The letter was out of the blue and did not mince its words. From the offices of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Azerbaijan, there was something sinister about the instructions, albeit offset by the reassuringly bureaucratic tone.
“I would like to bring into your attention that according to the legislation of Azerbaijan that foreign nationals visiting occupied territories of Azerbaijan without the authorisation of Azerbaijani Government are blacklisted,” it read.
“It is considered violation of sovereignty and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, as such laws and regulations of my country. In some cases criminal files has been opened for the foreign nationals who are engaged in actions undermining territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and promoting the illegal regime established therein.”
Three weeks earlier I had trekked across the lands of the southern Caucasus, beginning in the Azeri capital Baku and then onto Armenia’s ancient metropolis Yerevan, before finishing up in Stepanakert, the seat of government of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh mountains.
The dispute is a straightforward one. Baku says that the hills are theirs, sitting as they do inside of the Soviet-era borders drawn up by no less a figure than Joseph Stalin. Armenia say no, that these lands are the birthright of their ancestors and should govern themselves independently of Baku. Tens of thousands have died for the cause of Nagorno-Karabakh, and close to a million refugees have had their lives turned upside down fleeing the fighting.
The city of Aghdam sits six miles to the east of Stepanakert. During the 1988-94 conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan it was used as a base from which to launch missile attacks against the Armenian stronghold, and in turn it suffered a horrendous aerial campaign which lasted for five years. By the time Aghdam fell to the Armenian occupation on July 23rd 1993 there was little that was recognisable left of the city. Today it remains a ghost town, the hulking shards of rubble and mortar left behind as a nod to the civilization that once thrived here now slowly being reclaimed by nature.
The ruined city is the most conspicuous physical reminder of the destruction that Azerbaijan and Armenia waged against one another, which is why Yerevan keeps a military presence around what is left of the wastelands to keep interlopers away. In spite of this, Aghdam has retained a visible legacy, in the form of its exiled football club, FK Qarabag.
When Qarabag take to the field against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday, making them the first side from Azerbaijan to reach the group stages of the Champions League, it will mark the club’s most significant step in a remarkable journey.
The evacuation of Aghdam and the exile of Qarabag should, by right, have destroyed the club. The crisis left them rudderless and without a home, with no fan base to support them and with little chance of surviving financially in even the modest waters of Azerbaijan football. The club owes its salvation to the political currency that its history affords. In turn, the state has used wealth from its vast natural resources to revive Qarabag and transport the club from the edge of bankruptcy to the most prestigious table in world football.
For the Azeri state, the Champions League represents prime advertising space, a once in a lifetime opportunity to parade the Qarabag name in Europe as being synonymous with Azerbaijan in spite of the Armenian dominion over the Nagorno-Karabakh mountains. When so much blood has been spilled for the cause, it is hardly surprising.
On February 26th 2017 I was welcomed into the home of Valide Bagirova. The day marked the 25th anniversary of the massacre at Khojali, a small town at the Karabakh border just a few kilometres from Aghdam where a quarter of a century ago up to 600 Azeri villagers were gunned down in the freezing woods by Armenian snipers. Khojali is a sacred moment in the history of this country.
It is thought that as many as 1,300 more lives were saved at Khojali by the actions of one man, Valide’s late husband and iconic FK Qarabag coach Allahverdi Bagirov.
Bagirov was a coach in the Spartan mould, the kind who would inspire a stubborn loyalty in those who worked for him regardless of odds or circumstance. He was a man driven half mad by the lust for competition and, above all, victory. If you don’t want to win, he would tell his players, you shouldn’t be in Aghdam.
“Before Khojali, Allahverdi knew that there would be a tragedy there,” Valide told me. “But our defence ministers wouldn’t allow him to go in there. The Russians, who we relied upon, didn’t want for us to go because they never wanted Azerbaijan to be independent. They wanted our lands occupied, so they said no.
“Once the massacre began, Allahverdi didn’t wait for orders. He took his men and he went to Khojali anyway. He did it all himself. He saved 1,300 people from the Armenians at Khojali, and he brought back hundreds of dead bodies from the area back to the mosque at Aghdam. They were frozen from the cold.”
Bagirov was killed by an anti-tank mine, just weeks before Aghdam fell to the occupation. He never lived to fulfil his dream of raising the Azerbaijan flag in Stepanakert.
The conflict with Armenia has turned Qarabag into a beacon of national hope and renewal. In footballing terms, the club has become synonymous with Azerbaijan and what it considers to be its rightful claim over the lands its enemies call Artsakh. And this, ultimately, is the source of the government in Baku’s distaste for my work on the subject.
Formally I was barred from returning to Azerbaijan – on pain of arrest – for having travelled to Nagorno-Karabakh without the permission of the state in Baku, although all available evidence suggests that no such permission would have been granted if sought.
The state took a personal insult at my having reported on the football community in Karabakh from the perspective of those who live there – the native Armenians – and I was accused of promoting the cause of an illegal separatist regime, as well as violating the republic’s territorial integrity.
To say the Karabakh conflict is a sensitive issue in Azerbaijan is a wild misnomer. It is an all-consuming matter of domestic and foreign policy. One side of that is that overseas journalists are derided and threatened for pursuing an interest in the human impact the war has had in parts of the world outside of Azerbaijan’s jurisdiction. The other is that a hitherto unfashionable and unremarkable football club has a chance to leave a mark on the world that not too long ago would have seemed impossible.