War or peace? Neither reigns in limbo land of Nagorno-Karabakh

TALISH, Azerbaijan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Conflict can be long, slow and boring. Especially for the civilians stuck in its midst, living a half life that is neither full war nor genuine peace.

Villagers stand next to their temporary houses in the newly-built village of Alashan, in the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, southwestern Azerbaijan. Many families now living in Alashan are from the village of Talish, near the frontline between Armenian and Azeri forces, where violence last year forced them to flee, September 20, 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Anna Pujol-Mazzini

It is more than 20 years since a ceasefire formally ended fighting between ethnic Azeris and Armenians in the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

But the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia have regularly traded accusations of violence around the territory and on their common border.

This means villagers in the Caucasian enclave - recognized as part of Azerbaijan but controlled by ethnic Armenians - cannot get back to their old peace-time existence any more than they can stay on a perpetual war footing.

Instead they are stuck in a no-man’s land, as conflict sputters on around them.

New prefabricated housing has been delivered to replace abandoned homes.

Old landmines still erupt underfoot.

Home is a warm memory and the future is bleak and uncertain.

But it wasn’t always like this.

Lida Sargsyan, an 82-year old ethnic Armenian, still remembers a time when Azeris and Armenians lived side by side.

“We used to live normally together,” she recalled, standing on a dry patch of land where pigs and cows loll in the sun.

“The Azeris were living in our houses, we were living in their houses.”

But that was decades ago - when the region was brought together under the Soviet Union - before war erupted in 1991.

By the time a truce was agreed three years later, some 30,000 people had been killed - including three of Sargsyan’s sons - and a million people had been displaced.

Clashes over Nagorno-Karabakh have intensified in the past three years, and efforts to secure a permanent settlement have all failed. There are fears that the neighbors are now closer to war over the enclave than at any time since the ceasefire.

So when, in the early hours of April 3, 2016, Sargsyan heard gunshot in her frontline village of Talish, she knew an attack was imminent.

Still in her farm clothes, she jumped into her neighbor’s car and they made for Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, leaving behind her home, a husband and pictures of her three dead sons.

“We left the house without anything,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation as she tried to hold back tears.


The small village of Talish, where Sargsyan lived until last year, lies some 200 m from the frontline with Azeri forces, in the mountainous forest land that makes up Nagorno-Karabakh.

Today, Talish is empty but for a handful of men working on rebuilding houses.

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The school lies in ruins, with books and children’s drawings scattered all over.

The sporadic clashes turned into a violent flare-up in April of last year, killing dozens and displacing hundreds more.

In Talish, that “Four-Day War” feels like it never ended.

Many of the families who fled the violence there have now resettled in Alashan, a small village some 20 km away.

“The people are waiting for a solution to the conflict in order to return home,” Furio de Angelis, the United Nations’ refugee agency’s representative in Azerbaijan, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from the country’s capital Baku.

But with no end in sight for the conflict, villagers displaced - by conflict old and new alike - are trying to rebuild their lives, like the victims of so many other wars.

“You see that in Bosnia, Kosovo, Northern Ireland,” said Sinisa Malesevic, a sociology professor at University College Dublin.

“Many people are displaced but they are in areas that are highly militarized. There’s a pressure that you have to be prepared, that war can explode at any time,” Malesevic, who was born in Bosnia, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Some people are stuck in time - they think: ‘eventually we will return’. Some others decide to move on, migrate and look for a better life or settle where they are.”


In Alashan, children are playing around the fountain while pigs and geese laze in the sun. The patch of land now boasts a school, a stable and two rows of temporary houses.

A group of men is measuring up for a new house, one of a few dozens sent by the self-proclaimed government in Nagorno-Karabakh. They say there aren’t enough houses to cater for the 50 families who live here, most of them from Talish.

Still, the foldable prefabricated houses take just a month to build, and last for years. The reconstruction of Talish drags on, and no one knows when, or if, they will ever go back.

“We work and we make our living here,” Giarik Ohanyan, 40, whose house was destroyed in the fighting around Talish last year, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation during a short break from his construction work.

“But of course we want to get back.”


In another painful reminder of the conflict, hundreds of landmines are still scattered around Nagorno-Karabakh, which had the highest number of landmine incidents per person in the world in 2014, according to demining group HALO Trust.

Globally, only Afghanistan and Colombia now claim more landmine incidents per person.

“The majority of accidents have come from farmers who have been tending their crops, plowing a field with tractors or heavy vehicles, they set (anti-tank landmines) off and it kills them and their family,” said Michael Newton, HALO Trust’s program manager in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Dozens of locals work on the demining, eventually allowing minefields to be replaced with gas pipelines and water projects.

The demining group estimates about 90 percent of Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding region have been rid of landmines.

But threats persist.

In July, a truck full of gravel drove on an anti-tank mine, destroying the vehicle though sparing the passengers.

“This is stopping a lot of farmers getting back to their fields and farming their crops,” Newton said.


Meanwhile, in the rundown villages poised between war and peace, social roles are changing and women have become the decision-makers, with many men on the frontline.

“Women become more powerful in a paradoxical way because they have to do many things that they wouldn’t have done before - especially in very patriarchal rural societies,” said Malesevic, the sociology professor.

“Women have to start bringing in resources and money, and that might change the balance of power,” he added.

In the minefields of Karegah, a small village led by a female mayor, a handful of women manually remove landmines from the ground - one of the few well-paid jobs around.

Nazeli Isunts, 40, is one of them.

In charge of making decisions for her family and her three children, she took a job as a deminer.

“The danger is there every minute. Once a week, every two weeks we find something potentially dangerous,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation as she sat on a steep strip of land, surrounded by minefields.

“It once again comes to prove that there is no job, nothing in the world that a woman can’t do, all of us can work even harder than a man, we are capable of doing everything that a man can do.”


In Alashan too, Sargsyan, the 82-year-old from Talish, makes many decisions, both for her family and the wider community.

But there is one thing her husband of 60 years, and other villagers, won’t let her do: go back to Talish.

In the chaos of last year’s attack, she did not have time to take with her the precious pictures of her dead sons - or anything else.

Now, more than material comfort or safety, she wants to feel home again.

“Who’s gonna take me there?” she asked. “I’m begging everyone to take me. I want to see the pictures of my sons.”