The last of Stepanakert | International

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"We are going to win," read a sign in Armenian with a clenched fist as a sign of struggle on a deserted avenue in Stepanakert, considered the capital of Upper Karabakh. The objective: to raise the morale of the Armenians in the war waged against Azerbaijan since last September 27 – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia signed on Monday an agreement for the complete cessation of hostilities that Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan defined as "Very painful" – the largest since the outbreak three decades ago of a conflict between the two that has its roots in Soviet times. The problem: reality belied the message of that poster and, furthermore, there was hardly anyone who could read it in Stepanakert. In this ghost town, marked by life in shelters, sirens and the frequent background sounds of bombing, there were practically only men. The young, to fight, and the elderly, because they refused to leave their homes. Women and children had fled or been evacuated to safer parts of Upper Karabakh and especially to neighboring Armenia.

Before the outbreak of war in this territory internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but populated and controlled by Armenians – with claims of self-determination – backed by Yerevan, Pargev Martirosyan, the archbishop of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Upper Karabakh, gave mass every morning to up to 500 people in the cathedral that stands in the upper part of the city, consecrated in 2019. Today, in the central nave, just a soldier and an old woman prayed on their own. Mass was celebrated downstairs, in a large bunker in which nine soldiers stood listening to Martirosyan read a text preparing the troops for battle. A military man passed with a censer between the benches, where the weapons of the military were mixed with the blankets of the civilians who sleep there these days. “My mission is to bring courage to the hearts of those who come here. They tell me that if they die, they want to do it as Christians. The enemy bombs us and we pray ”, assured the archbishop in the framework of a trip organized by the association of the Armenian diaspora Unión General Armenia de Beneficencia and in which this newspaper has participated.

Another of those who have resisted in the city is Arsen Mnatsakanyan. He felt a responsibility more practical than spiritual to open his little grocery store daily, where Coca-Cola, tobacco and toilet paper prevail. “I can't close now. People keep coming. There are very few stores open and if I close it would be a problem. It is not a question of money, but of commitment to people. In fact, if I see that someone needs it or comes from the front, I give it to them for free. This is our front line. There – he pointed his finger in the distance – there is one, and this is ours. Since the conflict began, Mnatsakanyan opened 12 hours a day and the other 12 he attended to whoever contacted him by phone. Its products come from stocks farmers in the area and what comes from Yerevan, the Armenian capital. “On the first day of the war, people came and bought everything. Then I restocked. I am missing some things, like candles, which ask me a lot so I don't have to turn on the light (because of the risk of being bombed) ”, he said while carefully writing down the carton of eggs that he had just sold on a list.

The store is located in the city's main open-air market, which was bombed on the 31st. A precarious blue tarp separates the damaged part from the one that is still standing. Today, the market is basically limited to one corner, where the Mnatsakanyan store is concentrated, some stacked wooden boxes where an old woman sells food and a small restaurant of jorovats (the local barbecue) that reopened hours after the bombing (it still has a display case broken by the shock wave) and from which Walter Avanesyan, 60 years old, came out with bread in hand. “I'm not afraid to come. You get used to the bombings. Also, this is our place to shop. I have two children at the front and I am willing to go if necessary, "he said. Around him, a few soldiers and a handful of civilians in poor health.

The market and the very few grocery stores, restaurants or hotels with open dining rooms have been the equivalent of luxury in times of war. The main way to get food has been the distribution center, where basic products such as potatoes, tomatoes, onions, sugar, coffee, pasta, shampoo or diapers were distributed free of charge. “About 2,000 people come every day,” explained its coordinator, Tigran Baghpanyan.

September 26, the eve of the outbreak of war, was precisely Stepanakert Day. As if frozen in time, a poster still congratulates its 55,000 inhabitants for it. Only about 18,000 remain in the city today and last Sunday the authorities of the enclave ordered the evacuation of the civilian population as a "temporary measure."

"99.5% of those who remain live in shelters," explained the human rights officer of Upper Karabakh, Artak Beglaryan. This is the case of Anaif, one of the few women. "What I'm not going to do is abandon my two sons now that they are at the front," he justified. Since the war began, she has turned her workplace (she is the head cook at Hotel Europe) into a refuge as well. She slept with her husband (who was disabled in the first war), her daughter and 20 other people in the establishment's underground bunker.

Life in Stepanakert, with sandbags in windows and some charred vehicles in the streets, passed punctuated by the echo of the bombings, the great majority far away. They were often heard more frequently than the passing of a car. When the cessation of hostilities came into effect, the Azerbaijani troops were within ten kilometers of Stepanakert, and Lernik – who works in a kitchen feeding soldiers – did not consider that his city might fall. “It is just not an option. They are still far away and we have soldiers defending us. I am an Armenian from (the self-proclaimed Republic of) Artsakh (the Armenian name of Upper Karabakh) and I will always stay here ”, he declared.

In his office in Stepanakert, the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Artsakh, Masis Mayilyan, spread a map on the table and marked with regret the territories taken by the Azerbaijanis. “These are difficult times, but not desperate. I like to be optimistic ”, he affirmed. Last Saturday, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of Turkey, a firm ally of Azerbaijan, assured that Baku was "close to victory." A day later, the Azerbaijani leader, Ilham Aliyev, announced that his troops had taken Shusha (Shushi for Armenians), the second city of Upper Karabakh and this Monday Vahram Poghosyan, spokesman for the leader of the enclave, confirmed this on Facebook. Hours later, the ceasefire arrived. In addition to its historical and cultural value for both sides (the Azeris were the majority there before the war of 1988-1994 and, for the Armenians, it houses the now bombed Upper Karabakh Cathedral), its strategic importance, located at a height of 10 miles south of the main city, it was key. "Whoever controls Shusha controls Stepanakert," Upper Karabakh President Arayik Harutyunyan warned last month.

