The Siege of Stepanakert
STEPANAKERT – Viktor is 21 years old, lively eyes, a well-spoken university student, he is younger than the war he is going to fight. Along the road which leads from Armenia’s capital Yerevan to Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno Karabakh, or Artsakh, as the people who inhabit this area call their land, we continually come across buses carrying dozens of volunteer soldiers headed for the front. Some are adults, others barely more than boys like Viktor, in camouflage and with machine guns strapped across their shoulders.
They smoke, they joke, they laugh and pose as they take selfies to send to their mothers and girlfriends. They almost seem oblivious to the barbarity of the conflict which they are about to face, or maybe they are completely aware to the point of searching, in the ritual of a group photo and a smile to send back home with WhatsApp, the last glimmer of humanity before facing atrocity.
What is happening amid the mountains of the South Caucasus has no precedent in the history of the Karabakh conflict: a war handed down like a death sentence, from father to son and from grandfather to grandson, for generations.
The origins of the conflict which is unfolding in the self-proclaimed independent republic of Nagorno Karabakh date back to the Soviet era when Stalin ceded the region — of which already the great majority of the population was Armenian — to Azerbaijan. He did this with the aim of making the nation an outpost to help export the Bolshevik revolution to Turkey.
At the end of the 1980s the request for independence from tens of thousands of Armenians was rejected and the cohabitation of the Azerbaijani community alongside the Armenian residents became increasingly difficult. Massacres and clashes began to occur on both sides, leading to an inevitable conflict which between 1992 and 1994 caused the death of over 30,000 people.
Only a feeble ceasefire put a stop to the war which ended with the final victory of the Armenians who occupied the entire region and proclaimed the founding of the republic of Karabakh. To this day the republic is not recognized by any country in the world, not even Armenia itself. Formally however, on the basis of international agreements and resolutions, Nagorno Karabakh still belongs to Azerbaijan. This legal deadlock is the reason why fighting continues.
It is raining in Stepanakert. It is dawn and a faint mist rises like the curtain on a tragedy. In so doing it reveals along the city streets the scars of the vicious bombings carried out over the past ten days in the entire Artsakh territory by the Azerbaijani army with Turkey’s support. The streets are deserted and those inhabitants who have not left the city live in underground shelters or in buildings solid enough to resist air raids and artillery bombings. In the city centre, run down gutted buildings stand like horror shrines. The rubble is heaped with children’s bicycles, clothes, kitchenware, broken dolls, a burnt pan. It is as if the painting of sweet and peaceful daily life suddenly been interrupted. It is the most atrocious aspect of a conflict. It is the the silent testimony of what life was like an instant before it all ended.
Two men walk among the burnt-out cars holding a bottle and a hose. They are looking for even the slightest droplet of petrol in the tanks because here, in Karabakh, after ten days of clashes, there is already a shortage of food and gas, and nothing can be wasted.
A prolonged, dull whistle can be heard crossing the sky. It is a Lara ballistic missile. It is 6:30 a.m. and the siege of Stepanakert has once again resumed. The regular sequence of bullets and explosions fill the air. Like a metronome punctuating death, artillery, aviation and drones mark the rhythm of the days, and as the bombs fall incessantly the few people who are caught unaware in the streets look for a last minute shelter so as not to be blown over by the shards and the blasts.
“They want to kill us all, all!”, cries and old woman wrapped up in a blanket from inside a bunker. Her name is Aida. Her eyes express terror and her soul is filled with fear of the Great Evil. She is shouting words which evoke petrifying thoughts: “They want to exterminate us, they want to eliminate all the Armenians!”. This is Stepanakert, but it feels like Sarajevo. It is 2020 but in the collective memory it brings to mind the tragedy of the 1915 Armenian Genocide. In these hours of fury and massacres in Nagorno Karabakh, history seems to have been crystallized in the age-old evil.
The howl of the anti-air raid sirens merges with that of the ambulances which after every attack rush to the areas hit to pick up the wounded and hastily take them to the city hospital. Mher Musaelyan, head of Stepanakert hospital, tells us that, when possible, once the injured have received First Aid assistance, the more serious patients are immediately transported to Armenian hospitals. His colleague Karen Daviziyan adds: “Following an attack we can have up to one hundred wounded, most of them with trauma to the arms, legs and splinters in their brains. We work incessantly and the missiles are not always precise; we are afraid they might hit us as well.”
Work at the hospital goes on relentlessly in the basements, where nurses and doctors have been living for days, sleeping on foam-rubber mattresses wrapped in woolen blankets. Entire units and even operating theaters have been set up. A missile flies over the hospital and explodes not far away.
Just a few minutes later an ambulance arrives, its sirens wailing. A woman is screaming in desperation and as soon as the vehicle door opens, the cruelty of the conflict reveals itself in all its ferociousness: an unconscious man lies on the stretcher. The assistant next to him at first urgently asks for adrenaline, then feels the man’s pulse. Next, with a solemn and extreme act of mercy, in a place where mercy appears to have been wiped out, he makes the sign of the cross and closes the old man’s eyes. Yet another death in Nagorno Karabakh, the state which exists but which officially does not exist, where today it is forbidden to live, and death is around every corner.