Accessibility links

Breaking News

Azerbaijani, Armenian Civilians Under Fire As Conflict Flares Over Nagorno-Karabakh

Aleksandr Melkumian steps in the blood stains of his slain mother-in-law in his front-line village of Martuni in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Aleksandr Melkumian steps in the blood stains of his slain mother-in-law in his front-line village of Martuni in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Aleksandr Melkumian is standing on bloodied ground outside his house in the village of Martuni in Nagorno-Karabakh -- the spot where his ethnic Armenian family was hit by shrapnel from an artillery shell early on September 27.

Nearby, a toy doll in a pink dress lies where it was dropped by his neighbor's child when the first shells exploded.

Melkumian had just gone out to feed his pigs in the front-line village when fresh fighting broke out between Azerbaijani troops and ethnic Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh.

"On that day in the morning, they bombed here," Melkumian explains, gesturing to the blood-soaked soil. "This is where my mother-in-law, my wife, and my 1-year-and-7-month-old child were."

"My neighbor's 7-year-old child was killed. My mother-in-law was killed," he says. "My wife was wounded and taken to a hospital in Stepanakert."

Armenia-Azerbaijan Battles Take Toll On Civilians
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:02:29 0:00

Two other village women were wounded and taken to a hospital 40 kilometers away in the Azerbaijani breakaway region's capital, Stepanakert.

"Look there, their shoes are still there," he says, tears welling up. "My wounded wife was lying right here. My little child was lying here. My mother-in-law was here, already dead. The 7-year-old child was lying dead there. My two neighbors lay there wounded. Then the shells hit the house and the barn. That's how our morning began."

He says his injured wife asked for some water.

"Before I could get her any water, another shell fell. They hit the place four times. All this time, I couldn't get water for my wounded wife. And my little child was crying. I embraced my child so that if the shells hit again, I would be the one to take the blow."

'Frozen Conflict' Flares Up

The following day, with shells continuing to land in Martuni, artillery fired by ethnic Armenian forces landed in several Azerbaijani-controlled villages in the Terter district north of Stepanakert.

Much of Terter has been under the control of the ethnic Armenian separatists since a 1994 cease-fire was reached between Azerbaijan and the de facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh, allowing the area to serve as a buffer zone along the tense Line of Contact.

In Azerbaijani-controlled parts of the district, most villagers were evacuated when fighting in the "frozen conflict" flared up again on September 27 and threatened to boil over into all-out war.

By September 28, shells fired by Armenian forces were landing in the village of Shikharkh. Azerbaijani officials say two civilians were killed there when a shell struck a multistory building in the village.

Another shell hit a boiler house that supplies heat for residential buildings in Shikharkh.

Local villager Hicran Amrahova tells RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that even if the fighting is brought under control in the weeks ahead, the damage will make it difficult for many residents to survive through the winter in Shikharkh.

"The boiler house provides heating for the residents," Amrahova says. "Also hot water. Look, the door was destroyed and the metal water tanks are damaged. They can't do anything to our army, so they kill civilians" and make it impossible to live here.

Farther north, at Gashalti in the Azerbaijani-controlled region of Naftalan, shelling from Armenian forces killed local villager Elbrus Gurbanov and four members of his family while they were sheltering at home.

An elderly woman, seeing their bodies lined up in front of the house, fell to her knees screaming amid the carnage as a correspondent from RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reported from the scene.

A man gets out of a makeshift bomb shelter in the village of Sahlabad outside the Azerbaijani city of Tartar on September 29.
A man gets out of a makeshift bomb shelter in the village of Sahlabad outside the Azerbaijani city of Tartar on September 29.

Claims And Counterclaims

There are numerous reports of civilian casualties in other villages in and around Nagorno-Karabakh as well as along the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Armenia's Foreign Ministry says the first civilian casualty on Armenian soil since the fighting broke out was on September 29, when the town of Vardenis came under an artillery-and-drone attack from Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry said the attack was in response to shelling by an Armenian Army artillery unit at Vardenis that had targeted the Dashkesan region inside Azerbaijan. Armenia denied Baku's claim.

In fact, both Armenia and Azerbaijan have accused each other of firing into their territory far from Nagorno-Karabakh -- the worst fighting in the area since the 1990s.

Armenia and the de facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh have described the fighting as a "wholesale attack" by Azerbaijan.

In Baku, officials initially said that Azerbaijani forces were responding to an Armenian attack.

Later, they said the fighting was "for the liberation of territories from occupation" -- a reference to Nagorno-Karabakh and seven adjacent district of Azerbaijan that are under the control of the Yerevan-backed ethnic Armenian forces.

Warning Against War Crimes

Hugh Williamson, the Europe and Central Asia director of Human Rights Watch, says that regardless of who is responsible for escalating the conflict, civilians are once again caught up in the fighting.

"All sides should remember that attacks targeting civilians are serious violations of international humanitarian law and constitute war crimes," Williamson said on September 30. "This is true even if they are carried out in reprisal for indiscriminate attacks by the adversary."

Williamson said all sides must, at all times, distinguish between combatants and civilians and should respect the absolute ban against targeting civilians or carrying out attacks that indiscriminately harm civilians.

A doll dropped on the ground by a child who was killed by an artillery barrage on the morning of September 27 in the village of Martuni.
A doll dropped on the ground by a child who was killed by an artillery barrage on the morning of September 27 in the village of Martuni.

Confirmation of events on the ground has been difficult since the escalation.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have both declared martial law and have begun to mobilize their troops -- including reservists who've been called upon to deploy to the combat zones.

Both countries have laws that restrict reporting about the conflict that is not based on "official" sources.

Azerbaijan has also limited Internet access to prevent sensitive strategic information from being revealed on social media or messaging apps.

But the extent that the fighting has stoked nationalist sentiments in both Armenia and Azerbaijan is clear from social-media posts in both countries.

In Azerbaijan's Xacmaz region along the coast of the Caspian Sea, a crowd of residents gathered outside the local commissariat to cheer and wave goodbye to busloads of reservists called up for military service.

In the central region of Goycay, local activist Taleh Xasmammadov from the Center for the Protection of Political Prisoners posted a video on Facebook that he claimed was part of a crowd of 10,000 residents "sending off their brave sons to the fighting."

But some have also expressed apprehensions on social media.

Togrul Veliyev, an activist from Baku and an outspoken critic of the government, lamented the departure of his brother for what he expects to be combat duty.

"My brother has left, supposedly for training, but this is a terrible feeling," Veliyev said on Facebook. "Two things I hate in life -- it's censorship and war. Thanks to our government, we have a mix of the two. They label every piece of information a military secret."

"Maybe some people are excited by prospects of war, but I hate it with all of my being because war is not a solution," Veliyev said. "One act of violence calls for another act of violence and it is hard to stop this cycle. All problems can be resolved only with peace."

Back in the front-line village of Martuni in Nagorno-Karabakh, Melkumian says the situation "can't go on like this."

"It is better we fight until there is a victorious end," Melkumian says. "I am ready to fight. I am ready to die. But we need a solution to this problem. The way it is now -- neither war nor peace -- won't do."

Written by Ron Synovitz in Prague based on reporting by RFE/RL's Armenian and Azerbaijani services

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.