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 Monday, June 24 2024 11:37
Marianna Mkrtchyan

Total number of destroyed heritage sites by Azerbaijan in occupied  territories of Artsakh rose by 75%; Caucasus Heritage Watch sounds  alarm

Total number of destroyed heritage sites by Azerbaijan in occupied  territories of Artsakh rose by 75%; Caucasus Heritage Watch sounds  alarm

ArmInfo.Caucasus Heritage Watch (CHW) in its 7th Monitoring Report on the situation around  Artsakh signals a 75% increase in cases of destruction of Armenian heritage in the occupied territories of the NKR by Azerbaijan.

"Our last monitoring report (#6) was released in December 2023 in the  aftermath of the final expulsion of Armenian residents in  Nagorno-Karabakh in late September. For a brief moment, global  attention focused on the welfare of some 100,000 people fleeing to  safety in Armenia, while in the months since, as humanitarian aid  reached the forcibly displaced population, a related calamity has  preoccupied the region's heritage observers: the abandonment of  centuries-old cultural landscapes, now endangered by Azerbaijan's  zero-tolerance for Armenian cultural remains. At CHW, we had been  preparing for this eventuality for months. During the blockade of  Nagorno-Karabakh (December 2022-September 2023), we worked to  geolocate the hundreds of additional cultural heritage sites that  would require monitoring if Azerbaijan gained control of what  remained of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR). With  the collapse of the NKR in September 2023, we added an additional 181  sites into our monitoring routines. We also expanded our capacity  through new educational initiatives, training Cornell and Purdue  students committed to learning the skillsets of heritage forensics,"  Caucasus Heritage Watch reports.

"Since the end of the 2020 Second Karabakh War, Baku has been  signaling its plans for massive infrastructure and redevelopment  projects in Karabakh, along with its utopian vision for turning the  ethnically cleansed territories into a "green energy zone" with  extensive solar and wind energy farms. As reported in the  international press, such rapid development, including massive  highway construction projects, hydroelectric power plants, two  international airports (just 100 miles apart), and planned housing  developments, is wreaking havoc on the environment per the United  Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and threatening cultural  properties in the path of omnipresent earth movers.

This winter, barely two months after the last of the embattled  Armenians fled Azerbaijan's lightening attack on NKR in late  September, Baku was awarded the honor of hosting the 29th Session of  the Conference of Parties (COP29) to the UN Framework Convention on  Climate Change. As many international journalists and environmental  NGO's have expressed, Azerbaijan is the latest in a series of  authoritarian petro-states selected to host the event ostensibly  designed to showcase environmental initiatives to mitigate the harm  caused by global dependence on oil. The preparations for this event  may have a grave impact on the region's Armenian cultural heritage.

For the past year, as both Armenia and Azerbaijan were vying to host  COP29, and as Azerbaijani and Turkish construction firms were tearing  up and tunneling through the Karabakh landscape, the Aliyev  government was advancing the accusation through the British PR firm,  Portland Communications, that it was Armenians who had despoiled  Karabakh's natural heritage. President Aliyev has claimed that 50-  60,000 hectares of forest (roughly the area of the city of Chicago)  were eradicated under the NKR administration, a claim that Global  Forest Watch  handily refuted using satellite imagery. Such hyperbole  directed at global audiences recalled an earlier complaint to the UN  that Armenians in NKR had destroyed 65 out 67 mosques in Karabakh  under their stewardship (a claim CHW refuted in our special report,  Between the Wars). Of immediate consequence for the cultural heritage  of Nagorno-Karabakh is that COP29 has become an engine for  fast-tracking development projects that Azerbaijan will use to  'greenwash' its well-documented record of human rights,  environmental, and heritage abuses. Overall, our Spring 2024  monitoring cycle has revealed the greatest number of impacted sites  since Spring 2021 when we began monitoring cultural heritage  following the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. We are deeply concerned  that the total number of destroyed heritage sites rose by 75% between  our Fall 2023 and Spring 2024 missions, along with a 29% increase in  sites classified as threatened. Two regions of the former NKR  highlight these troubling developments.

First, in the Kalbajar district, on top of the threats already posed  by ongoing construction of the Kalbajar- Lachin Highway (see map pp.  15-16), CHW documented the impact of planned developments in and  around the village of Zar/Tsar. In our recently released story map  "'Wreckage upon wreckage' in Kalbajar" we report on the fate of two  unique schools built during the Soviet-era with fragments of medieval  "spolia," or building materials recycled from historic Armenian  monasteries, churches, and cemeteries. Both schools fell to  Azerbaijani bulldozers this spring, testimony to the continuing  cycles of hatred and destruction that have caused loss after loss to  the region's cultural heritage. In the same area, we are closely  watching two Armenian churches threatened by the new gridded housing  development on the outer edge of Zar village.  The pair of 13th  century churches are the only structures still standing among the  bulldozed ruins of the town, and we encourage international  contractors to comply with the December 2021 International Court of  Justice ruling that called on Azerbaijan to prevent and punish the  vandalism and destruction of Armenian cultural heritage.

Second, we continue to pay close attention to development activity in  Shusha, which this cycle has claimed two significant Armenian  heritage sites. In the most flagrant violation of the aforementioned  ICJ decision, the mid-19th century St. John the Baptist (S. Hovhannes  Mkrtich) Church, known locally as "Kanach Zham", was completely  leveled; CHW was able to narrow the destruction episode to between  December 28, 2023, and April 4, 2024. Within this same time frame,  the 18th-19th century Ghazanchetsots cemetery in Shusha was also  destroyed. Our December 2023 report (#6) noted the vulnerability of  this historic cemetery, which was already being used as a dumping  ground for construction refuse since last fall, and the eradication  of the site is now complete to make way for a planned housing  development. We noted at the time that without an international  response, the cemetery's destruction seemed inevitable, and it was.   Elsewhere, satellite monitoring is shedding light on the destruction  of modest sites - each relatively unremarkable on its own - but whose  elimination is part of the slow and steady work of cultural erasure;  a small historic cemetery near Garabulag (Khojaly district), or a  small sacred place once marked by 9th and 13th century khachkars  (carved cross stone) near Chartar (Khojavend district), now  bulldozed. Sometimes the work of cultural erasure consists of just  such banal, incremental destruction events - a few khachkars here, a  few tombstones there.

Finally, we should note that only one of the impacts documented in  this cycle are in the territories retaken by Azerbaijan in September.  But as Azerbaijan continues to turn Karabakh into a gold rush for  well- connected construction firms, CHW will remain vigilant in our  continued monitoring efforts in the region," they note. 

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