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The thin, permanent line On the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh's new, old war

Source: Meduza
Photo: Vaan Stepanyan / PAN Photo

It's been roughly a week since bullets and bombs started flying across the border between Azerbaijan and the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. In spite of diplomatic efforts by international mediators, a lasting resolution to the decades-old conflict is nowhere in sight. Azerbaijan's defense minister has ordered preparations for an attack on Stekanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh's capital, unless its adversary fully commits to a new ceasefire agreement. Meduza's special correspondent Ilya Azar traveled to Nagorno-Karabakh to see how locals are responding, and find out more about how Azerbaijan views the conflict.

A funeral

On April 4 in the Nagorno-Karabakh village of Gerger, in the Martuni District, locals buried the body of 12-year-old Vaghinak Grigoryan, who was killed on the first day of resumed violence in Nagorno-Karabakh

Vaghinak was born in Gerger, but lived with his parents in a military community on the outskirts of a village called Chartar. His father is an officer in a military unit quartered in the same community. On the morning of April 2, Vaghinak set off for his classes with his brother and other schoolchildren.

"It was a peaceful morning. The kids were walking to school, and no one could have imagined a thing like that would happen. The bomb hit the schoolyard, killing Vaghinak and injuring his brother. He was a very nice and diligent boy, good at his studies and always respectful to grownups," recalls Margarita Balayan, a local woman whose grandson was one of Vaghinak's schoolmates.

She does not exclude the possibility that "the Azeris drop bombs on schools on purpose, choosing the most vulnerable spots to hurt us as much as they can." This opinion is shared by Vahram Balayan, the deputy speaker of the NKR National Assembly, who attended the boy's funeral. "What they want is to spread panic among the people, but they will not succeed," he told me.

"His death is a loss not only for his family, but for all of us. The entire village has united in mourning; we do not seek war, and we would not want this even for our enemy," continued Balayan, who had moved to Nagorno-Karabakh from Chechnya and works as a nurse. Although the shells were falling short of Gerger, you could still hear the pounding, according to Margarita Balayan. Indeed, while I was there, I heard the rumble of distant artillery.

The funeral service for Vaghinak Grigoryan was held at his family's house, located on the village's main street, which stretches across a mountain slope. Dozens of cars were parked by the road, and about 150 people gathered in and in front of the house.

When the boy's body was carried outside in an open casket and placed on a special table in the yard, the women gathered around him and started sobbing, some of them literally howling. Most men stood at a distance, fighting their own tears. After a while, the coffin was loaded onto a Soviet minibus and slowly driven uphill, to the cemetery, followed by a procession of crying, speechless villagers.

A farewell ceremony for Vaghinak Grigoryan. April 4, 2016
Photo: Ilya Azar / Meduza

Wounded children

Vaghinak Grigoryan's twin brother, Gevorg, and their playmate, Vardan Andreasyan, were also caught in the shelling that hit the schoolyard. Both children were seriously wounded, but they survived. On April 4, they were recuperating at the Arevik Rehabilitation Center for Children in Stepanakert. As Dr. Mesrop Margaryan, the center's chief medical officer, told me, when it became known a shell had hit the Chartar school and children were injured, a CCT ambulance headed for the village right away (the village is about an hour's drive from the capital).

"We operated on Gevorg Grigoryan, who suffered from extensive soft tissue damage on his left thigh and massive blood loss, back in Chartar, and then transferred him here. Vardan Andreasyan had a splintered fracture of the right femur and massive soft tissue damage on his right thigh. He was brought here by the CCT ambulance immediately and operated on at the center," said Dr. Margaryan, who says Vaghinak Grigoryan was injured fatally and died on the spot.

On April 4, Andreasyan underwent a second surgery and had his leg put in a cast in a Hoffmann external fixation system. Although Arevik's CMO described the boys’ condition as critical but stable, I was allowed to speak to them. Gevorg was not yet aware of his brother’s death.

The boys share the same ward and their beds stand side by side. Gevorg speaks very softly and does not have much to tell: "We had reached the school when we heard two explosions. One of them was very close to us, and we fell down." His friend, Vardan, looks a bit more alert, but he can't add much to this brief account of the morning of April 2: "We were in the yard when the explosion happened. I fell on my back. I also remember my mother and brother running toward me, and how I was taken to hospital."

