At Front Lines of a Brutal War: Death and Despair in Nagorno-Karabakh

STEPANAKERT, Nagorno-Karabakh — On the front line, the stench is overwhelming. The remains of fighters have been lying there for weeks.

In the trenches, there is fear. The Armenians are defenseless against the Azerbaijani drones that hover overhead and kill at will.

At the military graveyard, bulldozers have scraped away a hillside. It is already lined with two rows of new graves, along with soon-to-be-filled, freshly dug, rectangular holes.

The three-week-old conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over a disputed territory in the Caucasus Mountains, where Europe meets Asia, has settled into a brutal war of attrition, soldiers and civilians said in interviews here on the ground in recent days.

Azerbaijan is sacrificing columns of fighters, Armenians say, to eke out small territorial gains in the treacherous terrain of Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave that is part of Azerbaijan under international law.

Civilians who have stayed behind live in their damp and unheated basements, converted in recent weeks with makeshift kitchens, and where some sleep on flattened cardboard boxes. The shelling and missile barrages into the towns in Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan have killed dozens of civilians and hundreds of soldiers and have filled the nights with terrifying flashes and booms.

In the city of Stepanakert in Nagorno-Karabakh, which I visited over four days last week with the photographer Sergey Ponomarev, artillery fire could often be heard in the distance. Late Friday the city itself came under attack. Air raid sirens and bangs and thuds sounded throughout the night, as hotel guests rushed repeatedly for the basement. At least one of the shells landed by the city center, illuminating my hotel window with a bolt of yellow light.

Manushak Titanyan, an architect in Nagorno-Karabakh, has already lost one of her buildings to the violence: the House of Culture in the hilltop town of Shusha, its roof gone, a piece of it stuck in a tree across the street, the plush red seats coated in dust, the stage curtain tangled amid the rubble.

ImageDamage to the House of Culture in Shusha, Nagorno-Karabakh.
Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Now she fears for her three sons, the youngest 18, who are at the front lines. She has kept herself busy by sewing military uniforms in an emergency workshop that the authorities set up in a factory in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. When the building shook on a recent afternoon with the rumble of a nearby explosion, she barely skipped a beat and kept on sewing.

“War is probably the most terrible thing in the world,” Ms. Titanyan said. “All the most horrible things that man ever created rear their heads in their most horrible manifestation.”

For the region’s populace, the war is a continuation of on-off violent strife over both territory and history, with roots going back more than a century. Armenians and Azerbaijanis lived side by side in the Soviet days, until conflict over the disputed mountain territory called Nagorno-Karabakh exploded in the late 1980s into riots, expulsions and a yearslong war.

Nagorno-Karabakh has been effectively independent since Armenia won the war in 1994, after the deaths of some 20,000 and the displacement of about a million people, mostly Azerbaijanis.

Azerbaijan launched its offensive on Sept. 27 and began making small territorial gains, backed by intense artillery fire and precision drone strikes. Armenia’s limited air defenses have failed to stop the drones, but its troops, bolstered by volunteers and conscripts, have slowed the Azerbaijani advance.

In some parts of the front, the Armenians have dug new trenches, and killed large numbers of Azerbaijani soldiers attempting to advance on foot, according to Armenian accounts.

Azerbaijan, an oil and gas hub on the Caspian Sea, has deployed superior firepower, using advanced drones and artillery systems it buys from Israel, Turkey and Russia. But three weeks into the conflict, Azerbaijan has failed to convert that advantage into broad territorial gains, indicating that a long and punishing war looms. It could morph into a wider crisis, pitting Azerbaijan’s main partner, Turkey, a NATO ally, against Russia, which has a mutual defense alliance with Armenia.

Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

On Saturday, Armenia and Azerbaijan announced they had negotiated a truce, mediated by France, to allow bodies to be collected and prisoners to be exchanged. But as with a Russian-brokered cease-fire reached a week earlier, the fighting has continued, with each side accusing the other on Sunday of violating the truce.

“Their war effort against the Armenians is principally an attrition fight,” Michael Kofman, a military analyst at CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization in Arlington, Va., said of Azerbaijan’s campaign. “It’s not really well organized with a clear theory of victory.”

