The simmering 25-year conflict between Azerbaijan and the Armenian-backed disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh saw a dramatic escalation early this month. It didn’t make many headlines, but more than 100 people were killed in fierce clashes.
As Azerbaijani forces shelled the border, the northern farming village of Talish was evacuated, its residents forced to abandon their homes.
Talish is now a ghost town. A few former residents return to inspect the damage to their properties and gather what possessions they can fit into cars to take back to their displaced families. Otherwise, it’s deserted.
Staying is not an option. After the recent clashes, the village is now just a few kilometres from an unstable frontline and has been declared a military zone by Nagorno-Karabakh’s armed forces.
For those who lived through a war in the 1990s that left an estimated 30,000 dead and more than a million displaced, this is all too familiar.
“Our village was destroyed in the first war [1991-1994] and again now. I can’t go through this again,” 60-year-old Vanik Armeni told IRIN, his eyes filling with tears. “I don’t have any words to describe what I feel. And I have no idea how I will look after my family.”
The past returns
Armeni’s family was among an estimated 600 Talish residents who fled the village in the early hours of 2 April. As shells fell around them, they packed themselves into old cars or military trucks, some still in their nightclothes.
“The first rocket fell on the village at 3:20 am and I immediately took my grandchildren to my son’s house opposite because it has a basement where we thought they would be safe,” he said. “We managed to get 17 children into the basement. But shortly afterwards my son’s house was hit, and rubble from the explosion blocked the entrance.”
As shells continued to bombard the village, family members spent two hours clearing debris until they could open the basement, release the children, and flee.
A 92-year-old woman was among three elderly people too frail to escape their homes on the edge of the village, close to the frontline. They were shot dead. Their bodies were found, horribly mutilated.
After two decades of relative stability, the flare-up is deeply disturbing for residents of a quiet village who have always been aware of its location at the heart of a centuries-old conflict.
Under the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh was an autonomous oblast (administrative district) within Azerbaijan, although the majority of its population is ethnically Armenian.
As the Soviet Union collapsed, conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia led to Nagorno-Karabakh’s declaration of independence in 1991 (the territory has never been internationally recognised). Three years of war followed. Since 1994, a fragile ceasefire prevented tensions from boiling over, until now.
Both sides have accused the other of provoking the recent flare-up, but what is certain is how quickly it escalated. Azerbaijani forces moved beyond long-established contact lines and the Nagorno-Karabakh military responded with strong counterattacks. Although Moscow was swift to broker a truce, violations are still being reported by both sides.
A Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder for protection, Armeni’s son, Abeli Ian, collected bedding and clothes in Talish for his family, now a safe 90 kilometres away in the town of Askeran.
He stepped across bloodstains dried in the street and pushed open a metal gate, torn apart by shrapnel, that led to where the front half of his house was completely missing.
“Two or three rockets fell here,” he explained, climbing over debris to mount the stairs to a simple bedroom where boxes of apples stored for winter lay covered in dust from the explosions. “My children were asleep here when the first rocket fell,” he said, his voice breaking in distress.
Abeli Ian, director of the now-destroyed Talish Foundation of Agriculture, estimated that more than 50 percent of the village had been severely damaged, including the local school. A hall used for weddings and other events was reduced to ruins and unexploded ordnance lay in the grass outside.
Some escaped farm animals roamed freely through the deserted village. Others hadn’t been as fortunate. A pig lay dead in a field, its body checked with shrapnel wounds. The remnants of suddenly-abandoned lives were everywhere: clothes trailing limply from washing lines, a pair of jeans blown into a tree, food laid out in kitchens. Burning fragments of metal had torn through iron gates and farm machinery.
Armeni’s 100 acres of farmland, where he grows pomegranates, grapes and wheat, runs along the frontline. This year, there will be no harvest.
He furiously dug up plastic coca cola bottles filled with wine in his orchard. “It’s our tradition to bury wine at the end of harvest and drink it the following year, but I won’t come back again now, so I am digging it up,” he said, throwing the bottles on the ground in despair. “I had one tonne of wine and vodka ready to sell, but it was all damaged during the bombardment. There is nothing left.”
Residents from Talish found refuge wherever they could. But, with two other villages also evacuated at the start of April, their options are few. IRIN found one family staying with relatives in the town of Shushi, 14 people crammed into three rooms in an ageing tenement block.
“The village is finished. It is completely ruined,” sobbed 50-year-old Rasmilla Sarkisyan. “Now, we have no work, no home, nothing. I don’t know what to do or where to go.” She gestured to her three children, the eldest of whom has a paralysed arm from an injury sustained in clashes in Talish in the 1990s. “It is so difficult for my children, who can’t even go to school now. What sort of future can they expect?”
In Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital of Stepanakert, Karen and Anahit Ghavalian, both 52, are staying in a relative’s one-room apartment with their youngest daughter.
Karen said that Talish villagers had long been accustomed to the sound of fighting but that the recent clashes were different. “The attack was relentless and went on all night and all day. I have been back once to get some things because we had no furniture here and were sleeping on the floor,” he said. “Our house had been hit by six missiles, and only the walls and part of the roof remained.”
Anahit, who taught in the Talish school for 27 years, said the premises had also been hit in the four-day assault on the village. She was deeply concerned for the school’s 103 pupils, traumatised by the fighting and now scattered across the country.
Some, she said, had been forced to flee as far as neighbouring Armenia. She has been visiting displaced children in Stepanakert, giving them some basic home tuition. Financial difficulties mean she will soon have to find a job in the capital.
Like all Talish residents, this is the second time the Ghavalians have been displaced.
“In 1992, the whole village was burned down and not one single house escaped,” Karen recalled.
“We returned in 1996, but it took us a year and a half to rebuild our house.” He said he didn’t expect the family would be able to return home in the near future, especially since both sides are better equipped with heavy weaponry than they were in the 1990s.
“In the 1990s, it was a war fought with automatic guns, and the Azerbaijani forces didn’t have such sophisticated and modern weapons,” he said. “But this time, it is an artillery war.”
Breaking down in tears, his wife Anahit explained that the village school had been preparing for a big event to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of the return of local people to Talish in 1996, after its occupation by Azerbaijani troops. Now there is no one there. “We don’t want anything except a ceasefire and peace,” she said.