The wounded children in the Stepanakert republican medical center. April 4, 2016.
Photo: Areg Balayan / PAN Photo


That same day, I passed through the village of Chartar, where Vaghinak Grigoryan had been killed two days earlier. Daily life had resumed in the village, with women and children peacefully strolling along the streets and sitting on benches in front of their houses. According to Vahram Balayan, deputy speaker of the NKR National Assembly, children have been evacuated only from the military community.

I asked Aram Grigoryan, deputy of the Nagorno-Karabakh National Assembly and chairman of the Healthcare Commission, who had driven us to Arevik, whether the NKR was concerned that the bombing of Chartar might resume.

"As a result of the response measures we took, they have changed the direction of their fire," reported Grigoryan with a note of confidence.

"They [the Azeris] need to be given an earful, so that they understand what's what," added the doctor of the children's rehabilitation center.

"They have been given plenty, but they don't seem to have gotten the message," agreed the deputy.

"Still, why hasn't Chartar been evacuated?" I asked.

"Only the villages along the [NKR-Azeri] border have been evacuated," replied the doctor. "With long-range rocket launchers like the [BM-30] Smerch, they can strike as far as 80–120 km, reaching any spot in Nagorno-Karabakh. What is the point of evacuating because of shelling? We have civil defense programs, and people know where to go and how to protect themselves in the event of a bombardment."

"But today children are off to schools again. What if there is another attack?" I asked again.

"This war can go on for months on end. In the meantime, are we supposed to stop living? The authorities have made a decision. I agree that it’s a risk, but I am still convinced that it’s the right choice. All the more so, because children can’t be kept indoors, and the schools are safer than the streets," added Dr. Margaryan.


Except for Vaghinak Grigoryan and three senior citizens killed in the village of Talish, whose deaths were reported to Meduza on April 4 by the NKR National Assembly deputies Aram Grigoryan and Gagik Bagunts, there have been no further civilian casualties in Nagorno-Karabakh. This information was confirmed at the briefing by Colonel Viktor Arustamyan, head of the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army's operations department. At first, he mistakenly mentioned "two babies dead" in the vicinity of Chartar, but—after I corrected him—he admitted it had been a slip of tongue.

On the evening of April 4, Colonel Arustamyan released an update on casualties among the NKR Defense Army personnel. According to the Defense Ministry, the losses of Nagorno-Karabakh troops amounted to 20 men dead (including six officers) and 72 wounded (eight of whom were officers) as of April 4, 11:00 a.m. Another 26 soldiers have gone missing in action.

Recruiting volunteers in Stepanakert. April 4, 2016
Photo: Karo Sahakyan / PAN Photo

Evidently, these figures do not include the seven killed by an airstrike on a bus that was transferring Armenian volunteers on April 4 in the Martakert District, in the northern sector of the border. (An unmanned Azari drone reportedly attacked and destroyed a bus carrying a group of volunteers in that area.)

Volunteers, who keep coming to Stepanakert from all around Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, gather in the central square of the capital. Here, they leave their contacts at the Union of Artsakh Warriors, which acts as the reserve force of the unrecognized NKR Army, and wait for a summons to the frontline.

"As early as on the night of April 2, we sent 2,000 men from here. Since then, a few more parties have been dispatched. The next dispatch can occur in five minutes, or might as well be a day later," said Eduard of the Union of Artsakh Warriors.

At any time of day, a few dozen volunteers in camouflage are standing in the central square, waiting for their turn. From here they're sent along to the Defense Ministry and handed a weapon.

"Who else, if not us?" a volunteer told me, not beating around the bush.

The situation at the frontline

Colonel Arustamyan also gave an account of the situation at the frontline. He says artillery is in use along the entire line of contact, with the most intense clashes underway in the northern sector, near Martakert, and in the southern sector, in the vicinity of Hadrut. Russian journalists who visited Martakert on April 4 told me that shelling was more accurate on that day than the day before, including an attack on the road from Stepanakert, while a number of aerial drones had been spotted above the NKR positions.

The army spokesperson also claims that Azeri forces haven't penetrated NKR territory anywhere more than 300 meters (980 feet). No population centers have been taken, but Azeri troops retain control over eight NKR battle positions and a few hills in the north. "These high grounds are of no value, so the commanders will not sacrifice their soldiers to obtain some 200 or 300 meters of terrain," the NKR Army representative said.

