The ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan proclaimed for humanitarian reasons on 10 October lasted not even 24 hours. Shortly afterwards bombings once again began to target cities, both in Nagorno Karabakh and in Azerbaijan. The conflict reignited and with it its tragic scenario of sirens, shellings, wounded and dead.
The war in the South Caucasus has however entered a new phase: fighting is no longer limited to aviation, drones and artillery. Over the last hours clashes have become increasingly intense. Fighting now also involves the infantry and special troops of both armies, which for days have been engaged in a bitter battle in the town of Hadrut, a strategically crucial point for the outcome of the conflict.
Hadrut is a small town of only 4,000 inhabitants located in the south-eastern area of Nagorno Karabakh. Whoever controls it also commands numerous villages and strategic postings in Artsakh including the road which connects the south of the region with the capital Stepanakert, also aided by the hilly surroundings.
On Friday evening news starts to spread through the capital of Nagorno Karabakh, causing the city to become prey to mass hysteria and psychosis: president Aliev has announced the siege of the frontier town, proclaiming a “historic victory”.
Artak Beglaryan, human rights mediator and observer for the Karabakh government, on Twitter denounces that a mother and her disabled son have been killed during the clashes. Social networks publish a series of posts confirming and denying the fact, with the two parties putting forward different versions and both declaring themselves victorious. The news is confusing and the seriousness of what is happening does not become clear until the following day: fierce clashes are occurring in Hadrut due the fact that Azerbaijani soldiers have infiltrated into the Artsakh territory.
Convoys of Armenian soldiers drive through Stepanakert, heading towards the disputed town: tanks and trucks carrying artillery weapons wind up the hills which from the capital skirt Shushi and go on to reach Hadrut, the key location of the clashes. To win or lose Hadrut means winning or losing the war. And the mobilisation of soldiers and volunteers headed towards the front proves it.
Along the road leading to the frontline we come across fighters, young and old, condemned to what they are about to learn is a nightmare in the heart of the Caucasus. Some of them are travelling towards the battle with their own Lada Niva, and already the artillery shots can be heard echoing through the mountains, a sign that the clashes are in proximity. Karabakh soldiers have set up artillery posts on every bend and the nearer you get to the frontline, the more the tension becomes tangible. Checkpoints and document controls, the complete ban of any videos or photos of troops and weapons; all questions on what the situation is like remain unanswered.
When we are only ten kilometres from the besieged city we finally understand why nobody wants to speak: an entire column of military vehicles of the Stepanakert army is up in flames. The burnt-out carcases of trucks are burn along the side of the road and the smoke spirals upwards from the vehicles bombed by the Baku army drones. Violence here has reached its climax, as has the fear which resides in the faces of the young men hiding in the trenches excavated on the slopes of the hill overlooking Hadrut.
The soldiers on the front react with terror at the hissing noise of a missile. They start to run and crouch down against rocks. A few seconds later, the explosion. Some soldiers cry out, others express their terror by remaining silent and make themselves smaller, seeking cover under their cartridge cases and helmets, hoping to disappear for a few seconds from a conflict which is driving hundreds of young men to insanity, infirmity and death.
The Azerbaijani artillery shots continue incessantly, showering on the hills and the road connecting Stepanakert with Hadrut. There is no doubt as to the objective of the Azerbaijani army: to destroy all communication routes and infrastructure to prevent Armenian forces from receiving reinforcements and supplies.
While on the mountains the bombings give no respite, in the city fighting takes place home to home. Snipers are positioned in the houses of the small ghost town and the death toll is bleak. Clashes are ongoing and it is impossible to enter the urban centre. The only information circulating about the events occurring in Hadrut is the news provided by the two governments: the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defence has put out a video showing the capture of the city by Baku forces, while Armenian media have denied this and declared that the city is under their control.
And amid the succession of belligerent and hostile proclamations, young men of the Armenian and Azerbaijani armies spend entire days and nights under the bombings, taking refuge in precarious trenches, in the sole company of their demons and a horror which, like an anthropomorphic evil force, has established its earthly fortress in the South Caucasus.