I was, together with my colleague Daniele Bellocchio, one of the last foreign journalists to be able to enter what, until a few days ago, remained of Armenian Karabakh (Stapanakert, Martakert, Shosh and other places). It was January 2021. I remember the ten or so checkpoints, almost all Russian, to get there, with Putin's soldiers openly provoking and for a whole day preventing us from working. Azerbaijani snipers were on the very nearby heights, like vultures, and armored vehicles everywhere, even in traffic. I had not seen such a widespread military apparatus in the streets even in Iraqi Kurdistan as it was fighting al-Baghdadi's Islamic State. After us, the Russians denied access to many international colleagues and media (except Russians, of course) and even to several Armenian ones with other nationalities. A silence orchestrated by dictators Putin and Aliyev, in the indifference of the world, to prepare for what later turned out to be a massacre and ethnic cleansing. If you believe that the silence surrounding this conflict is accidental, you are mistaken. Silence is always and only an ally of the perpetrators, one of the most powerful.
Having traveled there several times, what remained of Karabakh was an utterly transfigured place that exuded fear and despair; and there was constant shooting, even if it was not in the news. In Martakert, near a hospital, and even on New Year's Eve when, just before midnight, artillery shots reached the outskirts of Stepanakert, where we were based. They fired on animals at night, farmers told us, and on tractors to prevent them from working the fields. There was a lack of hot water, in a winter that, in those territories, can reach minus fifteen degrees, and food was scarce, so much so that it was difficult for us to find food. A hell on earth: people were terrified and traumatized. Looking back on it in the light of what has happened in the last few days, the continuation of a systematic ethnic cleansing that began with the 2020 offensive and ended, I am afraid to even think, in the last few days.
As political analyst Michael Hikari Cecire writes about Karabakh, “making ordinary life so intolerable for a specific ethnic group as to compel mass displacement, even "voluntarily," is the textbook definition of ethnic cleansing”. But what I could see, in those days, was only a pale prelude of what was to come to that region. First, as I said, they closed the only way into the territory for journalists, and then even for Armenian citizens and residents of the region, who thus found themselves stranded for nine months, with chronic shortages of gas, medicine, electricity, food – of anything. And then the massacre last week. A massacre that was announced like few others, and that no one (I repeat: no one) tried to avert.
The extent of the fighting on Tuesday and Wednesday, September 19 and 20, as reported by one of the region's leading experts, Laurence Broers, is 500 Armenian deaths confirmed. Political sources I gathered in Yerevan estimate some thousand dead as a possible final computation. In twenty-four hours or so, I repeat. A massacre against a starving population that, unable to receive anything from Armenia, did not even have gasoline to transport the wounded in ambulances or medicine to treat them, as well as ammunition to defend themselves. A despicable attack that, outside of Italy and the Vatican (about which I remain silent after days and days in which, literally overwrought with hatred, I tried in vain to write about it), is provoking the first authoritative political appeals, for example in Germany where I have the good fortune to live, for an imposition of sanctions against the dictatorship in Baku. An ethnic cleansing that no one in Italy will have any interest in telling you about, since – It was already the case before the war in Ukraine, let alone now – your homes will be heated by the very driving engine of this tragedy, namely Baku gas, the origin of the much-discussed TAP.
Now, even apart from moral considerations, from a solidarity that unfortunately no one shows (where are the Italian pacifists, I have asked myself many times dealing with this conflict for a decade: a mystery), a familiar paradigm is repeated. First it was Putin's Russia, deemed a reliable partner, now the Baku dictatorship, with one family in power from the Soviet era, ruthless against its domestic opponents no less than against Armenians. Have we really learned nothing in these years? Does anyone still believe, among our politicians, that feeding a dictatorship on the fringes of Europe with billions of euros for gas and oil is a guarantee of stability and security? Does no one here realize that a Zeitenwende – an epochal turning point as we call here in Germany the beginning of the Russian invasion last year – has already taken place and is irreversible? Does no one really want to remember, finally, as German journalist Laura Cwiertnia writes, that many of the elderly people who are now being driven out of Karabakh, after being starved and forced to survive in a bunker by sleeping on the floor, are children of survivors of the 1915 Armenian genocide? Does history still count for anything, the fact that 120,000 people and a millennial cultural presence of monuments and houses, of stelae and monasteries, of humanity and art, will soon be wiped out, as has always been the case in recent decades when Azerbaijan has been able to get its hands on Armenia's artistic heritage?
Karabakh is lost, for the Armenian majority who have lived there for many centuries. Now in danger is Armenia itself, which already a year ago was attacked, losing territories on its proper borders. Are we going to allow this too, while we claim values – solidarity, justice, peace – that sound more and more like empty words in the mouths of our politicians, and not only? As I write I scroll through Twitter the images of thousands of Armenians fleeing, terrified, from the territory that until yesterday was their home. It is devastating. Some wonder if they will ever be able to see the graves of their loved ones again, and what their fate will be, since the Baku dictatorship has destroyed several cemeteries, even using them as shooting ranges. How much further can the humiliation, violence and abuse suffered by Armenians be pushed forward?