The people’s war: Why Azerbaijanis want to go home to Karabakh

Decades of bitter rivalry between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh have exploded into all-out war. But what drives the feelings of ordinary Azerbaijanis towards the conflict? Journalism trainer Dan Mason has worked extensively in Azerbaijan and gives this personal view.

A young boy walks past buildings destroyed in a rocket attack on Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second city. Image: Orkhan Rahmanli
A young boy carries belongings past buildings destroyed in a rocket attack on Ganja, killing civilians many miles from the front line. Image: Orkhan Rahmanli

The steel thread that unites every Azerbaijani

The first time I saw the cluster of grey towers in the far distance, I thought it might be an old Soviet factory complex. But as our car drew closer I saw apartment blocks, built miles from anywhere on a featureless plain. A few children played with a ball among scattered parked cars. Washing fluttered from concrete balconies. Otherwise, the place looked deserted.

Qutab (pancakes) with nar (pomegranate), served at the annual Nar Festival in Göychay, Azerbaijan
Qutab (pancakes) with nar (pomegranate), served at the annual Nar Festival in Göychay, Azerbaijan. Image: DM

Aggressors or defenders? Inside the Azerbaijani DNA

You have to scratch the surface to love Azerbaijan. I have and I do. Half the country’s ten million citizens live in Baku, where elegant architecture, seaside boulevard and cafe lifestyle clash with an outer sprawl of gritty high-rise apartments that define the city’s Soviet-era expansion.

The German Lutheran Church in Baku is a popular concert venue as well as a place of worship
The German Lutheran Church in Baku is a popular concert venue as well as a place of worship

It’s about religion, right? Wrong.

Some commentators have tried to stir up a religious dimension to the war between Christian Armenia and majority-Muslim Azerbaijan. Don’t believe it.

An Azerbaijani girl carries a baby during the escape from fighting in the Kalbajar region during the early 1990s. Image: Ilgar Jafarov

Independence … and the road to bloody war

Azerbaijan became (again) an independent country just 29 years ago. It’s hard to imagine what it must be like to claim back your own country after seven decades of Soviet occupation and oppression, but I’m told it was a time of hope, fear and chaos.

The Avenue of Martyrs: A sombre tribute to those who died for independence on the same day in 1990. Image: DM
A sea of tents erected for Azerbaijani IDPs and refugees fleeing the war with Armenia. For many the tents would be home for y
A sea of tents erected for Azerbaijani IDPs and refugees fleeing the war with Armenia. For many the tents would be home for y
A sea of tents erected for Azerbaijani IDPs and refugees fleeing the war with Armenia. For many the tents would be home for years. Image: UNHCR/Flickr
Map showing the areas controlled or supported by Armenia until the gains made by Azerbaijan forces after September 27. Source: BBC

Politics, power and people

Today, as throughout history, the fate of ordinary people in both Azerbaijan and Armenia continues to play out in the shadow of international politics.

Emergency teams at work in the rubble of the latest rocket attack on Ganja, Azerbaijan, killing 13 and wounding 52
Emergency teams at work in the rubble of the latest rocket attack on Ganja, killing 13 and wounding 52

The final word: What Azerbaijanis want

No-one I know wants war, but there’s a feeling this had to happen, sooner or later. Mothers have continued to wave goodbye to their sons entering national service, knowing they could become the target for a sniper’s bullet, one of the 30 or so soldiers on both sides to die on the ‘line of contact’ each year.

International journalism trainer and media project manager

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