In Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno Karabakh, time marches on, even as the locals seem stuck in place.
Try as they might to lead normal lives, there is no escaping the conflict with Azerbaijan, now in its 26th year. Men in military uniforms are omnipresent and the physical reminders of war are inescapable. Stepanakert was pummelled by Azerbaijani shellfire during the hot phase of the conflict in the early 1990s, and although much of the city has been rebuilt, plenty of buildings still bear the scars of those bombardments.
There is also a dreary mood hanging over Stepanakert’s civilian population. After dark on a recent evening, locals congregated at the small circle of fountains behind the Stepan Shahumian monument, seeking to relax. Some sat on benches staring blankly into space. Nearby, a brass band played old Soviet marching tunes, the wild-haired conductor waving his arms as if to drum up some enthusiasm among the small crowd of onlookers. Around the circle, street vendors erected displays of simple toys, including a khaki-clad, wind-up soldier that crawled along on its belly, looking through the scope of a machine gun.
A ceasefire agreement has been in effect for the past 20 years, yet Armenian and Azerbaijani forces continue to exchange fire on a regular basis. The latest casualty was an Armenian soldier, identified as David Navasardian, killed during a firefight along the so-called contact line on October 1. Some of the fiercest fighting in recent memory occurred during the summer, resulting in dozens of killed and wounded.
For many in Stepanakert, peace is an abstract concept that they have never experienced. They hope to have it one day, but few have any illusions it will come soon. Locals want Karabakh to be internationally recognized as independent from Azerbaijan, while officials in the Azerbaijani capital Baku adamantly oppose such status for the territory. This seemingly unbridgeable gap in thinking is responsible for the ongoing stalemate in peace talks.
The local consensus is summed up by Susanna Petrosian, who heads a local nongovernmental organization called the Artsakh Youth Development Center; international recognition must be pursued “by all means possible, as there is no other option for us,” she said.
With no clear way to resolve the independence question via negotiations, many Karabakhi Armenians in Stepanakert and elsewhere seem resigned to staying on a permanent war footing. In a newly opened hotel, when not occupied with the trickle of visitors, employees passed time by sitting in the foyer and looking at social media websites when the sporadic Internet connection allowed. “We want a normal life, modern things … but it is difficult,” the teenage day manager, who identified herself only as Liana, said. “Every day since I was born, there is fighting.”
“Fear is always there,” the receptionist at another hostel called The One Way noted. “We know that shots are fired very often on the border, but thank God we only know that from the media.”
Not everyone is so accepting of the status quo. Vera Grigorian, who heads the Union of Relatives of the Artsakh War Missing in Action Soldiers (URAWMS), works to promote contacts with the mothers of missing Azerbaijani troops, hoping that such an initiative could one day help lead to a breakthrough in peace talks.
“We are all mothers together,” she told a EurasiaNet.org correspondent. “Neither the mothers, nor the soldiers caused the war; we didn’t want it.”
Grigorian’s son Spartak was captured and held as a POW. In 2009, the Red Cross filmed him in an Azerbaijani prison. The video suggested that he had recently been subjected to a severe beating; since then, there has been no information about him.
“He’d just gotten married three months before,” Grigorian said, speaking about her son’s capture. “His wife cried [and waited] for five years. I told her: “Go, start a new life, find a new husband and have children.” What can you do?” she sighed. In all, 239 Karabakhi soldiers remain officially listed as unaccounted for. The hope for Grigorian and others in her situation is that their loved ones are still alive, and a breakthrough in peace talks could lead to a POW exchange.
There is reason for Grigorian to hope. In late August, the URAWMS issued an appeal to diplomats from the United States, France and Russia – the three co-chairs of the Minsk Group, the entity overseeing the peace process – stating that the non-governmental organization had obtained information “from various sources that the majority of our relatives are alive, and have been kept imprisoned for decades with their names changed.”
Ethnic Armenians and Azeris alike tend to see the Karabakh conflict in black-and-white terms, in which their own side is principled and the other perfidious. Grigorian’s work on behalf of URAWMS has altered her assumptions about the nature of the conflict. While she, like all Karabakhis, aspires for her homeland to be independent, she no longer frames the conflict as good vs. evil. She had heard stories of atrocities committed by Azerbaijani forces, but did not believe Armenian troops were capable of such behavior too. Then, she met an Azeri woman; who “told me that our soldiers had taken a knife and carved a cross into her buttocks. I didn’t believe her until she showed me. We were all crying together.”
“I give speeches to our military units emphasizing the mutual suffering,” she continued. “It’s very emotional, but it’s difficult to speak of peace in a time when the words of leaders are encouraging conflict.”
Stephen M. Bland is a freelance journalist who covers the Caucasus and Central Asia.