In Stepanakert, the Soviet-era memorial dedicated to those who died in other wars has been improvised these days with some 40 graves. Some have the name and date of birth and death – printed on paper or painted on a wooden cross – and wreaths of flowers. Others, the most recent, are just a mound with a nameless rock as a tombstone and a handful of loose flowers that are still fresh.

It is impossible to know the number of deaths in this almost month and a half of conflict in which three ceasefires were agreed that barely lasted hours. The Armenian side has reported about 1,200 military personnel and dozens of civilians. Azerbaijan hides its number of deceased military personnel and also speaks of dozens of civilians. On the 22nd, the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, estimated the total number of fatalities at "close to 5,000".

International human rights organizations have also confirmed the use by both parties (Azerbaijan, on at least four occasions; Armenia, on one) of cluster bombs, containing hundreds of bomblets that remain active for more than 40 years, with the consequent danger to the civilian population. Neither country has signed the 2008 Oslo Convention that prohibits them. Armenia also accuses Baku of the use of white phosphorus.

Climbing

It has been the largest escalation of the conflict in Upper Karabakh since the 1988-1994 war, which left 30,000 dead, tens of thousands of refugees and ended without a peace agreement, with Armenian control of Upper Karabakh (as an independent state de facto) and seven other Azeri provinces around it as a “security buffer zone”.

The conflict originated a century ago, when the Soviet authorities decided to turn the Upper Karabakh, with an ethnic Armenian majority, into a oblast, an autonomous region, and frame it in the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. In 1988, the Parliament of the oblast approved to join Armenia and clashes broke out. When, when the USSR disintegrated in 1991, Azerbaijan declared its independence, the Armenian majority of the region approved in a referendum – rejected by Baku and boycotted by the Azeris – the secession and the creation of the Republic of Artsakh, which has not recognized any country in the world.

The war between the two former Soviet republics ended in 1994 with a ceasefire that has since been frequently violated (including a four-day war in 2016), while the OSCE Minsk Group – co-chaired by Russia, France and states United – was unsuccessfully seeking a negotiated solution to the conflict. This is just one of the arguments of Azerbaijan. “For 30 years there were negotiations without giving us back an inch of the occupied territories. Nobody forced the aggressor to leave our land and comply with the UN resolutions. Now the conflict is decided by military means, "Aliyev said last month.

Three decades in which Azerbaijan – a country three times as large and populated as Armenia – has taken advantage of the income from the sale of oil and gas to modernize its Armed Forces to generate the remarkable imbalance that is reflected these days on the battlefield. In the last decade, Baku allocated 24,000 million dollars (20,300 million euros) to military spending and Armenia, 4.700 million, according to data from the International Institute for Peace Studies in Stockholm (SIPRI).

This is exemplified by the case of Marat Babagulyan, a 19-year-old Armenian soldier who was recovering in Yerevan from the wounds he suffered in the war. He was doing military service in Upper Karabakh when the fighting broke out. He spent two weeks protected in a bunker with his companions until on October 10 he was required to reinforce the defense of the city of Hadrut, now in Azerbaijani hands. He didn't even arrive: his convoy was bombed on the way. “Projectiles rained down. I don't know what it was. The force of the first explosion took the weapon from me. I don't even know who got me out of there ”, he remembered after undergoing hip surgery.

"There is little doubt that Armenia is losing this war, both because of the significant loss of territory and of tanks, rocket systems and military vehicles," explained Richard Giragosian, director of the Yerevan. think tank Center for Regional Studies, based in the Armenian capital. "We are seeing a drone war alongside a WWI-style warfare, with trenches and infantry on the ground." Azerbaijan has fought as in the 21st century and Armenia as in the 20th, confident to the end that their knowledge of the mountainous terrain will turn the fight around in the melee.

Three words were often repeated these weeks in Upper Karabakh: drones, Turkey and mercenaries. The former became the nightmare of the Armenian forces, which mainly rely on air defense systems from Soviet times, ineffective in the face of this new weapon. On the one hand, there are the multipurpose Bayraktar TB2, made in Turkey. On the other, the harop Israelis suicide drones used successfully primarily to crash into Armenian heavy weaponry. “Every day I saw about four drones directed both against us and against the civilian population. Some reached the goal. Others of us managed to tear them down, ”recounted a 24-year-old volunteer who spent a month at the front, Anushavan, in a hotel in Yerevan.

As for Turkey, its strong support for Azerbaijan has been decisive. Turkish exports of drones, rocket launchers and other military equipment to Baku have increased six-fold this year and several military analysts saw Ankara's hand squarely in driving the strategy and equipment.

Another of the elements most mentioned by Yerevan has been the presence of Syrian and Libyan mercenaries on the Karabakh front paid for with Turkish money, pointed out by the Armenian, French and Russian intelligence services, as well as by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which ensures that some 250 have died in combat. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, put them on the 3rd at "around 2,000" and the Armenian authorities raised the number to 5,000. Ankara and Baku denied its existence.

At the beginning of the war it was feared that Russia, which has a military agreement with Armenia, would get involved and generate a scenario similar to that of Syria and Libya, where Moscow and Ankara are on opposite sides. The Kremlin, however, remained on the sidelines, recalling that Upper Karabakh was not covered by the defensive pact and defining its relations with Yerevan and Baku as "equal". The feeling among Armenians is of having been left out in the open by their great ally when they needed it most. “We fought against three enemies: Turkey, first; foreign fighters brought by Turkey from Idlib or Libya; and, last but not least, Azerbaijan, ”noted Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanian.


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