Ethnic Armenian forces last week handed over two regions to Azerbaijani control as part of a Russia-brokered armistice that ended the six-week war over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Moscow has sent peacekeepers to the ethnic Armenian enclave, representing the return of its military to Azerbaijan for the first time since the Soviet Union ended. Simon Ostrovsky reports with Pulitzer Center support.
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In late September, war again broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the coveted enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Last week, as part of an armistice, ethnic Armenian forces handed over territory to Azerbaijani control. It was part of a Russian-brokered deal that ended an ugly six-week war and reestablished Moscow's footprint in all of its southern former republics.
With the support of the Pulitzer Center, special correspondent Simon Ostrovsky traveled there again for the "NewsHour."
So, this is what victory looks like: walls spray-painted with names of Azerbaijani soldiers and the cities that they hail from in an ethnic Armenian town in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The streets are empty of anyone who lived here. They fled as fighting reached this area back in October, their belongings now strewn throughout the streets and the contents of their homes upturned.
The only people remaining are Azerbaijani forces, reveling in their hard-won conquest, enjoying the spoils of war.
For the Azerbaijani military that's stationed here right now, it's probably difficult to imagine what it feels like to be in this area, because, ever since they were children, they were told Nagorno-Karabakh was part of Azerbaijan, but they'd never actually seen it with their own eyes, and now they're here.
Man (through translator):
Thank you to our president. He gave the order, and we attacked. We fought. Unfortunately, people were martyred. With the blood of the martyrs we reclaimed these lands.
These lands have been contested since just before the breakup of the Soviet Union, when their Armenian residents clamored to join neighboring Armenia. That sparked anti-Armenian pogroms and then all-out war.
When it was all over by 1994, they'd carved out a self-declared republic that encompassed lands far beyond the Karabakh region's Soviet-era borders, which were purged of their Azerbaijani residents. Armenian's were also forced to flee areas that remained under Azerbaijan's control.
All of that changed in the six-week war that ended on November 9, with Armenians on the run from an advancing Azerbaijani army. "NewsHour" was only allowed to visit this area with a police escort. For Armenians, seeing images of the Azerbaijani military in their towns as they display the flag of their age-old enemy Turkey, a brutal and difficult new reality to come to terms with.
On a hill above the city of Hadrut, within the Karabakh heartland, stands a small Armenian church, its cemetery vandalized. The soldiers say they hope the Armenians never come back.
Hasan Babayev (through translator):
No, they can't come back. They cannot come back. God willing, the president will create good conditions here. Our lands have been returned. Now it's about the future. And good places will be built.
While Azerbaijanis celebrate their territorial gains, there is another country whose maneuvering has renewed its influence in the region after a long absence.
Russia has for years armed both Azerbaijan and Armenia. And when war between the two erupted on September 27, it stepped in as a mediator, successfully ending the bloodshed. Under the deal it brokered, nearly 2,000 Russian peacekeepers will patrol the areas of Nagorno-Karabakh that have remained under ethnic Armenian control, as a guarantee against further Azerbaijani hostilities.
Moscow now has troops stationed in various roles, from occupier to peacekeeper, in all three South Caucasus republics of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan for the first time since it ruled them in the Soviet era.
Azerbaijan has, in turn, invited military observers from its ally Turkey, but it's unclear how many will arrive and whether they will have a mandate to carry weapons.
This, too, is what victory can look like. It's towns like this one, with landscapes reminiscent of Hiroshima, that are at the heart of Azerbaijan's grievances towards ethnic Armenians. When the first Karabakh war ended in 1994, the Armenian forces took control not just of their own enclave, but seven surrounding districts that had previously been populated by Azerbaijanis.
Negotiations over these areas continued for decades afterwards, but Armenians never allowed the Azerbaijani residents to return. Instead, they leveled these cities, picking them apart for raw materials, and turned the surrounding lands into a vast mine field between themselves and the rest of Azerbaijan.
Agdam is one of two districts Armenian forces have handed back to Azerbaijani control so far under the Russia-brokered armistice. The only building left intact here is the central mosque.
All of these soldiers here for the most part are from Agdam, this very region that we're standing in right now. Most of them have never seen this area before because it's been held by ethnic Armenian forces until just a couple of days ago.
Tural Nuruyev (through translator):
My father said that, as soon as this place is rebuilt, we will move here.
Jamal Jabbarow (through translator):
They killed our mothers and sisters on this land. How can we forget that? I'm ready to drink their blood.
One sore point for many in Azerbaijan as they reclaim their territories is the state of their cultural heritage sites.
For example, this place here, a former museum, has been used for livestock. These are pens.
Azerbaijanis were also angered by pictures they saw of Armenian residents destroying property ahead of the handover. After loading vehicles with their belongings, many set their houses on fire to make it more difficult for Azerbaijani refugees to return.
Sevil Gambarova is a carpet weaver from Agdam, which she fled 30 years ago. Today, she lives in one of the housing complexes built for some 750,000 internally displaced people from the first war. She's making a souvenir rug with the image of the central mosque of her hometown.
Sevil Gambarova (through translator):
They kept pigs in our mosques. They burned our houses. They left no stone unturned. God won't forgive this. They lived, ate and drank in our homes for 30 years, and now they are leaving them in bad conditions.
God is great. Justice has been restored. Our victorious army won.
A few weeks ago, this town, Hadrut, was populated by ethnic Armenians. Azerbaijan took it in fierce fighting that lasted weeks. The ethnic Armenian population had to flee. The question now is, will those residents ever come back? An even bigger question is, does Azerbaijan want them here?
Azerbaijan's president has signaled he'd be willing to create conditions for Armenians to live under his rule.
We see Karabakh as a prosperous, safe, secure area of Azerbaijan, where people live in peace and dignity, where Azerbaijani and Armenian community live side by side.
But Armenians will need more than verbal assurances if they are to feel that they can live safely in the territories he now controls.
Perhaps the best-documented alleged war crime of the conflict took place here in the center of Hadrut. Two Armenians, a soldier and an elderly man, appear to have been draped in Armenian flags and executed on this spot in October.
I asked one of President Aliyev's top aides if incidents like this one would be investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice.
Himkat Hajiyev (through translator):
Absolutely. And we do regret that such kinds of incidents happened at the soldier level, at the individual soldier level.
In no way — it not justifiable. In no way it can be justified. Yesterday, Azerbaijan's general prosecutor office made a stronger statement that all of these videos are going to be investigated and who are guilty, of course, will be brought to justice.
Whether Azerbaijan follows through on these promises and takes other steps towards reconciliation with Armenians will determine whether the peace here is lasting, or if it's just a matter of time before blood is spilt on these mountains again.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Simon Ostrovsky in Nagorno-Karabakh.