Gurhan Iliyev was just a 23-year-old sergeant in the Azerbaijan civil defence force when war erupted with Armenia in 1992.
“We were engaged in heavy fighting with Armenian troops near my home village of Lachin when a mortar shell hit my friend’s trench. When I got to him I saw that his belly had been ripped open by the shrapnel and he was screaming in mortal pain. He died in my arms as I tried to stuff his intestines back inside him.”
With the international media focused at that time on the break-up of the former Yugoslavia and the genocide in Rwanda, this border dispute in the Caucasus region garnered very little press coverage.
Nevertheless it was a brutal clash spanning two years that left 30,000 killed – mostly civilians – 100,000 wounded and nearly one million people ethnically cleansed.
Armenia and Azerbaijan were both former republics of the Soviet Union and formally granted – along with Georgia – their independence with the signing of the Tashkent Agreement in May 1992.
Under the terms of the agreement all three republics were allocated the same amount of Soviet military material from which they could constitute their own independent armies.
But the transition from Soviet control to full independence was marked by bloody warfare over Nagorno-Karabakh – a stretch of mountains within Azerbaijan’s recognised border where a sizeable Armenian minority lived.
Taking advantage of Azerbaijan’s post-independence internal political disorder and using the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians as a pretext, the Armenian army entered the territory in 1992.
“We fought back, but our local defence battalion was short of heavy weaponry – we had only two tanks and 650 men,” explained Iliyev. “The Armenians were well-equipped and they were assisted by the Russian 366 Motorized Rifle Regiment. As a result, we took enormous casualties.”
After completely securing the region, the Armenians continued to push into Azerbaijani territory – securing not only a land corridor with Armenia proper, but also extending into central Azerbaijan to create a buffer zone.
In the wake of the military operations, ethnic Azeri citizens were forcibly removed from the newly occupied territories.
Having successfully ousted his political rivals, the then president, Heydar Aliyev, was able to solidify his leadership over Azerbaijan in 1993 and gave orders to create a formal army to deal with the crisis situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.
“We sent letters of invitation to 3,800 ethnic Azeris still serving in the Russian Soviet army and 2,600 accepted our offer. They became the nucleus of our new military”
Ramiz Najafov, one of the founders of the Azeri army
“This was a difficult task to perform as we were already supporting the civil defence forces (paramilitaries) who were in the process of fighting a war,” said Major-General Ramiz Najafov, one of the key architects of the fledgling Azerbaijani army.
“We sent letters of invitation to 3,800 ethnic Azeris still serving in the Russian Soviet army and 2,600 accepted our offer. They became the nucleus of our new military.”
Within a year the Azeris had managed to train and field six full infantry brigades and their deployment to the front reversed the Armenian advances.
The establishment of a balance between the combat forces turned the campaign into a stalemate and eventually a ceasefire agreement was signed in 1994.
After the ceasefire, the Armenian forces continued to fortify their positions in the occupied Azerbaijani territories and the Azeris constructed trenches around the disputed region and the root causes for the conflict remained unresolved.
What had been a little-regarded war would soon become an almost completely forgotten, but still simmering, flashpoint.
In the company of two other Canadian journalists and escorted by officials from the foreign ministry, we had been brought to the city to observe first-hand the ongoing plight of the nearly 800,000 Azeris who were forcibly displaced during the 1992-1994 war.
“Every IDP is entitled to a monthly ration which includes flour, rice, sugar and oil”
Senan Huseynov, the Azerbaijani director for refugees
At the Saatly train station in southern Azerbaijan sits a 4-km long stretch of old railway boxcars, which still serve as temporary homes for some 2,000 Azeri internally displaced persons (IDPs).
There is minimal privacy afforded by the fact that, on average, two families share a single boxcar. Despite 14 years of continuous residence, there are still few creature comforts beyond the basic necessities available.
“Every IDP is entitled to a monthly ration which includes flour, rice, sugar and oil,” explained Senan Huseynov, the Azerbaijani director for refugees. “On top of that they receive an allowance of 30,000 Manats ($6.50) per month to purchase meat and other foodstuffs.”
In addition to the Saatly boxcar compound we visited a camp of crudely constructed mud brick houses, in which approximately 10,000 residents lived. The standard layout for those small shelters is three tiny rooms totalling 240 square feet of space and housing up to seven people.
The luckiest of the IDPs are now being relocated into custom-built compounds complete with community centres and medical centres.
But with no real means of employment or proposed developments, the displaced Azeris remain in limbo – political pawns in a political process that has been bogged down for the past 12 years.
Armenians vote in Nagorno-
When the 1994 ceasefire was first brokered, the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) established the Minsk Group to oversee and monitor the agreements.
To date the United Nations has passed a total of four resolutions calling upon the Armenians to withdraw their military forces from the occupied territories as a first step to resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh situation.
The second phase of the resolutions is the immediate resettlement of the IDPs into their former homes. But with no threat of any international military force being deployed to enforce these resolutions, the Armenians have refused to pull back their forces.
Fact-finding missions and OSCE reports continually cite the fact that the Armenians continue to destroy existing Azeri infrastructures while building their own facilities inside the occupied territories in flagrant violation of the ceasefire agreement.
One of the key roadblocks to achieving a diplomatic settlement to the crisis is the fact that Azerbaijan and Armenia refuse to budge on their positions concerning a referendum on the future state of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Armenians want any decision on self-determination to be limited to the residents of the region. If the Azeris are returned to the area prior to such a vote, the Armenians would still represent approximately a three to one majority in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Azerbaijani position is that any such referendum must be decided by all 8.5 million residents of the country, who would certainly reject any separation of the territory.
Elmar Mammadyarov, the foreign minister, recently conceded that Azerbaijan would grant Karabakh the “highest level of autonomy in exchange for an immediate withdrawal”. However, the Minsk Group has grown frustrated with the lack of any real progress.
“They are not out purchasing attack helicopters right now, but if they start to do that we’ll know they’re serious about settling this by forceful means”
A Baku-based diplomat
In a statement released last month, US co-chairman Matthew Bryza chided both the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents for their failure to make any key concessions.
In response to the OSCE report, Aliyev resorted to sabre-rattling with the statement that he remains “committed to peace, but he cannot accept the current situation [of Armenian occupation]”.
Upping the ante
To up the political ante, Azerbaijan has recently embarked on a massive military build up.
“By next year we will have doubled our defence budget up to a total of $1.2 billion,” said Major-General Najafov. “We will be spending the equivalent of the entire Armenian federal budget just on defence.”
While such a build-up will certainly change the regional strategic balance, international observers say that this posturing is a long way from fruition.
“Most of the money being spent is to increase their own salaries, not to add to their tactical capability,” said one Baku-based diplomat.
“They are not out purchasing attack helicopters right now, but if they start to do that we’ll know they’re serious about settling this by forceful means.”