Colonel Viktor Arustamyan, NKR Army representative, reports casualties on the part of Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan. April 4, 2016
Photo: Hrayr Badalyan / PAN Photo

Deputy Grigoryan told me that the villages of Talish and Mataghis, which Azerbaijan claimed to have occupied, were in fact taken by the NKR troops. According to Grigoryan, "the situation at the frontline is heating up." "They have already been using heavy flamethrower systems against us, the TOS-1 Solntsepyok. Although our artillery has managed to knock it down, they have 18 such units in their inventory, which came with the latest arms supply purchased from Russia," the deputy said.

The NKR military asserts that the army of the unrecognized state has been highly efficient on the battlefield: losing just seven tanks during three days of confrontation, while destroying 18 Azeri tanks, 3 infantry fighting vehicles, 6 unmanned aerial vehicles, 2 helicopters, and a Grad multiple rocket launcher. 

The NKR Defense Ministry calls the current events at the frontline “a war.” "The use of ground forces, artillery, and airpower meets the definition of war," said Colonel Arustamyan. Other indirect evidence of the situation's graveness is his mention that "100 percent of all the Defense Army forces are presently on combat alert duty at the line of contact."

Azerbaijan's perspective

Unsurprisingly, Azerbaijan's telling of recent events is nothing like what the NKR Defense Army describes.

On April 4, Baku declared that, "during the past few hours" of the conflict alone, it had managed to "neutralize up to 170 soldiers and 12 armored vehicles of the Armenian side," with the adversary's total death toll approaching three hundred. In the meantime, Baku's own casualties were estimated at 12 soldiers—no more than on the first day of the conflict.

Both sides accuse each other of lying for propaganda purposes. In his interview with Meduza, Khikmet Gadjiev, the spokesman for Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry, alleged that the killing of 12-year-old Vaghinak Grigoryan "could have been organized by the Armenian forces and needs to be looked into."

On April 4, Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry made the following statement: "Armenian troops are suffering substantial losses and withdrawing from their positions, leaving weapons and ammunition behind. The enemy is retreating in panic. Fortifications are underway at strategically valuable and favorable positions we have retaken." Admittedly, this information has not been verified by any independent sources. One Russian journalist, interviewed by Meduza in person, was invited to appear on Azerbaijani television on April 4, but he was politely interrupted and dismissed, after describing the calm in Stepanakert, when asked about the alleged panic in Nagorno-Karabakh's capital.

The wounded Sanan Velizade in an Azeri hospital. April 3, 2016
Photo: Tofik Babayev / Chine Nouvelle / SIPA / Scanpix

Azerbaijan also aggressively accuses the NKR Army of shelling its villages near the border, which has destroyed schools and injured civilians, including children. In particular, it has been reported that one villager, Sakhib Veliyev, and his 13-year-old grandson, Sanan Velizade, were wounded by an artillery strike on the village of Seydimli. The boy is in the hospital, and he has already received a visit from the Azerbaijani education minister. According to the Azeri media, during an artillery attack on April 2 against near-border villages in the Aghdam District, a shell hit Guliev School, completely demolishing "the roof on one of the buildings, two classrooms, a staff room, and a hall."

The war rolls on

After the international community called for an immediate ceasefire, Azerbaijan officially declared a unilateral truce on April 3. The bombardments haven't stopped, however, and Baku says Nagorno-Karabakh is responding to continued attacks by Azerbaijan. On the evening of April 4, Azerbaijan went so far as to threaten an offensive against Stepanakert itself.

Karen Mirzoyan, the unrecognized NKR foreign minister
Photo: Vahan Stepanyan / PAN Photo

"The Azeri side is ready for a ceasefire, but Armenian troops must be withdrawn from the entire territory of Azerbaijan, restoring the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders," declared Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry spokesperson on April 4. 

One day earlier, Karen Mirzoyan, foreign minister of the unrecognized NKR, reaffirmed that such a solution is unacceptable: "Karabakh belongs to the Karabakh Armenians, who declared their independence in 1991. Karabakh's fate lies in the hands of its people, who have chosen the path of a sovereign nation, and we have no intention to turn away from this path."

On April 5, defense officials from Armenia and Azerbaijan met in Moscow and reached a ceasefire agreement. Despite the truce, there are still reports of continuing violence in the region.

This text was translated from Russian by Ksenia Khudadyan.

Ilya Azar


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