Civilians describe daily toll as war rages in Nagorno-Karabakh
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The war that Azerbaijan and Armenia are waging over the contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh is taking its toll on civilians of both nationalities. Our team spoke to an Armenian woman and an Azebaijani man who are both living in cities that have been bombed.
On September 27, open war broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia, thirty years after the first major conflict between these two countries over the contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Both sides have been firing mortars and missiles, which sometimes fall up to 60 kilometres from the frontlines, landing in civilian areas. By October 11, local NGOs were reporting that more than 500 people had died as a result of the conflict, including at least 60 civilians. A further 70,000 to 75,000 people have been displaced, some traveling to other regions and others fleeing the country entirely.
Russian authorities orchestrated a humanitarian ceasefire on October 10, allowing the two sides to exchange bodies and prisoners of war. But both the separatist Armenian Forces of Nagorno-Karabakh and the Azeri army accused the other side of breaking the ceasefire and renewed bombing.
This video, filmed on October 5, shows a cluster bomb exploding in the centre of Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. This use of this kind of weapon is banned under international agreements.
The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to two people whose lives have been drastically affected by this conflict. One was living in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, before she fled. The other lives in Gandja, the second largest city in Azerbaijan. These two cities have been deeply affected by the conflict.
"My family and I spend most of the time in the basement to stay safe"
Anush is Armenian. She is 35 years old and has four children. She fled Stepanakert on September 28, when Azerbaijani Armed Forces started bombing the town. One of her cousins and a close friend died in the attacks.
My mother-in-law woke me up around 8am on Sunday, September 27. The first thing she said was, “Azerbaijan is bombing us.” At first, I didn’t believe it. We rushed out to the balcony and saw bombs falling just two or three kilometres from our apartment. The children were terrified.
Utterly loathsome, as Azerbaijan shells one of the symbolic landmarks of Nagorno Karabakh, the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral. I am at a complete loss of words pic.twitter.com/MBvCKPSIfADr. Artyom Tonoyan (@ArtyomTonoyan) October 8, 2020
This shows damage to the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shushi on October 8. Azerbaijan denies having bombed the cathedral.
We took shelter in the basement and stayed down there until the next day. Then, we decided that I should take the children and leave for Erevan [Editor’s note: The capital of Armenia] where we have family. For the time being, my husband and my family have stayed in Stepanakert to see how they can help our soldiers. Lots of other families in Stepanakert did the same thing.
We try to speak with my family every day but the connection is really bad. For security reasons, we try not to talk about the war or where the bombs are falling. If we are speaking on the phone, we are afraid that the Azerbaijani Armed Forces will intercept the conversations and use the information to establish targets for their bombing campaigns. Sometimes, during these rare calls, I hear explosions in the background.
When the sirens sound, they know that an attack is imminent and they take shelter in the basement. Actually, most people spend the majority of their time in the basement. The worst thing is the uncertainty. We don’t know what will happen to our town or our country in the future, especially if the international community doesn’t intervene.
The Armenians aren’t the only victims of these clashes. Videos posted online on October 4 show that the Armenian Army fired missiles at Gandja, the second-largest city in Azerbaijan.
At least nine people died in the missile attack, according to local NGOs, and the market in the historic town centre was partially destroyed.
"These attacks are only targeting civilians”
Amrah Jafarov is 22. He lives in the Yeni neighborhood in Gandja, Azerbaijan, which is very close to where Armenian missiles dropped.
On the morning of September 27, my mom told me that the fighting had started again. While I was reading the news online, I heard the sound of Azerbaijani planes headed to the frontlines. I understood that this time was different [Editor’s note: Armenia and Azerbaijan have clashed regularly since 2008 on the border of Nagorno-Karabakh]. We’ve never experienced the effects of the fighting in Gandja before. It’s really the first time that war has reached our city.
This footage from a surveillance camera, which was shared by the Reuters news agency, shows the moment when a missile fell on the market in central Gandja on October 5.
The first attack took place on October 4. We heard several missiles fall in different locations across town. Some of them didn’t explode, others were intercepted. But one of them hit the home of a civilian on Aziz Aliyev street.
The attacks continued in the following days, both day and night. They hit the homes of civilians as well as the central market in Gandja and Aziz Aliyev, which are both densely populated areas. One person died and about a dozen people were wounded.
These attacks were meant to target civilians, not the military bases or airports that sit on the outskirts of Gandja [Editor’s note: Gandja International Airport, which is also a military airport used by the Turkish army, is ten kilometres from the town centre] There were no military buildings near the zones hit.
"Aside from the visible wounds, there are also invisible wounds”
The Armenian Armed Forces have continued to bomb Gandja, even after the ceasefire. This time, Khatai Avenue, another major street, was hit. Nine people died and a dozen more were injured [Editor’s note: Armenia has denied that it attacked Gandja after the ceasefire and, instead, accused Azerbaijan of bombing Stepanakert at this time].
Aside from the visible wounds, there are also invisible wounds. Many children and elderly people were psychologically impacted by the explosions. Our city is, in theory, far from the combat zone and so no one was prepared psychologically for us to be targeted. There is no alarm system to warn people about an imminent attack and the buildings haven’t been constructed to withstand these kind of attacks. When an attack happens, it is already too late-- there is no time to run, nowhere to hide.
This video shows a missile falling on Gandja on October 11, after the ceasefire was put into place.
Close friends and family living in Baku [Editor’s note: the capital of Azerbaijan], offered to provide shelter to my family and I but we declined the offer. Lots of people left their homes during the first war between the two countries [Editor’s note: between 1988 and 1994] and never came back. We don’t want to find ourselves in the same situation; which is why we don’t want to leave the city. People try to continue with their daily routines. We’ve been at war for nearly 30 years and we don’t want future generations to go through the same thing.
On October 12, Azerbaijan’s attorney general reported that at least 41 people had died and 207 had been injured in these attacks on civilian zones. At least 1,185 homes were hit.
Article by Ershad Alijani