A precarious calm has settled over Nagorno-Karabakh, many of its war-weary citizens once again rebuilding their homes and picking up the pieces of their shattered lives after the deadliest fighting in decades erupted in early April. The short-lived media attention on this remote land in the South Caucasus has long since moved on, but the tragedy is far from over. In the once thriving and bucolic village of Talish, where more than 500 farmers, laborers, and young families worked the land and tended to their livestock, a desolate ghost town now stands in its place. Its exposed and partially destroyed buildings are populated only by Armenian soldiers and volunteer fighters guarding against further incursions from the Azeri military, now positioned just half a mile away, making it still too dangerous for the village’s displaced residents to return.
And so it is every day, 59-year-old Angin Sargsyan boards a bus from the Hotel Yerevan in Stepanakert for the 18-mile trip to Talish to feed the surviving cattle and chicken in the remnants of the family farm. “I feel sadness in my heart when I look at my home,” she says, “which now has been damaged more than during the previous war. We had just started to live a good life, and now we have to start everything all over again.”
April’s ‘Four-Day War’—the largest military offensive since the first war in the early 1990s—claimed the lives of more than 100 Armenian soldiers, including a handful of civilians, and resulted in the loss of some three square miles of land along the heavily militarized line of contact between the unrecognized Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan. It was a stark reminder to the rest of the world that the long-standing and largely forgotten conflict in the South Caucasus remains a volatile powder keg where, after nearly a quarter century, peace remains elusive.
For one of the world’s most intractable conflicts, Nagorno-Karabakh has attracted remarkably little international attention. The territorial dispute is rooted in the former Soviet empire, when Stalin’s arbitrarily redrawn borders left the historically Armenian land within neighboring Azerbaijan’s territory. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the conflict exploded into a full-scale war that claimed the lives of 30,000 people and left Nagorno-Karabakh under Armenian control. In 1994, an international cease-fire brokered by Russia, the United States and France under the auspices of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE), effectively froze the conflict for the following two decades. In the absence of any significant global pressure since, the international community has had little incentive to dedicate itself to resolving the feud between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Attacks by Azerbaijiani snipers, however, have steadily been increasing over the past five years, as an emboldened, oil-rich Azerbaijan continues to spend billions of dollars on military expenditures that continue to fuel the conflict. The sniper fire has now been supplanted by sophisticated multiple-launch missile systems, tanks, heavy artillery and attack drones acquired from Russia, Israel and Turkey.
In light of the recent pattern of military escalation along the line of contact, indeed it should have come as no surprise when during the late night hours between the first and second of April, Azerbaijani troops launched coordinated attacks on the northern and southern fronts, targeting not only Armenian military positions but also civilian areas.
Over the course of the next four long days, Nagorno-Karabakh once again endured the run-for-your-life horror of war. As Armenian forces lost control of some high ground, several villages and towns were left exposed to Azerbaijani fire. Not since the first war had the local population witnessed destruction on such a scale. Household utensils, toys and books were left scattered in the yards of bombed homes. Ceilings lay on kitchen tables, beds and floors, all of it covered in tiny shards of shattered glass windows. On the frontlines of the fierce fighting, more than one hundred Armenian soldiers lay dead.
Like a bad memory from the first war, residents of the village of Talish were forced to flee their homes. Safura Iskandaryan, a 52- year-old mother of four, remembers how the downpour of enemy shells and rockets lit up the April dawn. Seconds later, she says, the local houses were reduced to ruins.
“You cannot imagine how fast we got in our car, grabbing as many people as we could,” she recalls. “We already knew that the Azeris were in the village. It was like watching a movie. Children were crying and adults were screaming: ‘Edo jan, save us, drive forward, they are shooting. Cars were rushing out of the village. Everyone was trying to save their families.”
The ten-member Sargsyan family was also lucky to escape alive. Among them, the eldest is 104-year-old Hayk Sargsyan, the youngest six-month-old Hakob. The others are still haunted by flashbacks from April.
