where oil interests run deep. It is also one of the places where Christianity meets Islam, although it must be emphasised that the war which has been raging is not a religious conflict, but, as Andrei Sakharov put it, in 1989: 'For Azerbaijan the issue of Karabakh is a matter of ambition, for the Armenians of Karabakh, it is a matter of life or death'.

To understand the significance of the present, it is essential to know a little of the past. As the history of the region is permeated with conflict, any account will inevitably be partial and I must therefore put my own credentials in context. I first heard of Karabakh during the Andrei Sakharov Memorial Congress in Moscow in May, 1991. Chairing a group of experts on human rights, I met, as a member of this group, one of Karabakh's elected deputies to the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union. He spoke in great detail of major violations of human rights being inflicted on the Armenians living in and around Karabakh, including systematic deportations of villages, in which entire communities were driven off their land, in brutal operations accompanied by murder, torture and pillage. These operations were part of a policy designated 'Operation Ring', comprising the proposed ethnic cleansing (a word used in relation to Azerbaijan's policy before it became familiar to the world in the context of the former Yugoslavia) of all Armenians from their ancient homeland of Karabakh.

As Chairman of this group, I was asked by the Congress to lead an independent, international delegation to the region to ascertain the facts. We were truly independent, with no preconceptions or prejudices. We met many of those who had suffered deportation. …