After I picked up the $45 tab for the four of us at the most expensive restaurant in Stepanakert, Vadim and Veretan agreed to show me around their country -- provided that I pick foot the bill for the pricey petrol.
As we were climbing up to the Shushi, a town perched right above Stepanakert, Karabakh's capital, Vadim said, "You could fire whatever you want from there and it will hit Stepanakert. Mortars, RPGs, Kalashnikovs, anything."
Shushi used to be Karabakh's Azeri capital and the region's second-largest town before the Karabakh war broke out. Although the Azeris had a military and strategic advantage, located up above the Armenian-controlled Stepanakert in Shushi's insurmountable old fortress and prison, they made a fatal strategic mistake. The Azeris should have shelled Stepanakert into a heap of rubble before the Armenian resistance had a chance to build up its arms and attack. But the Azeris were so overconfident that they didn't want to destroy a city that they were sure would soon be theirs.
The Armenians weren't as soft. Under artillery cover, they launched a surprise attack by climbing a 90 degree slope to storm Shushi in 1992 by foot. It was the same slope from which Armenian girls jumped to their deaths to avoid being raped by Azeris. With that kind of motivation, the Armenians had no qualms about turning Shushi into a mini Sarajevo.
All the Azeris are gone now. And the few Armenians that remain live in squalor, even by Karabakh's standards. There is no foot traffic, no car traffic and no stores -- just a kiosk selling icons and a western-style hotel catering the Armenian Diaspora. A renovated church in which a few grossly overweight Americans snapped photos, a burned out early 20th century Soviet building, a prison, and two gutted mosques with minarets were all this town had to offer.
"When Armenians liberated Shushi this church was filled to the top ceiling with boxes of munitions. Fucking Turks. They have no respect for anything but their Islam." Vadim said. Veretan nodded in approval.
The apartment buildings that weren't leveled were looted and picked clean of windows, pipes, sinks, toilets and anything else remotely valuable. The few functioning buildings are a disaster waiting to happen -- a checkerboard of lopsided balconies, windowless rubble, rust, and peeling paint.
"It's a good business. You buy an empty apartment for about $4,000 and sit on it. Slowly, water is being hooked up to them again and they are being restored. In a few years, you can make a good profit."
Not bad. Most of the apartment buildings were gutted out and ready for unlimited personalized remont possibilities. And what's more, all of them had aerial views into the valley bellow. But the four grand was way out of these peoples' league. By official statistics from the office of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, the country's average monthly salary was $50, but that's for those lucky enough to find jobs. Shushi's residents can't even afford gas for heating and cooking. Every balcony had a store of firewood that was sure enough to last the winter.
Stepanakert, wasn't as depressing as the other half-abandoned towns and villages. It was the capital, after all, and the symbol of Armenian victory: the Armenian Diaspora wasn't going to just let it decay. Despite the fact that Stepanakert has no industries to speak of, the city of 40,000 Armenians had all the trappings of a developing provincial capital.
Except for a few shrapnel-scarred buildings, you wouldn't even guess that the city had once come under heavy shelling. There were hundreds of small fruit stands, restaurants, dozens of Internet cafes and taxis circling the city center. A couple of Western-style hotels built by and catering to the Armenian Diaspora popped up in the past few years, and a luxury apartment complex was being built right across from the government building.