‘All we need is more weapons’ A Russian TV journalist who came under fire in Nagorno-Karabakh describes the situation on the ground
The situation in the self-declared Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh is getting worse. On Friday, October 2, the Azerbaijani military started shelling Stepanakert, the breakaway republic’s capital city. As hostilities escalate, foreign journalists, including Russian reporters, are on the ground in the region. On October 1, Dmitry Elovsky, a deputy chief editor at the television network “Dozhd,” came under fire in the Nagorno-Karabakh city of Martuni. He hid in a bomb shelter and avoided any injuries, but four other journalists — a member of the Armenian publication “24news.am” and a cameraman for the TV station “Armenia,” as well as two reporters for Le Monde — were wounded in the violence. “Meduza” special correspondent Anastasia Yakoreva contacted Elovsky to learn more about what happened immediately before and after Martuni was shelled, and about the situation in Yerevan and Stepanakert.
Dmitry Elovsky says he escaped the shelling of Martuni without so much as a scratch. He and his crew came to the city when the breakaway republic’s press service told him it was too dangerous to visit Martakert, another town not far from Stepanakert. “They’re shooting over there,” officials said of Martakert and instead suggested Martuni, where “it’s quiet,” they explained.
Artillery fire from Azerbaijan disrupted Martuni’s calm on September 27 and 28, killing several locals, including a nine-year-old girl and an elderly woman.
When Elovsky and his colleagues arrived in Martuni, before they came under fire, they saw evidence of the shelling a few days earlier: “destroyed homes, still-lifes covered in sand and building debris, children’s toys, half-eaten fruit lying on tables — everything covered in dust, concrete, bricks, and stones.” Elovsky describes Martuni’s downtown neighborhood as sparsely populated. “It’s also harvesting season now. You can see ripe pomegranates hanging and pumpkins lying on the ground. They need to be gathered, but nobody is doing it,” he told Meduza.
By the time Elovsky and his crew arrived, the shelling seemed to be over, so he and his colleagues went about their business, even visiting a butcher’s shop for some fresh meat.
The group of journalists was shown three or four destroyed buildings, but Elovsky says it wasn’t clear how many more homes were damaged in the shelling. “This isn’t the frontline,” he explained. “It’s not a city where there are ‘Grad’ missiles deployed. It’s just an ordinary town in Karabakh — small, quaint, sleepy, and provincial — with a harvest season. There was no sense that we’d walked into somewhere in the middle of a war zone.”
Just before the shelling began, Elovsky says he’d interviewed an elderly man in town about missile fragments he’d recovered from his own courtyard. “I filmed a close-up of the shards and asked him if it was a ‘Grad.’ He answered, ‘Who the heck knows,’” Elovsky recalls. Afterward, his crew ended up downtown with some other journalists, trying to decide where to film their next segment.
Elovsky was behind the camera when the bombs started falling. He says he heard the “Grad” missile fire just before the first explosions. His crew was lucky: they were just a few yards from a bomb shelter. “It’s like an earthquake when a ‘Grad’ system comes online, but everything around you is shaking — not just the ground. The air shakes, the sky shakes, the walls shake, and the bomb shelter’s ceiling shakes. It’s like the whole world is shaking,” says Elovsky.
Nagorno-Karabakh’s press service asked Elovsky not to reveal the shelter’s exact location, but he told Meduza that it was somewhere in the center of Martuni, far from any military firing positions. Elovsky says the bunker accommodated several journalists, residents (including some elderly women), and a few local officials. There was electricity and the ceiling was just under six feet high.
Two journalists from Le Monde weren’t as lucky. In Martuni, the French reporters hired a local Armenian woman as a fixer and rented rooms in a building that had been shelled just days earlier. On October 1, with the Le Monde journalists inside, Azerbaijani bombs hit it again. The fixer was unharmed, but one of the reporters, Allan Kaval, suffered a wound to his abdomen. “He lost a lot of blood,” Elovsky told Meduza. “I later rode in the same car that brought him to the hospital in Stepanakert, and even the stains on the seat made it clear how much blood he’d lost.”
