During Key West Talks
For the Resolution of the Karabakh Conflict

Casualties Mount in the Long Battle of Armenia and Azerbaijan

New York Times, May 27, 2001

By Michael Wines

AGHDAM, Azerbaijan: Having lost her husband and her life's belongings in Azerbaijan's long-playing war with Armenia, Anya Huseynova says she has but one wish: to quit the disease-ridden refugee camp where she lives, 30 miles away, and return home to this city, which has been under Armenian control since 1993.

"My husband's only desire was for his homeland," she wailed, tears streaming down her face. "We can't live without Aghdam, our city."

Little does she know that she has lost Aghdam, too. After some 50,000 Azeris like Ms. Huseynova fled nearly a decade ago, the wave of looting that followed stripped this city to its foundations. Today, Aghdam lies in spectacular ruin, a weed-infested rubble of contorted metal and toppled walls. The graffiti-covered central mosque has been taken over by about three dozen cows. Not a single building stands intact.

"It was turned into the largest Home Depot on the planet," said Carey Cavanaugh, an American special negotiator in the conflict, as he wheeled his minivan into Aghdam.

Among Azeri refugees like Ms. Huseynova, "there is an understanding that the city is destroyed," he said. "But I don't think they have a concept of just how destroyed it is. Coming back and seeing this will be very hard for them."

The ruins are a result of the war that has been waged off and on since 1988 between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountain enclave of spectacular beauty whose population has been heavily Armenian for the last century but which lies within the territory of rival Azerbaijan.

Six years of hot war and another seven of barely enforced truce have further calcified enmities stretching back a thousand years and more.

Leaders of both nations have been loath to suggest that peace would require concessions and compromises, such as sharing or giving up land, that might be seen as weakness. Negotiations brokered by the United States, Russia and France have lately generated the outline of an accord to end the war. But the nature of that outline is itself a secret, and people on both sides have little concept of the hardships any final accord would bring.

In the absence of any national consensus on peace, the two sides continue to endure a truce that has been almost as devastating as the war that killed at least 30,000 people, and made refugees of perhaps a million more.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a land of thousand-foot cliffs, forests and volcanoes with scenery that mimics Switzerland in one moment, Tuscany the next. Soviet rule put a tight lid on the nationalist sentiments of the ethnic Armenians until the Soviet Union itself weakened in the late 1980's. A bloodbath followed. In Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, Azeris killed scores of Armenians, desecrated their cemeteries and evicted thousands more in pogroms.

Thousands of Azeris and their graveyards met similar fates in Nagorno-Karabakh, whose Armenians declared independence from Azerbaijan in late 1991. Armenian troops eventually poured into Azerbaijan, secured Nagorno-Karabakh, routed Azeri forces and, as a final insult, seized a swath of Azeri territory before a truce took hold in 1994.

And there matters stand. Azerbaijan staggers under the weight of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Armenian-occupied territory. Armenia, blockaded by Azerbaijan on one side and a hostile Turkey on the other, has slipped even deeper into poverty. At least 40 percent of its 3.5 million citizens have left since 1990.

After seven years of cease-fire, practically every village in Nagorno- Karabakh and the surrounding Azerbaijani countryside still bears deep scars: buildings with their roofs ripped off, barns and warehouses reduced by combat to windowless shells.

From Stepanakert, the capital of the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, a sharp tilt of the head brings into view the impossibly high town of Shusha, from whose cliffs Azeri troops lobbed shells that destroyed the town's silk factory, maternity hospital and many of its houses.

The Armenians eventually took Shusha, drove out the Azeris and filled their war-shattered apartments with roughly 5,000 Armenian refugees, themselves driven out of Baku. They live there today, largely because they have no other place to go. They subsist on sugar and oil from the government and on the harvest from their own gardens. But there is also no thought of letting Azeris " who have a rich history in the enclave " return as part of a peace settlement.

Bhahatur Hachatrian is a 70-year- old Armenian who fled here with his wife and four children after living in Baku for 55 years. The Azeris, he said, told him either to leave town or be killed. And a 62-year-old economist, who lost her husband and father in the war, could not even begin to fathom the prospect of an Azeri return. "If they lived here," she said straight-faced, "then where would we live?"

So it goes. For every Armenian insult to Azeris, there is a matching Azeri slap that Armenians will not forget. And for every Azeri like Tamara Apasova, who was driven from Shusha by Armenians, lost her husband, uncle and nephew in the war and has been reduced to living in a refugee camp in the Azerbaijani town of Aghjabedi, there is an Armenian like 64-year-old Zhena Agababyan, who was driven from Baku by Azeris and lost her husband in 1988.

Ms. Agababyan has spent the last 12 years with her daughter Sveta in the Armenian town of Spitak, living in a metal shipping container. "Here are our papers," she said, waving a passport and assorted documents in unmistakable desperation. "Help us " please help us. We left everything behind."

Most want the war to end. The problem, said Mr. Cavanaugh, the American peace negotiator, is that few of them want a peace their enemy can also accept. "I don't think people have been well prepared to accept compromises for peace," he said. "I think they think that they'll have peace on their terms."

The United States, Russia and France have been trying to broker a peace between Azerbaijan's president, Heydar Aliyev, and Armenia's president, Robert Kocharian. An April meeting between the two in Key West, Fla., produced the first concrete indications that a deal was in the works.

But both leaders appear to be ahead of their people. The mere hint of compromise has led to an outcry among some in Azerbaijan's political opposition, and both presidents have backed off a bit from their earlier enthusiasm for a deal.

In recent months, the negotiators have upped the ante in the peace talks, holding out the prospect that an accord will net Armenia and Azerbaijan a flood of foreign aid and investment.

"There's been a lot going on here. There's been a dialogue between both leaders in the last two years that we've never had before," Mr. Cavanaugh said. "Can they carry it to a conclusion? I don't know."

[A summit meeting between the two presidents scheduled for June in Geneva has been postponed indefinitely, the Armenian Foreign Ministry announced Saturday, according to Agence France-Presse. A spokeswoman said the meeting was put off at the suggestion of the sponsors, who felt there was no chance for the moment of achieving further progress.]

Some Azeris who fled Aghdam a decade ago have given up on regaining their old lives and have left the refugee camps to find work in Baku. Mostly they are the men, leaving the women in the one-room stone huts of the Aghjabedi camp where Anya Huseynova and 3,200 other homeless Azeris live.

In the camp there is some electricity but no running water. Ms. Huseynova's 22-year-old daughter, Parvana, says the settlement has been hit by malaria and that medicine is in short supply, which aid workers confirm.

Charities have either abandoned food and medical aid in favor of job training, or abandoned the camp altogether. There are an additional 15,000 refugees at other camps nearby who are as bad off or worse. Yet closing down Azerbaijan's refugee camps would be tantamount to admitting that the war with Armenia is over " and that Azerbaijan has lost.

Few of the exiles seem willing to settle for that.

"We didnothing wrong," said Hassana Rahman, a balding, moon- faced 40-year-old from a village near Aghdam. "We are ready to live as before. We want our homelands. Otherwise we're ready to make war to take our lands back."

Parvana Huseynova spoke forcefully when asked her view of the Armenians in trenches a few miles west. "We hate them," she said.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

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