|War-damaged houses, burnt out during the 1990s, still stand derelict [Matthew Collin]|
In the frontline trenches of Nagorno-Karabakh, the long-running conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis over the disputed mountain enclave continues.
In the village of Khramort, children make their way home from school for lunch, some laughing and joking with each other, others holding on tightly to their mothers’ hands.
But further along the rocky track which winds its way upwards towards the snow-covered mountain overshadowing the village, there is no more laughter to be heard, and no human life to be seen either.
Here, rows of houses stand derelict; burnt out during the war in the 1990s, when Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenians, backed by Armenia itself, seized control over the region from Azerbaijan.
Khramort is not far from the frontline, where the Karabakh Armenians and the Azerbaijanis have been dug in to their fortified positions amidst an uneasy standoff since the ceasefire in 1994.
Armen Grigorian, a local labourer who was chopping wood in his front yard, watched by his four young children, said he wasn’t worried that two armies were facing each other just a couple of kilometres away.
“After going through a war, there’s no fear in us anymore, and even if fighting did start again, where could we escape to?” he asked.
No final peace deal has yet been signed, and although Nagorno-Karabakh is now under ethnic Armenian control and claims to be independent, it is still internationally recognised as being part of Azerbaijan.
|Nagorno-Karabakh remains under Armenian control [Matthew Collin]|
Armen Grigorian’s garden offered a grim view of the nearby “ghost town” of Aghdam, which was utterly demolished after its Azerbaijani population fled when it fell to the Armenians during the war.
It’s a bleak symbol of a conflict which is estimated to have driven more than a million Azerbaijanis and Armenians from their homes, as well as leaving up to 30,000 people dead.
Grigorian insisted that Azerbaijanis should never be allowed to return to Nagorno-Karabakh, and that the two peoples should never live alongside each other again.
“Remember the history – when we lived together, there was war,” he said.
“If we live together again, sooner or later, there will be war again, so of course it’s better this way.”
A short drive from Khramort, Nagorno-Karabakh’s frontline troops were running through one of their daily weapons drills in the muddy trenches.
Many of them are teenage conscripts who are too young to remember the war.
But 18-year-old Rafik Melkonian insisted that he and his fellow soldiers were “ready to destroy” the Azerbaijanis.
“Our mission is to defend the borders of our homeland, protect families, and stop our enemies moving forward,” he said.
|Exhanges of gunfire are often seen on the frontline trenches [Matthew Collin]|
There are often exchanges of gunfire across the ceasefire line, and soldiers are occasionally killed.
Tensions have risen in recent months after a series of tough statements from Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s president, who has warned that if peace talks don’t deliver results, he could order a new offensive to retake Nagorno-Karabakh and areas around it which were also seized by the Armenians during the war.
Energy-rich Azerbaijan has been using some of its income from oil and gas sales to fund huge increases in defence expenditure.
“We are spending billions on buying new weapons and hardware, and strengthening our army’s position,” Aliyev said in November.
“We have the full right to liberate our land by military means.”
Georgi Petrosian, the foreign minister in the unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh government, said he was “concerned but not afraid” about Azerbaijan’s military build-up.
“We managed to stand up and find the strength in ourselves to declare our independence and defend our freedom in much more difficult situations than the one we’re in today,” Petrosian said, promising fierce defence of the self-proclaimed republic.
If fighting did resume, the Nagorno-Karabakh military would again be backed up by Armenian troops.
Serzh Sarkisian, the president of Armenia, is a former Nagorno-Karabakh military commander, as is Armenia’s defence minister, Seyran Ohanian, who recently promised that his forces would get involved “in all hot spots which might, God forbid, emerge”.
The dramatic landscape of Nagorno-Karabakh – its name means “mountainous black garden” – continues to inspire intense passions on both sides.
But away from the frontline, in the region’s quiet little capital, Stepanakert, there is a greater feeling of security.
|Stepanakert now resembles an ordinary post-Soviet town [Matthew Collin]|
Stepanakert has been rebuilt, with financial support from Armenia and the huge Armenian diaspora, and now resembles an ordinary, provincial post-Soviet town.
Its first western-style shopping mall opened recently, enabling affluent locals to buy imported Italian sportswear, upmarket beauty products and replica football shirts from Europe’s top clubs.
“This town might be quiet, but that’s better than when we were being shelled during the war and we had to hide in basements with rats running around,” said one young woman who was visiting the mall.
Petrosian said it was time to “move forward from survival to development”, but admitted that it would take much longer to rebuild the rest of this isolated and impoverished region.
“There is not a single place which has not suffered, and not a single family which doesn’t need social and psychological rehabilitation,” he explained.
Despite the hostile rhetoric, both Armenia and Azerbaijan insist that they are committed to the peaceful resolution of the conflict, and negotiations have intensified over the past year-and-a-half.
But even if progress is made, they completely disagree about the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh, with Azerbaijan maintaining that the region must not be allowed to secede.
“We will not give our land away to anyone,” Ramiz Mehdiyev, the head of Azerbaijan’s presidential administration, said recently.
The ethnic Armenians who now control the region, however, say they will never return to Azerbaijani rule.
“Time is irreversible,” Petrosian declared. “You can’t turn back the clock.”