Azerbaijan Armenia: Karabakh’s smouldering conflict

Azerbaijan Armenia: Karabakh’s smouldering conflict
By Damien McGuinness

BBC News, Azerbaijan
16 December 2012

The pain from the war over Nagorno Karabakh still pricks Antiga
Gahramanova two decades later
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Antiga Gahramanova has been waiting two decades for a resolution to
the war which forced her from her home – but fears are growing that
the so-called frozen conflict of Nagorno Karabakh could spring back to
life, more ferociously than ever.

A faded portrait hangs on the wall of the tiny room belonging to Mrs
Gahramanova, who is now 80.

It shows a beautiful young couple with dark mournful eyes: Mrs
Gahramanova’s daughter and son-in-law.

Tears roll down her lined cheeks when she explains what happened to
them during the war with Armenia two decades ago: “Armenian soldiers
tied my son-in-law to a tree.

“And they burnt him alive, screaming. Then they fired a bullet into
the side of my daughter’s head.”

Mrs Gahramanova and her daughter’s four young children were forced to watch.

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The only thing that I want is to go back to my homeland, to die in the
place where I was born’

Antiga Gahramanova
Azerbaijani refugee
“Then they shot my six-year-old granddaughter dead,” she said, wiping
the tears away with her patterned headscarf.

“And they shot another granddaughter in the heel. They said it was to
teach us a lesson.”

She herself managed to escape. She hid under bushes for four days with
the remaining three grandchildren before making her way through the
snow, dragging the children with her.

For 20 years now Mrs Gahramanova has been living in a small room in a
crumbling Soviet-era sanatorium. It is here that she has brought up
her three orphaned grandchildren.

“The only thing that I want is to go back to my homeland, to die in
the place where I was born. I just want to be able to go home,” she

An estimated 600,000 Azerbaijanis, or 7% of the country’s population,
live similar existences in Soviet-era schools, hospitals or university
buildings – families of five, six or seven people sharing one tiny

Often there is no bathroom – just a couple of foul squat toilets to be
shared between hundreds of people.

In Armenia, meanwhile, around 10% of the population are refugees who
fled from Azerbaijan, according to the Armenian political analyst,
Alexander Iskandaryan.

Horrific atrocities were allegedly committed by both sides.

Today attitudes are becoming more entrenched: a whole generation has
grown up being fed a one-sided, and sometimes even false,
interpretation of history, without ever meeting people from the other
side of the border.

“For my students, Azerbaijanis are like something from the moon,” says
Mr Iskandaryan.

“They know more about Britain than about Azerbaijan. And the same goes
for young people in Azerbaijan.”

It was a brutal war over disputed territory, which broke out in 1991
amid the collapse of the former Soviet Union. The region of Nagorno
Karabakh was in Azerbaijan but it was populated predominantly by

Up to 30,000 people were killed and a million forced to flee their
homes before a tenuous ceasefire was agreed in 1994. Most of those who
were displaced during the war have never been allowed back.

Their homeland is now a war zone.

The disputed region is controlled by Armenia but Azerbaijan wants it back.

Hundreds of kilometres of deep trenches zigzag along the front line in
western Azerbaijan. It all looks like something out of World War I.

At regular intervals there are raised parapets, protected by sandbags,
with gaps to shoot through.

On the other side, just a few hundred metres away across no-mans-land
and the battered remains of a vineyard, you can see a raised bank of
earth, where Armenian snipers are stationed – presumably looking right
back at us.

Both countries have signed a ceasefire but an official peace agreement
has never been agreed. Peace talks meanwhile have stalled.

Soldiers say that shooting breaks out here on a daily basis, telling
us that there was an exchange of fire at this position just a quarter
of an hour before we arrived. Both sides blame the other, and say they
only shoot in response.

What is clear is that over the past two years at least 60 people have
been killed along the front line. Mostly soldiers, who on the Azeri
side are often baby-faced conscripts in their teens or early twenties.

Azeri conscripts like Elham Mammadov are drafted to serve at the front
“I’m very proud to serve my homeland,” says Elham Mammadov, a
19-year-old Azeri conscript, who has been stationed here at the front
for eight months.

“And every day, every hour, I want the war to start, so that we can
liberate our homeland from the Armenian aggressor.”

He may sound like he is ready for a fight but he looks nervous.

Azeri villagers are also regularly fired on by snipers. They tend
cattle and plough fields amid the remains of bombed-out villages
within metres of the front.

There are fears the situation could again spiral out of control and,
with more sophisticated weaponry available to both sides, analysts say
a return to war could have even worse consequences.

“There are now offensive missile systems capable of hitting Baku and
Yerevan, the capitals of Azerbaijan and Armenia,” says Lawrence Sheets
from the International Crisis Group.

“This is a conflict which has the danger of pulling in major regional powers.”

That would mean Nato-member Turkey on one side and Russia on the
other. And with Iran next door, and the region a crucial source of oil
and gas for Europe, all-out fighting would have serious implications.