A fire burns in a hardware store after a rocket attack caused the building to catch fire on October 3, 2020 in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh.
A fire burns in a hardware store after a rocket attack caused the building to catch fire on October 3, 2020 in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh. © Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Karabakh Civilians Flee Fighting

Fears of rising casualties as crisis continues.

Tuesday, 6 October, 2020

Maryam Sargsyan, a 26-year-old from the town of Martuni in Nagorny-Karabakh, woke in the early morning of September 27 to the sound of explosions. She thought at first that military drills were taking place on the nearby line of contact with Azerbaijani troops, but after another powerful blast she realized that the situation was serious.

“The house rattled from the explosion. It was half past seven when I opened the window and saw a neighbour in her pajamas,” she said. “We looked at each other and said: it doesn’t look like drills, does it? At that moment, they hit again, and suddenly my fiancé called me telling me - Get ready, I’m coming to you! I don’t remember how fast we got dressed … we jumped out of the house and ran, and there was a powerful explosion again. I looked to the left and saw the first victims in our city,” Sargsyan told IWPR.

Martuni is located in the south east of the breakaway region, three kilometres from the de facto border, and saw the first civilian casualties - a woman and a six-year-old child.

“When we were already in the shelter, I realized that I recognised the woman lying on the ground,” Sargsyan continued. “I ran so fast, holding my niece tight to my chest. I didn’t know that I could run like that… From Martuni, we went to the village of Chartar and then to Shushi. I sent my family to Yerevan, to our relatives, because it was unsafe here,” she said.

Sargsyan, who works as a press secretary in the Karabakh court, said that shelling had now begun in Shushi, too. Her fiancé is on the front line, and she is desperately concerned for his safety.

“We were going to get married on October 24,” she said. “I stayed, because I thought I could be useful here. You look at the map and see Turkey, Azerbaijan and us, with our small army and our guys. The world, generally speaking, does not care about us, but we are strong. You cannot imagine how much our people believe in the army. We are being shelled literally right now, but we will always live here. I keep the keys to the Martuni apartment in my pocket so that I can return home as soon as possible.”

Fighting broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan on September 27, with martial law imposed by both sides. Yerevan reported that Baku had attacked Karabakh, while Azerbaijan said that it had acted defensively in response to Armenian artillery fire. Both sides have also reported civilian casualties and claim the other is targeting settlements.

In the worst violence seen in Karabakh since the four-day war of 2016, the de facto capital Stepanakert, as well as other cities and villages, have come under fire, with reports that Azerbaijani troops are also targeting infrastructure including power grids. The building of the State Service of the Emergency Situations has also been shelled.

Artak Beglaryan, the Karabakh human rights ombudsman, said that this was a gross violation of international humanitarian norms.

“I have just arrived from the hospital, some of the wounded are in serious condition,” he told IWPR. “Experience shows that when, during an escalation, Azerbaijan does not receive a proper response, including specific sanctions, it feels free and unbridled. Current developments should be considered according to this logic, therefore, the international community has to fulfill its obligations and do something about it, otherwise the responsibility for what is happening in Artsakh and possible humanitarian disasters will fall on the international community.”

The conflict dates back to the collapse of the Soviet Union when ethnic Armenians living in the Karabakh region declared independence, leading to a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. A ceasefire agreement reached in 1994 failed to resolve the conflict and intermittent clashes continued.

The Minsk Group, which includes France, Russia, and the United States, have tried to press forward with a peace process, but talks have largely stalled since 2010 and once again, civilians appear to be caught in the frontlines of the conflict.

Lusine Avanesyan, 45, a reporter for Artsakh Public TV, recounted how smoke and explosions had filled the skies over Stepanakert on the morning of September 27.

“I sent my children, six-year-old Eva, four-year-old Paruyr and two-year-old Aspram, to my parents in the village of Mushkapat in Martuni district," she told IWPR.  "It is safer there. My husband and my brother are on the front line. They are fighting for our right to live on this land. The war has entered our lives once again, but I continue to go to work, from 8 am to 11 am. We have three live broadcasts every day."

Kamilla Sargsyan, 15, told IWPR that she had been woken on the morning of September 27 to see what she believed was a drone flying by her house. Her family spent the next three days living in the shelter under their home.

“I got a call in the morning,” she continued. “I was still sleeping, so deeply that I could not wake up. I opened my eyes and saw something like an airplane flying near my window. Soon I heard the sound of an explosion. It passed our house and hit one of the buildings in [the neighborhood]. I got dressed quickly, my father, who had already gone to work, returned and quickly took us to the basement.”

Artsrun Hovhannisyan, a spokesman of the Armenian ministry of defence, said that long-range missiles had twice hit Stepanakert and the town of Hadrut.

“There are civilians injured,” he continued. “The buildings and civil infrastructure and institutions have been destroyed. Large and small settlements and infrastructure are being targeted.”

Armenian ombudsman Arman Tatoyan said that Azerbaijan’s air strike attacks had been accompanied by incitement against ethnic Armenians.

“All these attacks are initially accompanied by hate speech,” he continued. “There has always been a high degree of Armenophobia, but it has increased even more. The propaganda of hatred against ethnic Armenians since September 27 on social networks is overwhelming, the aim of which is to sow fear and panic among the population.”

On October 1, four civilians were killed and 11 were injured in Martuni. Two journalists from the French outlet Le Monde were also wounded, along with the cameraman of the local TV channel Armenia Aram Grigoryan and 24NEWS reporter Sevak Vardumyan.

“We were in the city council building,” Vardumyan told IWPR. “Suddenly there were sounds of explosion. I remember there was a table in the room, we hid under it. There were several blasts. Then we left the building and saw a burning car. Another wounded man was with us, he was taken to the Martuni medical center and then transferred to the medical centre in Stepanakert.”

Some residents of Karabakh have sought safety with relatives in Armenia.

Susanna Petrosyan, now 45, arrived in Stepanakert from Baku with her parents as a child in 1988 and has lived there ever since. She said that the current fighting meant she had been forced to leave with three of her children to stay with relatives in Armenia.

“I never left Karabakh, even during the war in the 1990s and the April war of 2016. Now I left for the sake of my children. The situation is extremely difficult, there is no communication. I cannot get in touch with my son, who was recruited into the army in July and is serving in the hottest spot,” Susanna told IWPR.

The crisis has reminded many of previous wars. Nora Grigoryan, who is hosting six people from her nephew’s family in her home in Armenia, recalled how 30 years ago she hosted her nephews, still children at that time.

“The children of my nephews have grown up, but the conflict is not being resolved in any way,” she said. “These children have never seen the war, but now they had to leave their village, their country. For what?”

This publication was prepared under the "Giving Voice, Driving Change - from the Borderland to the Steppes Project" implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

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