NAGORNO-KARABAKH - Thirty miles (nearly 50 kilometers) separate the town of Martakert and Stepanakert, the capital of the Republic of Artsakh. Mountains lie to the west of the pot-holed asphalt road that connects the two places, while an endless desert lies to the east, through which runs the border between Azerbaijan and the republic, which is better known internationally as Nagorno-Karabakh. The defensive line of the republic begins in the south, where the borders of Artsakh, Iran and Azerbaijan meet.
The trenches along the border look like something out of a movie about one of the last world wars. In ordinary times, the Armenian army in Artsakh would close this road whenever clashes erupted between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces, due to concerns that civilian vehicles might be hit.
In the old part of Martakert – the capital of the northeastern province bearing the same name – a group of three men told Haaretz that they wouldn’t leave, despite the fighting that was going on in the area. “We live on our land. We live and stay here for the sake of our children – we’ll remain here till the end of our lives,” one of them declared.
Fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh broke out on September 27, with reports of more than 1,000 fatalities. However, according to Armenia’s Ministry of Health, more than 2,300 people have died so far. This is the most serious escalation since the 1990s, in a region which is recognized by the international community as part of Azerbaijan. Besides the disputed territory, fighting also seeped into cities in Armenia and Azerbaijan, both of which claim sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Last week, leaders of the two countries, along with Russia, announced the signing of a cease-fire agreement that maintains the territorial gains made by the Azerbaijanis in Artsakh. The agreement, which involves Russia sending 1,960 peacekeepers to the region for five years, triggered numerous protests in Armenia, with calls for the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian. An assassination attempt on Pashinian by former officials was reportedly thwarted last week.
“We don’t know why the Azerbaijanis are fighting here. They’re doing it for money,” said the man from Martakert, uttering a curse in Russian. His friend joined the conversation, which was held before the cease-fire agreement had been announced.
“Money has a bad feature: in the end, it’s gone,” the friend said. “When it happens to the Azerbaijanis, they’ll enter negotiations. In the meantime, they want to cause as much damage as possible.”
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The main wave of people fleeing Martakert took place after three people were killed when a missile struck their home. But a few others, including whole families, decided to remain, trying to maintain some kind of routine. “They want us to surrender,” said another person speaking to Haaretz on a Martakert street. “They want to kill us. It’s our land – we have to defend it.”
The picturesque stone houses in Martakert, as well as newer dwellings, are totally empty. From time to time, one can discern men collecting some items of value they still have, trying to save what they can, after shelling left most of the population exposed and vulnerable. In some houses and in most apartment buildings, cellars have been turned into bomb shelters.
The intensity of the shelling, the strikes near the civilian hospital in the town center and the great damage done to many homes have turned Martakert into a living hell for many inhabitants. The hospital and civilian emergency medical apparatus were relocated to a military hospital on the outskirts of town, further away from the front line, so that work could proceed under safer conditions.
The Republic of Artsakh is a resource-poor autonomy, one of the few regions in the world that is conducting itself as an independent entity even though no other country has recognized the right of its Armenian inhabitants to independence.
The region’s Armenian population declared independence in September 1991, following three years of conflict between ethnic Armenians – who demanded to be united with Armenia – and post-Soviet Azerbaijan, which oppressed Armenians living in the region. The result was a bloody war that lasted until a Russian-brokered cease-fire in May 1994, as well as a volatile, simmering conflict that has again erupted in the present round of fighting. Both countries claim there were provocations from the other side that led to a loss of life.
When fighting broke out in September, the capital Stepanakert and other key locations were attacked with ferocity by Azerbaijan, with many inhabitants remaining without shelter. More than half of Nagorno-Karabakh’s inhabitants have their own farms. Wages and prices are low, but resources are scarce and only a few people have shelters and relatively safe cellars.
The journey from Martakert to Stepanakert proceeded in total darkness, with the driver turning on his lights only occasionally. Despite the darkness, the driver went very quickly. Concerns about a drone crashing or an aerial drone attack were greater than any fears about driving with no lights. Given the number of burned vehicles along the road, this seemed a reasonable assumption. At this point, it was unclear what posed a greater risk: snipers, drones, a stray shell or driving in the dark.
A few days after that visit, it was reported that the military hospital in Martakert had been hit in an airstrike. It was decided to return and so we covered those 30 miles again, at breakneck speed. At the hospital we met Aram, a military doctor who was in charge there. He said his family had left Nagorno-Karabakh following the shelling.
There were subsequent visits to the hospital. On one of them, before the cease-fire was announced last Tuesday, Aram suggested we sit down for coffee. On our way over there, we saw a few residents trying to save some of their belongings and take them to Armenia.
Aram began our conversation with a smile. “Usually I wear a suit,” he said. “Don’t think I always look like this.” He said that all of his family is from Artsakh, adding: “I sent my five children to Yerevan [the capital of Armenia]. It’s very dangerous here.” He took out his cellphone and showed me photos of them. “I miss them, but the most important thing now is to save lives,” he explained.
The military doctor explained that he doesn’t let the conflict’s political background affect his work. “Doctors here don’t distinguish between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. For us, they’re all people. We’re here to save lives; the courts can decide later what to do with them. We had a seriously injured person who died, we didn’t know where he came from. The doctors did all they could to save him. In the end, it turned out he was Turkish.”
Residents paying the price
Aram described the day the hospital was shelled for the first time. “It was after midnight; part of the team wasn’t here. There were more than 100 people here, lots of them wounded. I was in the middle of complicated surgery on a soldier who had been hit in the stomach by a drone strike.” At that point, a surgeon standing beside him pointed up and said in Russian: “There’s a plane.” At the same moment, two fierce explosions were heard. “Don’t worry,” said Aram cynically, “there’s nowhere to run to.” He called on everyone to gather in the basement.
“There’s no safe place in Artsakh,” Aram told Haaretz. “We don’t even seek shelter anymore … we can’t run from planes, so why try?”
A female doctor added, “We’re like zombies.”
According to Aram, in addition to attacks by Azerbaijan, which is supported by Turkey, doctors have to deal with another challenge that has almost been forgotten during the conflict: the coronavirus pandemic.
“This enemy is invisible and no less dangerous,” he said. “But we can’t deal with the coronavirus. We can’t test who’s sick and we don’t have enough manpower. Our health system is collapsing. Who’s responsible for human rights in Artsakh?” he asked.
“Every human being has the right to live in dignity,” he continued, adding that he had taken part in an Armenian humanitarian mission to Aleppo in Syria. “An Armenian, a Turk, a Jew – everyone has that right. Therefore, everyone around the world, including human rights organizations, has an obligation to come and see: who launched this war and what its results are.”
As countries around the world dragged their feet in trying to find a solution, the residents of this region were paying the price. “All the big states, European states, have been making demands for years using words – but that’s not enough. They only talk,” Aram said. “We who live here don’t see any change.”
Gilad Sade is a documentary filmmaker and photographer who’s been documenting events in Nagorno-Karabakh since 2015.