AGDAM, Azerbaijan (AP) – Azerbaijani forces entered the war-torn ghost town of Agdam on Friday, regaining their once-beloved city for a quarter of a century after being expelled by Armenian forces.
Agdam and the surrounding region of the same name are the first of several territories adjacent to separatist Nagorno-Karabakh to be handed over under a ceasefire that ended six weeks of intense fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
“Today, with a sense of infinite pride, I am informing my people about Agdam’s release,”
Crowds of people carrying national flags gathered in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, to celebrate the show.
Nagorno-Karabakh is in Azerbaijan, but has been under the control of Armenian-backed ethnic forces since Armenia since the separatist war ended there in 1994. This war left not only Nagorno-Karabakh itself but a significant adjacent territory in Armenian hands.
The heavy fighting that erupted on September 27 marked the biggest escalation of the conflict between the two former Soviet nations in more than a quarter of a century, killing hundreds of people and probably thousands more.
Aliyev called the takeover of the region a “great political success” that would not have been possible without military gains.
“Azerbaijan has managed to achieve what it wanted on the political scene after winning a brilliant victory on the battlefield,” the president said.
The agreement, celebrated as a victory in Azerbaijan, has upset many Armenians. Mass protests erupted in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, immediately after the peace agreement was announced last week, and many ethnic Armenians are leaving territories to be handed over to Azerbaijan, setting fire to their homes with a brutal farewell gesture.
Although Agdam’s return is a triumph for Azerbaijan, the joy of his return is lined with grief and anger as Azerbaijanis face its devastation.
The city of Agdam was once home to 50,000, famous for its white houses and intricate three-story teahouses, but it is so ruined that it is sometimes called “Caucasian Hiroshima.”
After the population was driven out of battle in 1993, they were followed by Armenian looters who stripped the city in search of loot and building materials. One of the happier eccentrics in the city, the Bread Museum, is in ruins. The cognac factory is gone.
Today, the only structurally complete building is the mosque; from the top of the intricately shaped minarets, the view is of a huge area of jagged concrete and houses reduced to shells, completely affected by the growth of vegetation for a quarter of a century.
Under Armenian control, the mosque has been used for years as a cattle and pig barn, a desecration that has deeply angered Azerbaijan. Livestock is no more, but the mosque is closed. Several soldiers and a Muslim cleric offered prayers on the walls with graffiti marks and peeling walls on Friday.
“Now a new period is beginning for Agdam,” Aliyev said. “We have big plans.”
Aliyev said his government aims to rebuild Agdam and other territories after the areas have been cleared of mines.
“Armenians believed that after this destruction, the Azerbaijani population would never return to these lands. They were wrong. “They do not know that in the heart of the Azerbaijani people – in the soul of our people, the native lands live and will live forever,” he said.
Agdam was a place to which many Azerbaijanis were particularly attached, not least because of its status as a breeding center for Karabakh’s fast horse, which is considered a national animal.
Another bitter but proud memory of Agdam remains – it was the home of the first victims of the descent into chaos in the region.
In February 1988, two days after the Nagorno-Karabakh parliament submitted a petition to link the autonomous region with Soviet Armenia, a group of angry men set out from Agdam for the regional capital, Stepanakert. Before getting there, they faced police and ethnic Armenian villagers; two of the protesters were shot to death.
The news of their deaths angered Agdam, and a mob gathered their weapons to begin their march on Stepanakert. But a local woman stood on the roof of a vehicle and threw her scarf on the road, a gesture that traditionally forbade men from going any further. The dramatic incident was remembered by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the most famous poet of the Soviet Union, who called its action “almost madness / the great madness of kindness / the only wisdom that saves us.”
Unlike the complete destruction of the city of Agdam, ethnic Armenians have diligently taken care of one of their main historical sites in the province. The foundations of Tigranakert, which dates back more than 2,000 years, have been excavated and some of the finds have been placed in an 18th-century fortress.
As Agdam’s handover approached, workers this week struggled to remove some of the artifacts, including a carved stone, which required the efforts of several men to pick them up.
“These artifacts belong to this city and we export them to take to our museum so that our Azerbaijani brothers do not receive them,” said one of the workers, who gave his name only as Armand. “Because he will depersonalize them to the last stone.”
Associated Press writers Jim Heinz and Daria Litvinova of Moscow and Aida Sultanova of London contributed to the report.