'We will never leave': Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought over disputed region for decades

By Nabih Bulos Oct. 10, 20203:54 PM Facebook Twitter Show more sharing options Share Close extra sharing options Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Email Copy Link URLCopied! Print

The sirens silent for the time being, Vartan Abrahamian, a 53-year-old social worker and retired soldier, returned to seal the broken windows on his home in the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh.

“We’re used to it. For myself I’m not worried,” Abrahamian said of the hostilities raging once more in this disputed territory, a mountainous region tucked between Armenia and Azerbaijan. It lies at the heart of a seething, decades-long fight that began during the chaotic breakup of the Soviet Union and that flared up again almost two weeks ago.

Milord, last name not given, takes shelter in an underground bunker as the bombing sirens ring across Stepanakert.
Milord, last name not given, takes shelter in an underground bunker as the bombing sirens ring across the city in Stepanakert.

Abrahamian, one of the about 150,000 ethnic Armenians who claim the enclave as their own — it’s recognized internationally as part of Azerbaijan — had fought in an earlier iteration of the conflict; now his two sons were at the front line, continuing a generational war that inflects so much of life in this one-time Soviet splinter enclave.

“It’s our destiny. It’s our duty… We will never leave Artsakh,” Abrahamian said, employing the traditional Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh.

To walk the streets of Stepanakert is to experience the legacy of that fight, a conflict that has often been described as “frozen,” although “smoldering” is perhaps more accurate: Flower-lined boulevards lead to elegant cafes but also army-surplus stores. A decommissioned tank, a trophy from the 1994 war, keeps a vigil at the entrance to the city. Posters with the stern faces of those fallen adorn the hallways of a school. In one classroom, eighth-graders compete over how fast they can assemble and disassemble a Kalashnikov rifle.

David Safaryan, 63, looks over the rubble of a destroyed home after a military strike in a residential neighborhood.
David Safaryan, 63, looks over the rubble of a destroyed home Oct. 9 after a military strike in a residential neighborhood of Stepanakert.

“Twenty-one seconds,” boasted David Safaryan, 63, a decorated, now retired artillery officer when asked about his best time. “But you shouldn’t disassemble a Kalashnikov. You should shoot it.”

Safaryan, a neighbor of Abrahamian whose house suffered light damage in recent days from a bomb falling on a neighborhood flower shop, also has two of his sons as well as two sons-in-law in combat.

The warfare, which began in 1991, saw 30,000 people killed before sputtering to an uneasy cease-fire in 1994. At that point, Armenians were in control of not only Nagorno-Karabakh but also a swath of territory surrounding it, even as more than a million people — including more than 600,000 Azerbaijanis and 300,000 Armenians, according to the figures from the U.N.’s refugee agency — were forced to leave their homes.

S A man looks over a crater blast along a street in front of a residential area in Stepanakert.
A man looks over a crater blast along a street in front of a residential area in Stepanakert.

Since then, world powers involved, including France, Russia and the United States, have failed in efforts to push negotiations forward, while the conflict settled into a steady rhythm of skirmishes followed by impermanent cease-fires.

The clashes are different this time around.

Azerbaijan, backed by muscular support from its longtime ethnic ally in Turkey, has deployed Turkish armed drones, even as it has used its cache of petrodollars to spend billions on armaments from Israel and Russia. (Russia also sells weapons to Armenia, though at a discount.)

Turkey is also reported to have deployed hundreds of Syrian rebels to the front lines in Nagorno-Karabakh, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a watchdog group covering events in Syria. Turkey denies dispatching fighters.

Turkey’s intervention, meanwhile, has spurred remembrance of the Ottoman Empire — precursor to the modern Turkish republic — and its killing of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians beginning in 1915, a slaughter deemed by Armenians and others outside Turkey as a genocide.

The upgraded materiel has given Azerbaijan greater reach, allowing it to strike areas well away from the front line. In recent days, Nagorno-Karabakh’s cities and towns have been subjected to hourlong bouts of shelling.

Local residents pray at the Holy Mother of God Cathedral.
Local residents pray at the Holy Mother of God Cathedral.

Population centers have also been hit on the Azerbaijani side, including Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second largest city, according to government officials, who said Armenia had targeted residential areas as well as civilian infrastructure. Since the fighting began Sept. 27, 404 of Nagorno-Karabakh’s fighters have been killed, according to its military. Azerbaijan does not give figures on military losses. Dozens of civilians have been wounded and injured on both sides.

The onslaught on Stepanakert has been especially intense.

On Friday, a few hours of relative quiet saw Haik, a 36-year-old uniformed communications expert from Yerevan, go with his team to the site of a large antenna tower which had been peppered with shrapnel.

“For us there’s no difference between Azerbaijan and Turkey. [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan says it’s one nationality, two countries,” Haik said. He refused to give his last name for security reasons.

“But the war is different this time: Now there is no human contact. It’s only artillery. It’s only shelling.”
His words were interrupted by the thud of shells landing nearby, sending a group of journalists and Haik’s team scurrying down the stairs of an old post office building. There, a crew of six repairmen were clearing debris from corridors and stringing up lights to prepare the area as a shelter.

 A man takes a cigarette break in an underground bunker as bombing sirens are wailing.
A man takes a cigarette break in an underground bunker as bombing sirens are ringing across the city.

“We’re used to this. We’ve already seen three wars. Now our kids see war too,” said Hamayak Vanyan, 60.

“My son is now fighting too,” said Vanyan’s colleague, a 70-year-old man who gave only his nickname, Milord. Though he was born in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, and once had had many Azerbaijani friends, he now sees little chance for peace.

“Every moment since 1988 I’m ready to fight. We can’t live together with Azeris more. Maybe we can live in peace, but there will be no communication between us,” he said, before listing the names of sites where Armenians had faced pogroms at the hands of Azerbaijanis over the years. “There’s too much history already. You can’t change that.”

That history has also hampered repeated attempts at a cease-fire.

Early Saturday, after 11 hours of difficult mediation by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov along with his Azerbaijani and Armenian counterparts, a humanitarian truce was announced that would allow the exchange of prisoners and corpses, Lavrov announced.

The truce was supposed to have taken effect at noon, but the wail of air-raid sirens continued to flood Stepanakert.

Armenian Defense Ministry spokeswoman Shushan Stepanyan said Azerbaijani forces had launched an offensive into Nagorno-Karabakh five minutes after the cease-fire was to begin. Azerbaijani authorities accused Armenian forces of bombarding several Azerbaijani regions.

Men gather around to smoke and chat near a telecom company in Stepanakert.
Men gather around to smoke and chat near a telecom company in Stepanakert.

“Where is the cease-fire? The war is going on. They didn’t want to stop it. And because of that we don’t trust Azeris,” said Archbishop Pargev Martyrosyan, the white-haired primate of the Diocese of Artsakh of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

In an interview in his office beside the Holy Mother of God Cathedral, a rose-colored structure overlooking a mountainous view, he spoke of the beauty of the area and how the conflict had stunted its development.

“Our people are suffering. It’s been abnormal for years. But it’s a beautiful country. After the war, many people will come,” he said.

A thud interrupted his sentence.“A bomb. Let’s go,” he said, walking quickly to the cathedral’s basement.

A woman bows her head in prayer before exiting the Holy Mother of God Cathedral.
A woman bows her head in prayer before exiting the Holy Mother of God Cathedral.