“Stay away from the windows, the Azeri sharpshooters are there.”
The secret service employee who accompanies me shows me the first line of the conflict: visible to the naked eye from the room. All around, books and notebooks spread on the ground between plaster flakes and dust. We are in an elementary school hit by Grad rockets, in the village of Talish, in Nagorno-Karabakh. Today, it’s a ghost city after bombings in April, which caused in this small hamlet the death of tens of soldiers, but also of some civilians.
Here, the fight proceeds house by house, and the signs of bullets are visible on most of the buildings in the village. Others have been sliced open by bombs and rockets, like a huge hall used for matrimonies and festivities, totally destroyed. The emblem of an endless war, the one between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, fought at Europe’s borders for a quarter century, but that the world keeps on wanting to forget.
Even tractors are targets
And the shootouts continued even after April’s escalation. A few hours before our arrival, right in Talish, an Armenian soldier was killed by a sharpshooter.
The entire village, where now only soldiers and volunteers live, remains exposed and condemned. In the beginning of April, the Azeri have gained ground, moving the front line ahead by about a kilometer, as the employee, who asks to remain anonymous, explains to me.
Here, until a month ago, farmers were still working on their land, which has by now been abandoned. Today, even tractors are possible targets. But the village of Talish is not the only battlefield. The only road to get to Martakert has also become dangerous. The front runs parallel to it, a few kilometers away, and the nearer you get to Talish, the more the distance is reduced, up to less than a kilometer. To protect it from enemy fire, the Armenians in Karabakh have built a new road, with an embankment beside it, which is still under construction. An excavator works tirelessly to complete it, the driver risking his life. On this road the vehicles accelerate past the speed limit to avoid artillery and snipers.
The buildings in Talish, often semi-destroyed, are today populated only with soldiers from Karabakh and Armenian volunteers from all corners of the world, after the great scare of the beginning of April. As we pass by, we could see a soldier shaving in a destroyed building, another bathing and eating.
Desolate scenes unfold, dominated by poverty, uncertainty and dirt. The police road blocks are frequent, and, while we pass by, the line of volunteers coming in and out of this forgotten village continues.
In Stepanakert, I meet some displaced families coming from Talish. They number more than 50, according to the evaluation supplied by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the de facto state of Karabakh. They are women with children, housed in some city hotels, like Nairi. Alone, given the fact that their husbands remain on the front to fight. When asked whether they think about returning one day to live in Talish, one of them answered with a firm no: The security is lacking, and there’s too much fear, after those terrible days. Her daughter, a few years old at that moment, explodes in tears: “I miss my home.”
The incriminated episode
The pictures of civilians in Talish killed and mutilated, published by the press at the beginning of April, have made a great impression in Armenia. Official sources in Karabakh talk about an incursion by 50 commandos who, after entering the village at three different points from the border, shot civilians and soldiers. This, according to what’s reported by the Armenian sources, was the episode causing what everybody now calls the Second Karabakh War (after the one of the beginning of the 1990s), or more often “the Four-Day War.”
From April 2-5, a few hundred soldiers and civilians from both sides lost their lives. Many of the wounded and the mutilated people I saw were in the military hospital in Stepanakert. In those few days in April, helicopters, drones and tanks were destroyed.
The tragedy has not ended, not just because of the conflicts and of the victims. Only a few days ago, while visiting the trenches in Karabakh, together with the soldiers, we heard exploding a few artillery rounds not far from us. But the collateral damage and the wounded will remain unrepaired for months, maybe for years.
The Israeli-made cluster bombs launched along the entire front line are added to the anti-man and anti-tank mines that have filled Karabakh since the ‘90s. Each rocket, explains Yuri Shahramyan, program manager of the HALO Trust, contains 104 sub-munitions. Once these reach their target, they launch metal scraps all around to wound and kill. The sub-munitions found in the villages and settlements along the border are many, he says.
There are many last-generation weapons in the hands of the Azeri, including Russian produced. The oil boom of the 2000s was followed by a full-throttle race to re-armament. The number of weapons in the hands of the Karabakh Armenians is hard to estimate. In many cases they are equipped with old soviet weapons. Others are found on the black market. Because Nagorno-Karabakh is not a recognized country, Stepanakert has no other way to procure weapons. There are, in fact, modern weapons on this side of the conflict, including drones, but the government takes care to avoid showing these to journalists.
Trenches and soldiers from other times.
The scene before me in the trenches in Mataghis, near Talish, is from another time. Young soldiers with a gun in their hands waiting for days and months in the mud, as it was during World War I. Below 20 degrees in the winter, or in the summer’s heat, it doesn’t matter. The waiting is consuming and exhausting. Maybe more than the conflict, here, the heavy aspects are isolation and boredom.
Rows of empty cans hang from the side of the trenches, an expedient to avoid, with the noise, possible incursions during the night. Wolf dogs have the same function, but the biggest deterrent are the landmines. They appear frequently and are indicated by a capital M on the trench’s corresponding line. In this section of the border, there are numerous vehicles hidden behind the Armenians’ first line, in order to avoid an attack like the one carried out in April.
The April battle was a fight in earnest, unlike any that has happened since the 1994 ceasefire — although few outside of these square kilometers seemed to notice. It raises many questions about the future of a conflict that has lasted a quarter century. Only one thing is sure: In Karabakh today, peace is further than ever.