Armenian fixer and travel writer Aram Vardanyan recounts working inside the breakaway Azerbaijani territory of Nagorno-Karabakh during intense aerial bombardments that have marked the most serious flare-up in fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan in more than a quarter of a century.
We drove into Nagorno-Karabakh late in the afternoon on October 10. The first place we stopped was the Holy Savior Cathedral, which is 13 kilometers from Stepanakert and had recently been hit by artillery fire.
The War As Seen From Azerbaijan
Journalist Seymur Kazimov gives an Azerbaijani perspective on working near the front lines in the worst violence between Azerbaijan and Armenia in more than a quarter of a century.
The priest there told us after the first shells hit the church that two Russian journalists went inside to photograph the damage. Shortly afterwards, a second round struck the cathedral.
There was rubble and dust everywhere and you could see the wooden benches had been shattered and there were bits of wood everywhere. One of the splinters was covered in blood and we know that one of the Russian journalists was badly hurt.
It’s a spooky war, a very modern war. Because of the drones being used you don’t know who is watching you or what’s going to happen next.
As we were driving toward Stepanakert there was a supposed cease-fire in place, but honestly no one trusted it, especially those of us who have any experience with Armenian-Azerbaijani conflicts.
Stepanakert was quiet and there was no smoke or fires when we came over the hill and saw it beneath us, but I could feel the fear crawling under my skin as we drove down the winding road to the city.
The rockets started falling that night. We first knew about it when the sky flashed red, then a few seconds later the shock of the explosion hit. There are sirens that are supposed to howl a warning but they only work some of the time. The rockets came screaming in one after another -- and you don’t know where the next one will land.
Our building had a basement that offered some shelter but we couldn’t sleep in there. It was already taken up with locals who had set up little living spaces all around so newcomers like us had to choose whether to risk sleeping next to big windows in our room or sleep in the hallways of the building. Most journalists I saw pulled the mattresses off their beds and dragged them into the hallway. Everyone was nervous of an explosion blasting shards of glass into our rooms.
I didn’t really sleep that night. The first couple of times the rockets were hitting I was running with everyone else into the basement then eventually going back up to my bed and undressing. But by the third time I just kept my clothes on and lay on the bed waiting for the morning.
As day broke we went looking for the fresh damage done during the night. There’s a wide array of weapons being used -- artillery, drone missiles, and huge, truck-mounted Smerch missiles. We think a type of Israeli rocket called Lora is being used for the first time in combat. The locals told us that, in the old days, the Azerbaijanis would use Grad rockets, which didn’t do much damage outside of the immediate place they hit. Now they are using much larger rockets and the shrapnel tears through everything around.
We visited Armenian Apostolic Church Archbishop Pargev Martirosian on the agreement we wouldn’t say where he was. As we were speaking, the alarm sounded and explosions started echoing. It wasn’t very close to us, but people came running inside. Then, while the shells were exploding, Martirosian quietly started to pray.
Some of the shops have had their windows blown out but just sit there untouched -- I saw even expensive shops that you could have walked into during the night, but no one is looting. Some local businessmen were offering us food. We tried to refuse, saying they would need it more than us and they were laughing -- "we’re surrounded by food." We saw they were literally sleeping on stacks of cans, toasting bread on a heater. In the war of the 1990s, hunger was a real problem but it’s not today.
The drones sometimes sneak in past the radar and can be circling throughout the whole day. As well as the suicide drones that explode on impact, there are larger drones that can fire missiles, with some being used as spotters for aiming artillery and rocket attacks.
When we left Nagorno-Karabakh, we saw some fighters in the town just across the border in Armenia. They told me they were close enough to the other side to hear Arabic being spoken. They added that the Azerbaijani special forces know how to speak Armenian, apparently as a way of confusing our guys. One of the last things I saw was a pickup truck that had a pool of blood in the back. The driver told me two fighters had been badly hurt and he had to transport them to a hospital, but the men had had legs amputated. I couldn’t bring myself to take a picture.
We’re used to fighting but the drones and Turkey reportedly dropping Arabic-speaking fighters into the battle has changed the game. People aren’t scared, they’re just crying for all the young lives lost. I think of those kids on the fighting front…. I get scared walking down dark streets but these kids are out there on the front lines in a war like this, fighting in the forests. I can’t imagine it.