Crabs, bats and communists, in Cuba's greatest Soviet souvenir.
There is a ghost town in the no-man’s land between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Its name is Agdam, and it was a town of some 28,000 inhabitants up until 1993 – when Armenian forces expelled the largely Azeri population, destroying homes so that they could never return. There are a number of reasons why people will tell you not to go there.
The town is located in Nagorno-Karabakh: the breakaway republic formed when ethnic Armenians in Azerbaijan, after the fall of the USSR, refused to be absorbed under the Azeri government and so instead made a bid for independence. Armenia backed that bid, of course, and it led to the Karabakh War. The war remains unresolved now. An uneasy ceasefire rests over this land, with the latest outbreak of violence, in 2016, taking 350 lives.
However Agdam is more complicated still than Nagorno-Karabakh – this is a bubble within a bubble. The entire narrative of Nagorno-Karabakh’s bid for independence is built on the protection of persecuted Armenian minorities declaring their freedom from Azeri state oppression. But what they don’t like to talk about is how the Armenians themselves committed ethnic cleansing in the process. Agdam, an ethnically Azeri town, sat in the middle of this ethnically Armenian region of Azerbaijan, and so it had to be purged.
I still don’t know if we really ought to have gone there. The town is just a few miles from the border, which in this case is best described as the front line. Maps beside the road show you areas marked in red, representing the range of Azeri snipers on the other side of the valley. The British government warns against any travel into the Nagorno-Karabakh region… and the people of Nagorno-Karabakh warn against visiting Agdam.
Nevertheless we went, and the experience was just as powerful, just as sobering, as you might guess. I don’t yet know if I’ll ever write publicly about this place. For now though, you can take a visual tour through Agdam down below.