Karabakh War Leaves Civilians Shell-Shocked and Bitter

Heavy fighting has erupted in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as Russia tries to shore up a ceasefire agreed by Armenia and Azerbaijan last weekend.

Azerbaijan says it has destroyed missile sites inside Armenia which it claims were used to target civilian areas, and its president has said military operations are continuing.

Karabakh War Leaves Civilians Shell-Shocked and Bitter

Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, but the enclave is controlled by ethnic Armenians.

BBC correspondents Orla Guerin and Steve Rosenberg report from both sides.

The tree-lined main street of Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second-largest city, was bathed in morning sunlight and carpeted in glass. Just behind it a cluster of apartment blocks had been ripped open like tin cans.

Ganja lies 100km (62 miles) from the frontlines of Nagorno-Karabakh, but on Sunday – the first full day of a shaky ceasefire – that wasn’t far enough.

Azerbaijan accused Armenia of firing a ballistic missile at a residential part of Ganja. Armenia accused Baku of shelling civilians.

We found 60-year-old Nushabe Haiderova in her headscarf and slippers, with a cardigan over her night clothes. Her arms were slack with shock. “This is how I ran out, with only what I was wearing,” she said. “We barely escaped. It was horrible.”

We picked our way through the debris in her damaged home, to the bedroom where her grandchildren had been sleeping. Their injuries were minor. But now a new generation – on both sides – is being scarred by this decades-old conflict. At times it feels like a mirror image.

Nushabe in the debris of her home in Ganja

“Armenians should leave peacefully,” she said. “We don’t want war. We just want to free our own motherland.”

People here view Nagorno-Karabakh as a missing piece of their territory. That is both an article of faith and a well-rehearsed national narrative, which has the backing of the international community.

At 22 years old, Ihtiyar Rasulov has never set foot in the disputed mountain region. But the clean-shaven young man, with a boy-band look, says he’s ready to die to get it back. When we met in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, he had just signed up to fight.

“I am ready to fight for my nation and my motherland with my soul and my blood,” he said earnestly. “My father, my mother and my grandfather lived in those areas. My brother is fighting right now.”

Ihtiyar lives in a rundown housing complex teeming with families who fled Nagorno-Karabakh, and surrounding areas, during the war in the early 1990s. He has been raised on the folk memory of lost land, atrocities and historic enmity with Armenia. It has been bred in the bone. That goes for many here.

“Karabakh is Azerbaijan,” he said. “Armenians came there and they did a lot of bad things to our nation. Of course, I haven’t witnessed it, but I have heard about it.”

He also said he agreed with whatever Azerbaijan’s President, Ilham Aliyev, had to say. In this tightly controlled country – where the presidency was passed from father to son – you hear that a lot.

One of Ihtiyar’s neighbours rushed to show me his veteran’s identity card. Asef Haqverdiyev, balding and animated, fought in the war for Nagorno-Karabakh last time around.

“I am 51 now,” he said, “and I am ready to die for my country.

“I have sent my own son to the war, and he is fighting at the border. Even if my family dies, even if everyone dies, we are not willing to give one inch of our land.”

We got a similar message from a grandmother in the frontline city of Terter. Despite rounds of shelling back and forth, Aybeniz Djaffarava refused to leave, though she did move underground. We found her in a makeshift shelter with several relatives, including her six-month old grandson Fariz, cradled in her arms.

“We have been waiting for this for 28 years,” she told me, smiling in the half light.

“We are very excited about what’s happening. My son and daughter are fighting on the frontline. We are staying in the shelter to wait for victory day and move to our land.”

Few here expect the Russian-brokered ceasefire to last. Many don’t want it to. Their troops have already recovered some areas alongside Nagorno-Karabakh. They have been primed for a victory on the battlefield and want their president to stick to his guns.

In the hills overlooking Stepanakert, Ashot Agajanyan invites me into his house. Or what’s left of it.

The living room is strewn with broken glass and bits of ceiling that have fallen down. Shrapnel has shredded his brand-new sofa. The kitchen and bathroom have been blown apart.

Ashot Agajanyan in his wrecked home, 12 Oct 20

Ashot’s house was struck by a long-range missile, fired he believes from Azerbaijan. We find fragments in the garden. He says the attack happened after the official ceasefire had come into effect. Fortunately, Ashot and his son were in their cellar at the time. That saved them. But the house Ashot built with his own hands has been ripped apart.

I ask Ashot if he thinks Armenians and Azerbaijanis can ever live in peace. He shakes his head. “Never.”

Air raid sirens echo across Stepanakert several times a day, prompting residents to rush for cover. Sergei Avanisyan was in his local shelter – in the basement of his apartment block – when he heard a deafening explosion.

“The whole building shook,” Sergei recalls. When he emerged, he saw a giant crater metres from his house. The building opposite had been reduced to rubble. The blast was so powerful, it had sent pieces of the road flying into the air.

Long-range missile debris, Stepanakert, 12 Oct 20

One giant chunk of asphalt landed on the roof of Sergei’s block of flats. He accuses Azerbaijan’s closest ally, Turkey, of fuelling the war and encouraging the violence. To counter that, many in Nagorno-Karabakh want Russia to side openly with Armenia and provide military support. Sergei doesn’t believe that will happen.

“I used to respect [President Vladimir] Putin,” he says, “but he betrayed us long ago.

“He does business with Turkey. He’s building them a nuclear power station. What Putin needs to realise is that if we’re destroyed, the whole of the Caucasus and southern Russia will end up under Turkish rule. If we die, so will Russia.”

To the ethnic Armenians who form the majority in Nagorno-Karabakh – or “Artsakh” as Armenians call it – this land has been their home for generations.

But Karabakh has a spiritual and emotional significance for Armenians further afield. In a Stepanakert cafe I meet Ara Shanlian. Ara lives in Los Angeles, but he is of Armenian descent. When he heard Nagorno-Karabakh was under attack, he rushed here to show solidarity.

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“I had to come,” Ara tells me. “Whatever I can do, whatever I can give to my land, and my people, that’s what I want to do.”

Stepanakert civilians sheltering in church, 12 Oct 20

From the people I’ve talked to here, it’s clear that emotions are running high. It feels there is little appetite for compromise.

“After so many aggressions against Artsakh, Azerbaijan has abandoned any moral right to claim that it belongs to Azerbaijan,” Robert Avetisyan tells me. Nagorno-Karabakh appointed him its permanent representative in the US. But I meet Robert in Stepanakert.

I point out there has been violence on both sides. Azerbaijani civilians were killed in Ganja, an attack Baku blames on Armenia.

“The same day five long-range missiles hit Stepanakert causing casualties,” replies Robert. “And a few days before that, around 100 missiles hit all sections of the town. We never target civilian infrastructure. Ganja had military infrastructure.”

“But the residential block that was hit in Ganja wasn’t a military target.”

“I don’t know,” Robert responds. “I’m just saying. We have never intentionally targeted objects of non-military importance.”


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