A confrontational context.
Since September 27, 2020, Azerbaijan has launched a hostile and brutal aggression on Artsakh territories, which this Turkish-speaking state considers to be an Armenian secessionist enclave in its territory. The views of Artsakh residents, who obtained their autonomy in the nineties, differ strongly from this attempted rewrite of history.
Weary, in the absence of recognition from the international community, facing a bellicose neighbour who has never stopped preparing militarily and diplomatically this war, using its financial power and powerful support alongside his Turkish ally. Artsakh, despite the heroism of its volunteers who paid the price of blood, had to accept the ceasefire imposed on November 10, 2020.
This tripartite agreement was signed by President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia, Nikol Pachinian and President of the federation of Russia, Vladimir Putin, with a view to ending the war of 2020 in Artsakh.
It endorse Artsakh's 80 % loss of its territory. Thus tens of thousands of peasants are deprived of their land and pastures, inhabitants forced out of their homes, thousands of hectares of forests passed to the enemy, hundreds of pure water springs whose courses are now travelling the territory of Azerbaijan, churches..
For this rural, agricultural, fruit and vegetable strong producer, it is a real deprivation of all its resources that its neighbour has engaged. A slow asphyxiation is waiting for it, and all the more so that he M12 road, this fragile axis that now connects Artsakh to Armenia, partly wind through Azerbaijan's territory.
The Corridor of Lachin (Axis U12, in Armenian territory, M12, as soon as we enter Artsakh territory), is the only winding mountain route that still connects Armenia to Stepanakert and what's left of Artsakh.
Just consult a map to see that this axis is now partly crossing the territory conquered by Azerbaijanis in 2020. These are portions of the road for about 20 km around Shusha, as well as the area around Latchin, either on almost a third of the road sections.
A humanitarian reconnaissance mission under pressure.
Saturday, December 12, 2020, just over a month after the signing the ceasefire, I make the decision to conduct a reconnaissance mission on this axis. It is essential for me to assess the situation of internally displaced persons who would be tempted to return to Stepanakert or Artsakh, to visit Stepanakert and to assess the situation of locals and internally displaced persons, who are slowly coming back. Furthermore, for the security of the mission, it is my duty to test this strategic axis for the delivery of our humanitarian aid.
The road is known to be protected by Russian peace forces, in accordance with the ceasefire agreement. But the borders still haven't been defined : Azerbaijanis, want to push their military advantage more and force their enemy to kneel. They challenge borders, violate them regularly and denounce the legitimacy of Russian peace forces.
Once in Goris at noon from Yerevan, Aram, our Franco-Armenian fixer and I, after asking his friends in Stepanakert, decide to take the corridor of Lachin. Before we leave, we want to acquire a telephone or internet card that provides us with coverage in the crossing area, in vain. Azerbaijanis have deployed antennas to cover areas under their control with their own internet network. This means that from the entrance of the the corridor of Lachin to Stepanakert, we will not have a golden thread.
We leave Goris in a beautiful sun that lights up the snowy landscapes. The road is a winding pass road of almost 95 km. It is in pretty good condition compared to those I have driven on in Iraq, quite little degraded by explosions except for a destroyed bridge.
Obviously, on almost all stretches of the road, it is not possible to turn back to escape attackers (ambush, impromptu dam, random shots...).
Quickly, we see the first checkpoint. This is my first since I am back on the field after my kidnapping in Iraq. Our vehicle stops under the injunction of soldiers questioning us and checking our passports. My automatisms, acquired in a few years of practice of these ′′formalities′′ in Syria and Iraq, are dissipating the little apprehension I felt. Behind us, I see a cohort of age-old vehicles, loaded heavily with furniture, various materials is starting. Aram explains that the first and last checkpoint are held by Armenian and Russian forces. The yellow MC on the Russian forces' blue patch represents the Military Police as part of this peace operation.
We pass the checkpoint, the road turns to be steeper. We now ride in the middle of a sea of clouds, with little visibility. The sun of Goris is behind us. At the detour of a shoelace, the mist dissipates a little.
We see Turkish soldiers in the mountains, who dominate the road to their impromptu observation post. They are within reach of their assault rifles. They report each vehicle and describe it to interlocutors whose motives we prefer to ignore. We continue our way.
On the road we overtake an old white pick-up placed à rest. His driver explains that he lost his horse. It is impossible for him to leave the road to venture to search for it in the wooded slopes surrounding us, we are several kilometers from any checkpoint.
Further we cross riders crossing the road with a flock of goats. We are in Artsakh again.
We arrive at the checkpoint of Shushi, the Martyr city. The Azerbaijani flag is waving under a sign. The name has been transcribed to Turkish Azerbaijani.
A few laces later, we are in Stepanakert: a battery of Azerbaijani missiles, sinister intimidation, threatens the capital of Artsakh from the top of a mountain.
With the few checkpoints, it took us nearly 2h30 drive to travel that 95 kilometers.
We immediately go to the hospital where D., a doctor awaits us. He asks that we not communicate his identity or his photo. He is also an officer of the Armed Forces of Artsakh. He brings us to the emergency department manager who explains how all the hospital services were mobilized to help the wounded, soldiers, but also civilians during the six weeks of fighting.
He tells us about the sleepless nights with all the hospital staff, spent at the bedside of the wounded, helicopter evacuations, of these soldiers of Artsakh, who would still hide in the forests, in Azerbaijani territory. Of these civilians, peasants, that the random and uncertain routes of borders deprived of their pastures, their fields, the forests where they would cut their firewood. We are getting out of his office.
He shows us the gaping holes left by cluster bombs that failed to fulfill their devastating mission, maternity under construction, destroyed by a drone, the impacts of Grad rockets. The hospital was clearly targeted.
In Stepanakert, life shyly resumes. A few stores have reopened. Locals are still in shock of a defeat they thought impossible. This is not about ceasefire, it's about betrayal. All praise the heroism of their soldiers who fought with their courage and assault rifles, as only weapons, against an army with the latest technologies. Wives mourn their husbands, sons, fallen to battle, or missing, and continue to relentlessly hope for their return.
We pass through the areas affected by the bombing, the power station... but we can't linger, we want to avoid taking the road back in the dark.
We are leaving Stepanakert, we are the only ones moving along the Stepanakert-Goris direction. This was the first time Aram had returned to Stepanakert since fighting ended. He had been there with François-Xavier, Operation Director of SOS Chrétiens d’Orient, at the beginning of the conflict. He tells me that things were clear back then. There was a front line and two antagonistic forces facing each other. Since the ceasefire, borders have not been stabilized. Azerbaijanis and their Libyan or Syrian auxiliaries regularly conduct incursions into Artsakh. The night is falling. On the road, we remain silent. We are immersed in our thoughts and our eyes are fixed on the light of the headlights. We can't help but prepare to end up with an impromptu dam.
We pass by Latchin, now under Azerbaijani control. Here and there, lights testify to the almost complete abandonment of the city.
Finally we get to the last checkpoint where we are controled with unusual rigor. Aram, hears a conversation between Russian soldiers reporting Azerbaijani infiltration, in the area of Mets Shen, few minutes ago. We went right before.
More than ever these provocations and intimidations are aimed at scaring displaced people. More than ever, we are determined to help them.
More than ever, they need you.
Antoine, deputy director of operations.