06 04 21 - Historic graveyard is victim of war
Azerbaijan is being blamed for the destruction of a unique cemetery
A MEDIEVAL cemetery regarded as one of the wonders of the Caucasus has been erased from the Earth in an act of cultural vandalism likened to the Taleban blowing up the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001.
The Jugha cemetery was a unique collection of several thousand carved stone crosses on Azerbaijan’s southern border with Iran. But after 18 years of conflict between Azerbaijan and its western neighbour, Armenia, it has been confirmed that the cemetery has vanished.
The Institute for War and Peace Reporting, a London-based non-governmental organisation that supports independent journalism, said that one of its staff had recently been to the highly restricted site.
Where once stood between 2,700 and 10,000 intricately carved headstones — khachkars — dating from the 9th to the 16th centuries, there was only a dry patch of earth, said the institute (www.iwpr.net). It was the first independent confirmation of what Armenia has long alleged — that Azerbaijani authorities have razed the cemetery since the two former Soviet republics began a bloody border war in 1988.
The war ended in a ceasefire in 1994, with 30,000 dead and a million displaced, but still simmers over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is held by Armenia but internationally recognised as Azerbaijan. Foreign organisations had been unable to visit the cemetery because it is in Nakhichevan, a tiny enclave of Azerbaijan cut off by Armenia and Iran and accessible only by air.
Azerbaijan has repeatedly dismissed Armenia’s allegations as scaremongering and in turn accused Armenia of destroying hundreds of Muslim sites. President Aliyev of Azerbaijan angrily dismissed reports about the cemetery’s destruction as “a lie and a provocation” last week.
The institute’s revelation now threatens to embarrass him and further cloud the prospects for a lasting peace with Armenia.
Vartan Oskanian, the Armenian Foreign Minister, welcomed the report. “The irony is that this destruction has taken place not during a time of war but at a time of peace,” he told The Times. There has been clear intent by the Azerbaijanis to eliminate all evidence of Armenian presence on those lands. To do that, unspeakable, irreversible destruction has been wrought and 10,000 tombstones which hold immense religious and artistic significance are simply gone.”
Tahir Tagizade, a spokesman for the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry, said that there had never been an Armenian cemetery or any other Armenian cultural relics in the area visited by the institute. “As a multi- ethnic society, we are proud of our diverse cultural heritage,” he said. “I don’t see any reason for destroying Armenian property, even though we are at war with the Armenians.”
The report comes as a European Parliament delegation is visiting both countries to look into allegations of attacks on cultural sites. It had hoped to visit the Jugha site, but has yet to be granted permission.Unesco said that it was also ready to send a fact-finding mission but needed permission from the Azeri and Armenian governments. The institute said that there was now a village of about 500 people by the cemetery site. Some of those there said it had been destroyed much earlier, while others disputed that it was Armenian.
The report quoted two witnesses as saying that the cemetery had been deliberately destroyed between 1989 and 2002. Argam Aivazian, the leading expert on Armenian monuments in Nakhichevan, said that Jugha had been the largest Armenian cemetery in existence, and a unique example of medieval art. “On the entire territory of Nakhichevan there existed 27,000 monasteries, churches, khachkars, tombstones and other Armenian monuments,” he said.
They were mostly intact when he visited in 1987. “Today they have all been destroyed.”
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