How I Was Turned Away from Nagorny Karabakh

How I Was Turned Away from Nagorny Karabakh

By Artem Yefimov

I as an admirer of Armenian temple architecture was mainly interested in ancient monasteries of Gandsasar and Dadivank in Nagorny Karabakh. My friend Max who had already been to Pridnestrovye, Southern Ossetia and Abkhazia as a photographer, was interested in modern life of post soviet non-recognized republic.

We left for Karabakh on the 12th of September from Armenian town Goris (it took us two hours of driving to get there). On the border our passports were checked and we were told that we would need some paper from Ministry of External Affairs for leaving the country. “Visa of Departure-My friend Max guessed. Some countries have such kind of thing.”

On Monday, September 13 we went to look round Karabakh. Our attention was attracted by the photo of mosque in Agdam on the tourist map, which was bought from a book store in Stepanakert (the capital of non-recognized republic) and we decided to get there. It took us half an hour to get there from Stepanakert.

First of all Agdam is famous for its wine, which was produced there during the Soviet period. Majority of population at the time was consisted of Azeri’s (approximately 50 thousand people) and Karabakh Armenians did not lay claim to it, when declared their independence out of Azerbaijan in 1992. During the war Agdam became one of the main strong points of Azerbaijani forces. In summer 1993, when the internal rows had already paralyzed Azerbaijani forces Armenian forces began to attack. Fights for Agdam lasted more than a month and when Armenians entered the town it had almost been destroyed. Subsequently it was stated by UNO that Armenians occupied Agdam and some other Azerbaijani territories through the violation of war rules and their pledge.

It seems that Agdam was very beautiful town. In this wreckage of buildings there, comfort and delight of Eastern town which could still be seen in the greenness of gardens was felt.
We got to that mosque. It was built almost half a century ago. It seems to be the only whole building in Agdam. Two of its minarets which were decorated with blue inlay, can be seen from distance. We climbed the top of minaret and we felt terrible because all we could see around were the ruins.

We spent 3 hours in Agdam. Then we moved farther. My friend Max heard from local people that in neighboring village of Drmbon gold was extracted and he was impatient about making a photo reporting there. He immediately got the proper order from a popular Russian magazine. We visited the office of “Base Metals Company” which was extracting the gold and agreed with the administration that we would them the next day with appropriate accreditation. All the disaster began from here.

It is more likely that guys from “Base Metals” thought that we were spies. They phoned the’ right address’. The police stopped us at the very first post. But the policemen were not trusted to sort out the things with us and we were ‘awarded’ with Mr. Leonid Arustamian the officer of National Security Service of Nagorny Karabakh republic.

At first we were told that we had not registered on our arrival. We told them that no one warned us about it except the visa of departure. Then Arustamian began to question us about the places we had been to and the photos we had taken. We told him everything.
He said:’ Agdam is forbidden zone’. ‘Really? There is not even barrier there!’ we said.’ How did we have to guess that it was forbidden?!’.
We argued for more than two hours. As result we were ordered to go back to Stepanakert and get registered. Mr. Arustamian stated that he wanted to take our photo cameras. Of course we refused to give them. Mr. Arustamian phoned authorities and again insisted. At last I offered to take USB cards but only with written receipt. Mr. Arustamian wrote the receipt then called authorities again and told us that he did not have right to do it. So he took back the receipt from us and burned it.

While we were on our way to Stepanakert the working day was over at the Ministry of External Affairs which had to register us. We went there next morning on September 14. Our editorials had already sent a letter to the Ministry of external Affairs explaining that we were not camels and assistance for us would not be harmful. In spite of it we were told that we were allowed to stay in Karabakh till the evening. All our questions ‘Why?’ were answered in this way: “This is the decision of authorities.” Anyway we were allowed to talk to no one from authorities.
We got back USB cards taken away by Mr. Arustamian. All the photos of Agdam were deleted.
Lady at consulate department who told us that we were not allowed to stay in Karabakh, grumbled in offended way; “You went straight forward to Agdam, instead of visiting monasteries and thousand year old trees”

We got angry. We phoned our colleagues in Moscow and took from them the number of high positioned Armenian and Karabakh officials and we decided to make a brawl. The brawl succeeded. One of our friends from Yerevan called phoned the Administration of Armenian president in some hours and he was told: “Are you also calling related with those two frauds in Karabakh?” we left Karabakh on September 14 in the evening according to the orders of Ministry of External Affairs and spent the night in Goris. On the 15th of September in the morning we went back. Officials at the Ministry of External Affairs weary with the phone calls from Armenian and Karabakh presidential administrations and with phone calls from Russian Mass Media editorials told us that “your problem will be solved.” Mr. Marsel Petrosyan the chief of information management department of Ministry of External Affairs invited us to his office.
“As a journalist with 40 years of experience I understand you very well.” he said. “I understand that Karabakh is a republic recognized by neither state at the same time by Russia.” He said these words with such a grief as if the recognition of Karabakhat least in its smallest level depended on us.” But we have our own rules….

” How did we have to guess those rules?” we asked. “There are not even instruction tables in Karabakh informing that taking photo is forbidden.”

“You had to pass accreditation as a journalist in advance” “We were there not as journalists but tourists. You made journalists from us when you prohibited taking photos, arrested and sent us back. ”

“All kind of self-respecting country has to know in advance where and why journalists are going”

“Self-respecting country should not have to interfere in it.” Of course this argument was helpless.

We went for a walk to Stepanakert till “our problem would be solved.” In the evening five or six well-grown men who were old enough were waited for us at the hotel. One of them said:
“We are from criminal investigation and we were ordered to take you to the frontier.” “Criminal investigation?” we were surprised. “Why not Armenian Special Appointed Forces?”

Criminal investigation took us to there vehicle and we were driven straight forward to the border and were presented to customs officers. They made copies of our passports including visas and the pages with a seal on border passing. Then we were taken away to Goris by hitch-hike truck. So our trip to Nagorny Karabakh ended this way. No one has explained us yet which rules we broke with going to Karabakh. We can only guess that the reason of our being turned away. According to different hints by officials of Ministry of External Affairs of Karabakh and special services we understood that most of all authorities disliked our going to Agdam. Their deleting our photos is evidence only about one thing: Karabakh authorities do not want anyone to remind the world of the events happened in Agdam June-July 1993. Karabakh Armenians destroyed nice, well-built town and violated their promise on keeping the borders appointed by themselves in 1992 and they occupied the territories which they do not even consider theirs.

Azerbaijan Today Magazine. 2012.