'We will never leave': Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought over disputed region for decades
Local residents navigate a field of rubble outside a destroyed residential area near a power distribution facility in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, after a military strike on Saturday.
Vartan Abrahamian, a 53-year-old social worker and retired soldier, returned for the time being to lock the broken windows of his home in the capital, Nagorno-Karabakh.
"We're used to it. For myself, I'm not worried," said Abrahamian of the renewed hostilities in this disputed area, a mountainous region between Armenia and Azerbaijan Soviet Union began and flared up again almost two weeks ago.
A man, who only mentioned his nickname Milord, is looking for protection in an underground bunker when the bomb sirens ring over Stepanakert. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Abrahamian, one of the 150,000 or so ethnic Armenians who claim the enclave - it is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan - had fought in an earlier iteration of the conflict. Now his two sons were on the front lines, continuing a generational war that is affecting so much life in this former Soviet splinter enclave.
"It is our fate. It is our duty. ... We will never leave Artsakh," said Abrahamian, using the traditional Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh.
Walking the streets of Stepanakert means reliving the legacy of that struggle, a conflict that has often been referred to as “frozen” although “smoldering” is perhaps more accurate: flower-lined boulevards lead to elegant cafes but also to overstocking Army. A decommissioned tank, a trophy from the 1994 war, holds a vigil at the entrance to the city. Posters with the stern faces of the fallen decorate the hallways of a school. In a classroom, eighth graders compete over how quickly they can assemble and disassemble a Kalashnikov rifle.
David Safaryan, 63, looks over the rubble of a destroyed house after a military strike in a residential area of Stepanakert on October 9th. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
"Twenty-one seconds," boasted David Safaryan, 63, a decorated, now retired artillery officer when asked about his prime. "But you shouldn't disassemble a Kalashnikov. You should shoot it."
Safaryan, a neighbor of Abrahamian, whose home was slightly damaged in the past few days by a bomb that fell on a neighborhood flower shop, also has two of his sons and two sons-in-law fighting.
The warfare, which began in 1991, killed 30,000 people before stuttering into a troubled truce in 1994. At the time, the Armenians not only had control of Nagorno-Karabakh, but also of an area that surrounded them.A million people - including more than 600,000 Azerbaijani and 300,000 Armenians, had to leave their homes, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
A man looks over a crater explosion along a street in front of a residential area in Stepanakert. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Since then, the world powers involved, including France, Russia and the United States, have failed in their efforts to move negotiations forward, while the conflict has resulted in a steady rhythm of skirmishes followed by volatile ceasefires.
The clashes are different this time.
Azerbaijan, backed by the muscular support of its longtime ethnic ally in Turkey, has deployed Turkish armed drones despite using its petrodollar cache to spend billions on armaments from Israel and Russia. (Russia also sells weapons to Armenia, albeit at a discount.)
Turkey is said to have dispatched hundreds of Syrian rebels to the Nagorno-Karabakh front, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group that reports on events in Syria. Turkey denies sending fighters.
Local residents pray in the Cathedral of Our Lady. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Turkey's intervention, meanwhile, has spurred memories of the Ottoman Empire - forerunners of the modern Turkish Republic - and the killing of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians from 1915, a slaughter widely viewed as genocide with the exception of Turkey.
The improved material has given Azerbaijan greater range and made it possible to hit areas far from the front lines. In the last few days, the cities of Nagorno-Karabakh have been shelled for hours.
Population centers have also been hit on the Azerbaijani side, including Ganja, Azerbaijan's second largest city, according to government officials who said Armenia has targeted both residential areas and civil infrastructure. According to the military, 404 fighters in Nagorno-Karabakh have been killed since the fighting began on September 27. Azerbaijan does not report military casualties. Dozens of civilians were wounded and injured on both sides.
The attack on Stepanakert was particularly intense.
A look into the living room, where a weapon penetrated through the ceiling of a residential building after a military attack. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
On Friday, relatively quiet for a few hours, Haik, a 36-year-old uniformed communications expert from Yerevan, went with his team to the location of a large antenna tower that was strewn with splinters.
“For us there is no difference between Azerbaijan and Turkey. [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan says it is one nationality, two countries, ”said Haik. He refused to give his last name for security reasons.
“But this time the war is different: now there is no more human contact. It's just artillery. It's just shelling. "
His words were interrupted when grenades landed nearby and a group of journalists and Haik's team scurried down the stairs of an old post office. There, a crew of six mechanics cleared debris from the corridors and lit lights to prepare the area for shelter.
"We're used to it. We have already seen three wars. Now our children see war too," said Hamayak Vanyan, 60.
"My son is fighting now too," said Vanyan's colleague, a 70-year-old man who only called his nickname Milord. Although he was born in Azerbaijan's capital Baku and once had many Azerbaijani friends, he now sees little chance of peace.
A man takes a cigarette break in an underground bunker while bomb sirens wail. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
“Since 1988 I've been ready to fight any moment. We can no longer live with Azeris. Maybe we can live in peace, but there will be no communication between us, ”he said before listing the names of the places Armenians have been exposed to pogroms by Azerbaijanis over the years. “There is already too much history. You can't change that. "
This history has also hampered repeated attempts at a truce.
Early on Saturday, after eleven hours of difficult mediation by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Azerbaijani and Armenian counterparts, he announced a humanitarian ceasefire that would enable the exchange of prisoners and corpses.
The armistice was supposed to have come into effect by noon, but the howl of the air raid sirens continued to flood Stepanakert.
Armenian Defense Ministry spokeswoman Shushan Stepanyan said the Azerbaijani armed forces launched an offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh five minutes after the ceasefire began. The Azerbaijani authorities accused the Armenian armed forces of bombing several Azerbaijani regions.
Men gather to smoke and chat near a telecommunications company in Stepanakert. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
“Where's the truce? The war goes on. They didn't want to stop it. And for this reason we do not trust Azeris, ”said Archbishop Pargev Martyrosyan, the white-haired primacy of the Artsakh diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
In an interview in his office next to the Cathedral of Our Lady, a pink structure with a view of the mountains, he spoke about the beauty of the region and how the conflict had slowed its development.
“Our people are suffering. It's been abnormal for years. But it's a beautiful country. A lot of people will come after the war, ”he said.
A thud interrupted his sentence. “A bomb. Let's go, ”he said and walked quickly to the basement of the cathedral.
A woman inclines her head in prayer before leaving the Cathedral of Our Lady. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
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