A missile fragment also injured a cameraman from the Armenia TV network, but he received first aid soon thereafter and appears to be in good condition.
The bombardment continued intermittently for about 90 minutes. After a half-hour of silence, someone telephoned the news crew in the bunker and said the road back to Stepanakert was clear. Elovsky says he didn’t jump at the invitation. “Just because the road wasn’t being shelled at that moment didn’t mean it wouldn’t come under fire 15 minutes later,” he told Meduza. “The trip takes an hour and anything could happen. You get into a car and that’s it. Do that and you can’t hide in a bomb shelter.”
When Elovsky and his crew finally tried to leave Martuni, finding a road out of town proved to be difficult. At multiple turns, their car encountered individuals standing in the middle of the street, directing traffic, acting as “human road signs.” “These old men just shrugged off the bombings and stood there, pointing the way like traffic controllers. ‘Can’t go that way — the road’s destroyed and you can’t get onto the highway,’ they’d tell us,” recalled Elovsky.
Anecdotally, at least, the locals in Martuni seemed mostly unfazed by the attacks. “Nobody whose home wasn’t destroyed said they had any plans to leave,” Elovsky told Meduza, adding that many of his friends in Yerevan actually seem to welcome the escalation in fighting. “They’re saying, ‘Thank God, finally everything will be decided.’ They can’t wait any longer and they’d rather see any development of the situation — any outcome — so long as there are results.”
Amid exasperation with the deadlock in Nagorno-Karabakh, the recent surge in combat has even mobilized Armenia’s “hipster” youth, says Elovsky, who didn’t see these Armenian volunteers in Nagorno-Karabakh with his own eyes, though he says his friends among Yerevan’s artist community named several mutual acquaintances who recently joined up. Many of these volunteers now heading to the frontlines, he told Meduza, are young men from Armenia’s capital with “trendy hairdos and oversized t-shirts who’ve never in their lives smelled gunpowder or fired a weapon.”
The latest escalation in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has killed people, of course, though reports about casualties have been conflicting. On October 2, Stepanakert announced that 151 of its soldiers had died since fighting intensified recently. The breakaway republic’s spokespeople reported a day earlier that Azerbaijani shelling killed 11 civilians and injured more than 60 people. Officials in Yerevan say fighting has killed at least two Armenian civilians. Baku, meanwhile, has reported 19 deaths and 55 injured persons among its civilians, without disclosing Azerbaijani military losses.
At the same time, officials in Armenia and Azerbaijan both claim to have inflicted significant losses on each other. On September 30, Baku said it had killed or wounded 2,300 Armenian soldiers. Two days later, Yerevan reported 1,750 casualties on the Azerbaijani side.
Elovsky saw no one killed in Martuni, but locals told him that four people died in shelling on October 1. Another 11 were apparently injured, including the journalists caught in the shelling that missed him and his film crew.
On October 2, one day after Meduza spoke to Elovsky, bombs started falling on Stepanakert. Before the shelling, the front line was still several dozen miles away. Elovsky said the stores in the city were open for business and some hotels even operated restaurants and bars, but everything went dark at night. “Everything was shut off,” he says. “People sat at home with the lights turned off, so they didn’t make targeting any easier.” The hotel staff told Elovsky not to turn on his lights at night until he’d drawn the curtains completely.
Stepanakert’s problems aren’t limited to death from above, says Elovsky, and the city now faces bread shortages. Yerevan is organizing humanitarian aid, but the supplies apparently lean heavily on cigarettes and sweets. For others on the ground, however, food isn’t the greatest concern. In his hotel lobby, Elovsky says he ran into the actor Hrant Tokhatyan, who starred in the TV series “The Last of the Magikyans.” When Elovsky asked him about the city’s bread shortage, Tokhatyan said they only thing lacking in Stepanakert is enough weapons.
Summary by Kevin Rothrock