“We woke up at night from the sounds of explosions. At first, we thought it was an earthquake. After several shell explosions we called the head of the village, who urged us to hide in the basement. After several hours we came out of there,” says 27-year -old Hasmik Sargsyan. “My mother wanted us to get out together but I objected saying that it would be better to leave the basement one by one, as at least in that case some of us would survive if another shell hit us. The village was heavily bombed. It was like New Year’s fireworks, but with debris that could kill us at any time.”
Months later, a climate of fear and uncertainty still reigns. Despite the cease-fire, sniper fire continues sporadically. In July one serviceman from the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army was killed and four others wounded in separate incidents throughout the month. Azerbaijani forces furthermore attempted to infiltrate Nagorno-Karabakh in the east on two occasions, but were spotted and repelled by the Defense Army. Sos Petrosyan, a 43-year-old Talish resident who took his sons and wife to his mother-in-law’s house in Armenia, worries about the future of his home, which is now more exposed to enemy fire than before the April offensive. “The fate of the village is uncertain,” he says sadly. “It will be bad if it turns out that April 2 was the last day in the history of a centuries-old village.” Still he remains hopeful Talish can be restored if security can be established at the border. “Money will come, and there will be people who will want to help rebuild,” he adds.
In the neighboring villages and towns of Martakert, Martuni and Mataghis near the line of contact, residents are rebuilding with a renewed focus on security. New roads with embankments are being constructed to protect against enemy fire. Families forced to abandon their homes during April have since returned to their daily routines cultivating gardens and tending to cattle. Despite the risk of renewed fighting, Martakert resident Yura Baghryan, his three children and six grandchildren are not willing to even consider moving to a safer region. “We were born here and raised here. Our life is here,” he says. “And we are standing on our land like an oak.”
Opening or Renewed Conflict?
Any resumption of hostilities would potentially be even more deadly. As a recent analysis by the International Crisis Group noted, “there is a serious risk that long-range ground-to-ground missiles would be used and casualties, particularly civilian, would be much higher in the effort to gain a decisive ground advantage. In the wake of the April fighting, the public in Armenia and Azerbaijan are more ready for military solutions than at any time in 25 years.”
Such a scenario would more than likely draw in Russia and Turkey—already at odds in Syria—in a wider conflict. Russia considers itself a key mediator and guarantor of security in the region, but despite being strategically aligned with Armenia, has sown division by continuing to sell arms and pursuing closer ties to Azerbaijan. For its part, Turkey has repeatedly proclaimed itself a staunch ally of Azerbaijan in pursuing closer military, political and economic cooperation.
Within that context of an increased military threat and the risk of a wider fallout if fighting resumes, observers expressed cautious optimism that the aftermath of April’s offensive might lead to an opportunity to pave the way for negotiations toward an eventual comprehensive settlement. A meeting between Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev in Vienna, Austria on May 16, mediated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault resulted in an agreement to reduce cease-fire violations along the line of contact. In follow-up talks in St. Petersburg on June 20, the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders expressed a mutual desire to resolve the conflict and echoed calls for more international observers along the line of contact to monitor the existing cease-fire agreement.
Despite the tentative diplomatic steps to date, and the fact that cease-fire violations have declined, the fundamental issues underlying the conflict have yet to be addressed. The potential for another outbreak remains…
Despite the tentative diplomatic steps to date, the fundamental issues underlying the conflict have yet to be addressed. And while cease-fire violations may have declined, they continue to take a deadly toll. Since April there have been several small-scale skirmishes, including most recently during the morning of July 23, when Armenian serviceman Arsen Arakelyan was killed by Azerbaijani fire along the line of contact. The potential for another outbreak remains, particularly if Azerbaijan grows impatient with the slow pace of discussions. Breaking the impasse will require a much stronger international effort to pressure both sides to accept confidence and security building measures (CBSMs), including the proposed OSCE mechanism to investigate and establish responsibility for cease-fire violations. Before both sides can entertain any discussion of concessions potentially involving territory or interim status recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh, the government and people of Nagorno-Karabakh must first be engaged as full partners in any negotiation process in order to move forward. Until the peace talks can succeed in bridging the strategic divide over disputed territory, peace in the region cannot be guaranteed to last.
Banner photo by Nazik Armenakyan