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On the front lines of a brutal war: Death and despair in Nago-Karabak

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STEPANAKERT, Nago-Karabak On the front line, the stench is great. The remains of the fighters have been lying there for weeks.

In the trenches, there is fear. Armenians are vulnerable to Azerbaijani drones hovering over their heads and killing at will.

At the military cemetery, bulldozers have removed a hill. It is already lined with two rows of new tombs, along with rectangular holes that will soon be filled, newly excavated.

The three-week-old conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over a disputed territory in the Caucasus Mountains, where Europe meets Asia, has plunged into a brutal withdrawal war, soldiers and civilians said in interviews here on the ground in recent days.

Azerbaijan is sacrificing columns of fighters, the Armenians say, to achieve small territorial gains in the treacherous terrain of Nago-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave that is part of Azerbaijan under international law.

The civilians who have stayed behind live in their damp, unheated basements, converted in recent weeks to makeshift kitchens, and where some sleep in flattened cardboard boxes. Shells and rockets fired on cities in Nago-Karabakh and Azerbaijan have killed dozens of civilians and hundreds of soldiers and filled the nights with flashbacks and terrible booms.

In the town of Stepanakert in Nago-Karabak, which I visited over the past four days last week with photographer Sergei Ponomarev, artillery fire could often be heard in the distance. Late Friday the city itself was attacked. Air raid sirens and bangs and loud bangs sounded throughout the night as hotel guests ran constantly to the basement. At least one of the shells landed downtown, illuminating my hotel window with a yellow light.

Manushak Titanyan, an architect in Nago-Karabak, has already lost one of her buildings to violence: the House of Culture in the town at the top of Shusha hill, its roof is missing, part of it stuck in a tree across the road , plush dusty red seats, the stage curtain tangled between the rubble.

Now she fears for her three sons, 18 youngsters, who are on the front lines. She has kept herself busy sewing military uniforms at an emergency workshop set up by authorities at a factory in Stepanakert, the capital of Nago-Karabakh. When the building shook one last afternoon with the roar of a nearby explosion, she barely skipped a beat and continued to sew.

War is probably the most horrible thing in the world, Ms. Titanyan said. All the most horrible things man has ever created rest their head on their most horrible appearance.

Nagarag-Karabah has been effectively independent since Armenia won a multi-year war on territory in 1994, following the deaths of some 20,000 and the displacement of some one million people, mostly Azerbaijanis.

Azerbaijan launched its offensive on 27 September and began making small territorial gains, backed by intense artillery fire and precision drone strikes. Armenia’s limited air defenses have failed to stop drones, but its troops, backed by volunteers and recruits, have slowed Azerbaijan’s progress.

In some parts of the front, Armenians have dug new trenches and killed large numbers of Azerbaijani soldiers trying to advance on foot, according to Armenian accounts.

Azerbaijan, an oil and gas hub in the Caspian Sea, has deployed a high firepower, using drones and advanced artillery systems it buys from Israel, Turkey and Russia. But three weeks into the conflict, Azerbaijan has failed to turn that advantage into broad territorial gains, indicating that a long and punitive war is approaching. It could turn into a wider crisis, placing Azerbaijan’s main partner, Turkey, a NATO ally, against Russia, which has a common defense alliance with Armenia.

On Saturday, Armenia and Azerbaijan announced that they had negotiated a ceasefire, mediated by France, to allow the gathering of troops and the exchange of prisoners. But as with a Russia-brokered ceasefire reached a week ago, fighting has continued, with each side accusing the other Sunday of violating the ceasefire.

Their effort to fight the Armenians is primarily a war of attraction, said Michael Kofman, a military analyst at CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization in Arlington, Va., About the Azerbaijanis’ campaign. It is not really well organized with a clear theory of victory.

Upset, Armenia has thrown recruits and volunteers into battle. Some of the latter are veterans of the 1990s war, such as Artur Aleksanyan, a retired special forces colonel who said he was in hospital recovering from surgery when the current conflict began. He said he now leads a volunteer unit in the trenches in the north, fighting to stop Azerbaijan’s progress.

It has been 15 years since he last held a gun, said Mr. Aleksanyan on Saturday in an interview in Stepanakert, where he was taking a bag full of radio equipment before heading back to the front. He lifted his uniform to show the bandages around his abdomen, which he had to change eight times a day, and slammed his knuckles to the knees, in memory of his last fight.

But this conflict is not at all like the 1990s, Mr. Aleksanyan said. Then, the Kalashnikov rifle was the main weapon. This time, there are few small arms exchanges. From his units 17 days at the front, he said, 15 days had been spent in the trenches, taking cover from artillery bursts that came as often as every 20 minutes. There they are surrounded by craters where Azerbaijan has systematically destroyed Armenian tanks and other equipment, using modern suicide drones that swing over a battlefield before sinking into a suitable target.

They are so fast that we can not follow them, said Mr. Aleksanyan. I will not say that we are not afraid. We are all afraid.

Mr Aleksanyan and other Armenian fighters said that despite Azerbaijan ‘s formidable power, its infantry came under easy target as they tried to advance. Their bodies had not been collected, said Mr. Aleksanyan, and filled the battlefield with a foul odor.

You knock down a boy and they do not run away, said a soldier who turned from the front, Tigran Saakyan, wearing a brown knit sweater and tan under his military jacket. You knock down a second guy, you knock down a third guy, and they keep coming anyway coming like robots.

At a military base in Stepanakert, Mr. Saakyan and his comrades, some in their 50s, were waiting to be blessed by the military clergy. Narek Petrosyan, a deacon in the Armenian Apostolic Church, said that when relatives of soldiers call him asking for words from the front, he tries to give them hope, even if he knows their loved ones are dead. A special group of clerics is in charge of disseminating this news.

We tell them this is a holy war and we are prepared to sacrifice our lives for each other, he said.

More than 700 Armenian soldiers have already been killed, along with many civilians on both sides.

Azerbaijan has not disclosed its military death toll. But the government said Saturday that 14 civilians were killed in Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second largest city, in an overnight rocket attack from Armenia.

Officials say more than half of the Nagaran-Karabak people have fled their homes, although martial law currently in force prohibits men of military age from leaving the territory. Those left behind include women who want to be close to their husbands, sons and fathers sent to the front lines. The coronavirus is down the list of people’s concerns, even though international aid organizations warn that narrow bomb shelters are spreading infections.

Alyona Shakhramanyan, 33, and her neighbors from the fifth floor of an apartment building in Shusha, the town on top of the hill, moved three weeks ago to a part of their basement floor. They created a door from a corrugated plastic sheet and cardboard glued over the openings in the concrete walls. One of the women is sick with a cold, they say, which caught her because of the dry air.

Ms. Shakhramanyan’s brother, who, like her husband, is at the front, did not answer his phone. When she went out to wash the day before, she was frightened by the hum of a drone. Rocket artillery struck the nearby Holy Savior Cathedral twice earlier this month, and the paving stones outside it were still stained with the blood of a Russian journalist critically injured in the second strike.

No one is helping us here, Ms. Shakhramanyan said. We are ourselves.

At the military cemetery in Stepanakert, the resting place of fighters who died in the 1990s, authorities removed a retaining wall and dug into a hill to pave the way for new victims. Between wreaths of artificial flowers and simple grave sites in stepped rock dirt, a man whose brother had disappeared stretched out his arms in grief.

These are our cool boys, he cried, and his voice crawled. What does he have to say?

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