Outgunned, Armenia has thrown conscripts and volunteers into the battle. Some of the latter are veterans of the 1990s war, like Artur Aleksanyan, a retired special forces colonel who said he was in the hospital recovering from surgery when the current conflict began. He said he now leads a volunteer unit in the trenches to the north, battling to halt the Azerbaijani advance.

It has been 15 years since he last wielded a weapon, Mr. Aleksanyan said Saturday in an interview in Stepanakert, where he was picking up a bag full of radio equipment before driving back to the front. He lifted his uniform to show the bandages around his belly which he has to change eight times a day and rapped his knuckles against his artificial kneecap, a reminder of his last war.

Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

But this conflict is nothing like the 1990s, Mr. Aleksanyan said. Then, the Kalashnikov rifle was the principal weapon. This time, there are few exchanges of small-arms fire. Of his unit’s 17 days at the front, he said, 15 days were spent in the trenches, taking cover from artillery barrages that came as frequently as every 20 minutes. There they are surrounded by craters where Azerbaijan has been systematically destroying Armenian tanks and other equipment, using modern “suicide drones” that loiter over a battlefield before diving down to an opportune target.

“They’re so fast that we can’t manage to hunt them down,” Mr. Aleksanyan said. “I won’t say that we are not afraid. We are all afraid.”

Mr. Aleksanyan and other Armenian fighters said that despite Azerbaijan’s fearsome firepower, its foot soldiers proved easy targets when they tried to advance. Their bodies had not been collected, Mr. Aleksanyan said, and filled the battlefield with a putrid stench.

“You knock down one guy, and they don’t run away,” said a soldier back from the front, Tigran Saakyan, dressed in a brown-and-tan knit sweater under his military jacket. “You knock down a second guy, you knock down a third guy, and they keep coming anyway — coming like robots.”

At a military base in Stepanakert, Mr. Saakyan and his comrades, some of them in their 50s, were waiting to be blessed by military clergy. Narek Petrosyan, a deacon in the Armenian Apostolic Church, said that when soldiers’ relatives call him asking for word from the front, he tries to give them hope, even if he knows that their loved ones have died. A separate group of clergy is charged with delivering that news.

“We tell them that this is a holy war, and we are prepared to sacrifice our lives for each other,” he said.

More than 700 Armenian soldiers have already been killed, along with scores of civilians on both sides.

Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Azerbaijan has not been disclosing its military death toll. But the government said Saturday that 14 civilians were killed in Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second-largest city, in an overnight missile attack by Armenia.

Officials say that more than half the people of Nagorno-Karabakh have fled their homes, though the martial law currently in effect bars men of military age from leaving the territory. Those who stayed behind include women who want to be close to their husbands, sons and fathers sent to the front lines. The coronavirus is far down the list of people’s worries, even though international aid organizations warn that cramped bomb shelters are spreading infection.

Alyona Shakhramanyan, 33, and her neighbors from the fifth floor of an apartment building in Shusha, the hilltop town, moved three weeks ago into a section of their dirt-floor basement. They fashioned a door out of a sheet of corrugated plastic and taped cardboard over the openings in the concrete walls. One of the women is sick — a cold, they say, that she caught because of the drafty air.

Ms. Shakhramanyan’s brother, who, like her husband, is at the front, has not been answering his phone. When she went outside to do laundry the previous day, she was frightened by the buzz of a drone. Rocket artillery hit the nearby Holy Savior Cathedral twice earlier this month, and the paving stones outside it were still stained with the blood of a Russian journalist critically injured in the second strike.

“No one helps us here,” Ms. Shakhramanyan said. “We are on our own.”

At the military cemetery in Stepanakert, the resting place of fighters who died in the 1990s, the authorities removed a retaining wall and dug into a hillside to make way for the new casualties. Amid the artificial-flower wreaths and simple grave sites on the freshly graded, rocky dirt, a man whose brother was gone spread his arms in grief.

“These are fresh — our guys,” he cried, his voice trailing off. “What is there to say?”

Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

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