Andrea has posted an interesting information about dark tourism. Let me share you my travelling experience.
Remember: if you have Israeli visa in the passport, you will not get into Syria, and, if you have Karabakh visa - to Azerbaijan. It doesn't work another side.
- "I do not think you should go there. It's too dangerous" Jakub told me while he was holding in his hand „Lonely Planet Georgia, Armenia & Azerbaijan" - In terms of nature, you will not find anything new there. The only thing is that the place is politically interesting".
Ghost town are certainly "politically interesting". Ruined, bombed, deserted. The smell of human blood has not vanished. Warnings "watch out mines” have not disappeared . Ghost Cities are like museums, though steeped in silence. They are the nonvolatile flash memory - Agdam in Nagorno-Karabakh and Quneitra in Golan Heights. Today they have also become touristic cities. You can read about them in Lonely Planet guides. However they occur a special name - "are recommended for the brave and determined enthusiasts of recent history".
I visited Agdam in August 2008, during my stay in Armenia, while I was evacuated for two weeks from Georgia. I was in Quneitra in January 2009 during a trip to Syria. Contrary to description in the guide books, there is no danger. You do not need to be brave and determined. Traveling to these areas, however, requires a little effort, and what's the most important - openness to the truth about the brutality of the fighting between the nations.
The experiences are harrowing and unforgettable. Both cities are the most visible traces of the twentieth-century wars which has now become so called frozen conflicts: the Armenian-Azerbaijani and Israeli-Syrian. Their direct cause was the struggle for land - Nagorno-Karabakh and the Golan Heights.
Agdam - the front line
Steppes and desert stretching for miles. Mid of August. Heat, sand and stones. The town is surrounded by hills and completely abandoned by the inhabitants. Empty houses are standing with holes in the walls, the roofs and doors are thrown. Goods of many people has been taken by local robbers and moved across the border or sold at a nearby market. There are only ruins, which have grown shrubs.
Polish foreign ministry suggests "to refrain from going into a region of Nagorno-Karabakh".
To get to Agdam, you need to take a taxi from Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. It is not easy to find the driver. The area is patrolled by Armenian soldiers, who are reluctant to look at the tourists. Agdam is a strategic place. At the turn of 1993 and 1994 it was on the frontline in the Armenian-Azeri war over Nagorno-Karabakh. 150 thousan people lived there that time. Over 100 schools and three mosques. Most residents were Azeris.
On the way to town we passed a Muslim cemetery. We stoped at the mosque. Slovak, English, Japanese and me. We met at a standstill of minibus and together decided to pay for the taxi. On the way we are looking around if there is not soldier. We go to the tower. From there muezzin used to sing. We could see the whole city: Predominated by one-floor-houses. Huge area. Sometimes I recognize a school bus stop.
Photo: Iwona Frydryszak, barents.pl
We are making pictures. Rushing mixed with disbelief and embarrassment. We are annoyed. It is prohibited to take photos. It's written everywhere - Lonely Planet, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we heard it from tourists we met - it's threaten of seizuring the equipment. More frightening, however, is to see with my own eyes the effects of war, that tries to hide the tall, yellow grass.
A year before the collapse of the USSR in Nagorno-Karabakh lived Armenians (76%), Azeris (23%), Russians and Kurds. For centuries it was the area of interest of different nations. However, it had been always dominated by ethnic Armenians. Nevertheless, after World War I the right to the territory was granted by the Socialists to Azerbaijan. The present-day conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh has its roots in the decisions made by Joseph Stalin and the Caucasian Bureau (Kavburo) during the Sovietization of Transcaucasia.
Since 1988, when the disintegration of the Soviet Union was sure, the inhabitants of Karabakh revived hopes for an independent state or joining to Armenia. But it turned out that the road will be long and full of victims (in Armenian-Azeri war in the years 1988 to 1994 about 35 thousand people were killed).
Friendship and strife
Historians has little evidence that the Soviets engaged in the 80s policy to play-off two Transcaucasian nations: Armenians and Azerbaijanis. From now on, instead of to oppose Russia, they began to fight among themselves. - Once we lived together as best friends - the taxi driver told me in Yerevan, capital city of Armenia.
Russia had been changing its mind, depending on their interests: first, stood on the side of Azerbaijan, to finally go for Armenia. In 1991, Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh was proclaimed. It is para-state. It has its own president, government, parliament, army and foreign representatives, but is not officially recognized by any country in the world, even by Armenia. Nagorno-Karabakh, however, is now controlled by Armenians.
Agdam is one of those places about which the Armenians do not want to talk and do not want to show oof. Its destruction is a proof of the military aggression on the Karabakh Azeri population. Thousands of families had to leave their homes and live in exile and till this day, are counting to return.
Quneitra, Middle East
Syrian President deliberately not restored Quneitra. It operates as a ghost city at the Syrian-Israeli border. Liberated Quneitra Museum is waiting for tourists. The city is surrounded by green hills. Ruined hospital, church, mosque, shops, storey blocks. 30 years ago, it has a population of 37 thousand – inhabited by Arabs, mainly Syrian Druze. During the Six-Day War in 1967, however, the town has been entirely evacuated several hours before the attack of the Israeli army.
To get to Queneitra, you need to take a taxi. Drivers are fighting for you. You can choose a car as drivers want to earn extra money on a foreign tourist. Along the way we pass the three UN checkpoints. I feel safe, even though it's a buffer zone. I prepared the camera, passport and document valid for entry to Quneitra, the most destroyed city in present-day Syria.
Photo: Iwona Frydryszak, barents.pl
The document is special, because it should be requested personally at the MoIA. Special - as written in Arabic, so I do not recognize among the characters, even my name. Special - although it is only a form . It was handed to me with a smile of mustachioed official in Damascus.
President al-Assad invites all
The city apparently resembles Agdam. However, the accompanying atmosphere of "visiting" is totally different. Entering Quneitra the large portrait of former president-dictator of Syria, Hafez al-Assad welcomes me. The driver stops near the hospital. He takes us inside. The view is terrific. Walls with the holes of bullets. Ray of light comes through those holes. Perhaps there had been beds with the patients. You might think: "How inhumane act by the Israeli army ...." I try not to be the subject of propaganda, playings on emotions. Although the facts are irrefutable.
In 1944 Golan Heights were given to Syria including the province of Quneitra - hundreds of villages and farms. In 1967 during the Six-Day War, Israeli forces took over it by strength. Since that time, the place is referred to the international communities as the Golan Heights. For Israel, this is a strategic place - for security reasons. Above all, the conflict is about water resources available to whoever controls the Golan.
In 1973, Hafez al-Assad has decided to try to rebound the Golan Heights. He attacked during the Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur (hence the name - Yom Kippur War). Ineffective. Syria managed to recover only a scrap of this territory, thousands of Syrian citizens were on the other side of the border. In the 80s Golan Heights were formally annexed by Israel. In contrast to the Palestinian West Bank it does not have the status of the occupied territories.
Several villages on the Syrian side has been rebuilt. In addition to Quinetra – the ghost city. A terrifying emptiness. Barbed wire. UN base. In the distance, on the hills, you can see the Israeli military base.
Ghost cities remained to remind. Towns that had been devoted to it. Catch on my video camera. Still waiting to be shown