AZERBAIJAN: They dotted the landscape, pockmarked tiny little skulls of brick and cement digging deep into the undulating ground amid the tall lush grass.

Houses, buildings, schools and offices destroyed in a decades-long conflict over the territory, which only ended recently.

Spring was in the air, but on the roads in Fuzuli, in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, time seemed suspended and the world held its breath, hushed as if in anticipation - of what was anyone’s guess. The area has seen so much despair and many deaths: it was hard to believe the pain may really be over.

Coming from the hubbub of Azerbaijan capital city of Baku, about four hours’ drive, the silence was eerie, yet sacred.

In this town, the dead still reigned.

But here and there were signs of life: a large gas depot for servicing trucks and cars; roads, beautifully paved, straight and smooth. But the cars were few and far in between. There was nary a bird or animal in sight.

No electricity poles or street lights to mar the view, nor to offer some stranded traveller comfort in the night.

“What is this place?” I asked the friendly driver and photographer. We had all been assigned to this car – I as a journalist for the Malaysian national news agency, to cover the 6th World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue in Azerbaijan and the rest are Azerbaijani media staff. Their English was basic while my Azerbaijani was non-existent but we somehow managed to communicate well enough, mainly using Google Translate.

“Fuzuli,” they answered me. I shook my head. I knew we were in Fuzuli, one of the territories Armenian forces occupied; I might have been sick with flu, but I was aware enough of where we were. I asked again, this time with the help of Google Translate. “Where are all the people?”

“Gone....left,” they answered, shrugging.

The destruction seemed complete. Over 700,000 people were displaced by the war. Is there even a home to come back to?


Fuzuli is one of the sites of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which had been going on for at least a century. We were also visiting Susha, Azerbaijan’s cultural capital and former occupied territory.

Under international law, Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven surrounding districts belonged to Azerbaijan. Nevertheless, they have been changing hands and control over the years, ping-ponging between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and occasionally the Soviet Union.

Sprinkled along the way were a few pogroms here and there, committed by Armenians and Azerbaijanis against each other.

Fuzuli is called a ghost town, but not in the way I understood the term. Businesses have folded up and townsfolk gradually moved away for better prospects. Whatever uprooting that happened here was quick and violent. And nothing came in to replace the ones who left. There were no signs of civilisation or a community, other than what had been destroyed.

In the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, which raged on from 1988 to 1994, ethnic Armenians, who were the majority in a Soviet-era administrative area (oblast), established the breakaway republic of Artsakh, and chased out Azerbaijanis with the help of the Armenians army. They took over the surrounding districts, including Fuzuli, which were primarily Azerbaijani, as a “security belt” against Azerbaijani forces.

Fuzuli returned to Azerbaijani control in 2020 and Azerbaijani regained all its territories at the conclusion of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, which ended in 2020. Until then, very few lived in the area.

On top of a small hill, flew the Azerbaijani flag. A stone monolith stood next to it with Azerbaijani writing on it. Both items were relatively new.

Fariz, the interpreter and liaison officer for the Malaysian delegation, said it was a monument to commemorate dead Azerbaijans, who died fighting the Armenian forces.

“Three thousand Azerbaijanis died,” he told me.

The conflict finally ended on Jan 1 this year with the dissolution of the Republic of Artsakh, the wounds are still fresh among many in Azerbaijan.

There is national pride that Azerbaijan managed to reclaim the occupied territories. They call the dead patriots “martyrs.”

The zeal was firm. The people intend to make the land theirs. Fuzuli already boasts a regional airport that the government hoped will help rebuild the area and bring people back.

But former war zones aren’t immediately safe after the cease-fire. Although Fuzuli and Susha are safe as far as I could see, the work is not complete. Aghdam, one and a half hour’s drive north from Fuzuli, was rife with land mines, preventing its original inhabitants from returning and reclaiming their home.

The war may be over but it still casts its shadow.


At least in Susha, located between 1,400 and 1,800 metres altitude in the Karabakh mountains, some residents have started returning or making their plans to return to their old hometown. Among them is Fidan Alibayli, who knows all about living under the shadow of war.

Displaced since before she was born, after her parents and grandparents had to flee Susha in 1992 during the First war, she had been dreaming of reclaiming her long-lost roots. She told me that being in Susha felt surreal, feeling a strong connection to the mountain town.

“I grew up hearing stories from my family about this city, every corner of Susha, so it’s really great to be here,” she said, grinning. “We didn’t have any hope about coming back to this city but now I am here.”

This was her third visit. The 27-year old added her family would be moving back in three or four months.

Susha, a mountain resort for the Soviet era, is a mix of old and new. Established in the 1700s, it was not as deserted as Fuuzuli, and neither was it completely destroyed, but here and there bullet-riddled statues stood testament to the conflict. The tourism industry here is nascent, with a luxury hotel and restaurant already operational. Work on the spring resort of Isa Bulagi was ongoing.

There is one mosque in Susha, the Yukhari Govhar Agha Mosque, likely one of the two mosques out of 67 that President Ilham Aliyev said survived the war in his opening remarks at the World Forum. The mayor of Susha said the mosque had to be rebuilt after Armenian forces let it fall into disrepair.


Perhaps not unusually, the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was paramount among many at the forum. In one of the talks, Azerbaijani political analyst and journalist Orkhan Amashov expressed his hope that there would be long-lasting peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

He added that “reconciliation is not unthinkable. (Through social media interactions) the public realised, as human beings, we’re not that different. We have more commonalities than differences,” he said.

However, speaking to the people, I got more of a mixed bag. For many, the resentment and hatred run deep, especially if you were a direct victim of the conflict.

Fidan doubted Armenia and Azerbaijan could be friends. There was too much history.

But she agreed peace would be good for everyone.

It was the same with Bakhtiyar, the photographer who was part of the trip to Karabakh. I asked if there were any Armenians in Azerbaijan, maybe those who had married a local.

He instantly denied there were any Armenians in the country, let alone anyone who married an Azerbaijani.

But Fidan’s friend, Nubar Bargdarova, begged to differ. She said there were 10,000 Armenians who lived in Azerbaijan with their families.

“We’ve kinda adopted them. It’s not really a problem for us to live with them,” she said, adding that she hoped normalisation of relations and peace would come soon.

“We have to find a way.”