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Caucasus: The Armenian Perspective From Nagorno-Karabakh

Prague, 25 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Nagorno-Karabakh is a web of deep, winding mountain valleys dotted with the war-damaged remains of depopulated villages and towns. Most of them are patrolled by soldiers of the ethnic Armenian army of the breakaway enclave.

On a clear spring day one can see from the war-scarred hilltop fortress at Shusha across Karabakh to the north beyond the front lines around Agdam and Azerbaijani territory to the main range of the Caucasus on the border with Dagestan 160 kilometers distant. One realizes how vulnerable Stepanakert, Shusha, Askerian and other towns were during the war to Azerbaijani shelling and why the leaders of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia are holding out for a secure, workable deal with Azerbaijan.

Karabakh remains dependent on Armenia -- for political, moral and financial support, on Russia for arms and on Iran for food. The vehicles on the road into Karabakh from Armenia are largely Karabakh military trucks and Iranian delivery trucks.

Communist-era roadside monuments survived the war. But homes, roads, bridges and railings did not.

Four years after a truce was signed at Bishkek the rail yards leading to what once was Stepanakert's train station still amount to a graveyard of railway freight cars tossed helter-skelter like children's toys, some as much as 500 meters from where the tracks once were. Most of the rails are gone.

Despite a three-year war resulting in Azerbaijan's loss of a fifth of its territory -- that is Nagorno Karabakh and the surrounding territory to the west, south and east -- substantial parts of the former enclave still remain in Azerbaijani hands; these include all of the northern Shahumian district as well as parts of the eastern Mardakert and Martuni districts.

Few signs remain of the massive destruction Stepanakert suffered. Reconstruction has been rapid. Construction is now under way on new housing blocks and a hotel. The town has a poor and rundown look to it. The main employers are the army and the government.

In contrast to the administrative and military center of Stepanakert, Shusha offers a rare collection of Armenian and Azeri historic architectural styles although heavily damaged in fighting in this century. A pig ambles down Shusha's main street beneath housing blocks deeply scarred by artillery shelling yet still inhabited, make-shift chimneys jutting out of numerous windows, funneling smoke from wood burning kitchen stoves.

The commander of the Nagorno Karabakh army's "department for moral and psychological preparedness," Major Edik Petrosian, says four years after a truce was agreed on, the army remains in a state of alert and is thankful for whatever assistance it can get.

"At the moment the army of the defense of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is in a state of relative truce, relative because all along the front line there are exchanges of fire every day with the Azeri army, resulting in soldiers getting killed and suffering by the civilian population living nearby." Petrosian added that a resumption of fighting is all too possible.

"The Nagorno-Karabakh Army every day, every hour is striving to maintain battle readiness so that when the time comes it can resist Azeri aggression."

Deputy head of administration for Shusha district, Neli Voskanian, says much of the widespread destruction in Shusha dates to earlier conflicts. She said that although there is a shortage of funds for reconstruction, "this does not trouble us." "We are on our land, we are restoring what belongs to us by right, what is ours."

Voskanian went on to say that some five thousand people, virtually all Armenians, currently inhabit Shusha. She added that about 70 percent of them are native of Shusha, many of whom had moved decades ago to such Azeri cities as Baku, Sumgait, Gyandzha following the ethnic killings in 1988-90, they returned to Shusha.