COMMENTARY: Armenia, Azerbaijan is age-old conflict that could roil the neighbourhood

Most war correspondents are not known to be particularly sentimental. But in a way peculiar to this sub-species, they often have a special, even romantic, attachment to the place where they were first surrounded by the sights, sounds and smells of war.

This may be because those places are where they discovered how cruel and capricious war can be. Or perhaps because the unique camaraderie of the battlefield can turn world-weary front-line journalists into a band of brothers.

Some of my older colleagues still fondly remember the war in Vietnam where Huey helicopters would lift them into a firefight at dawn and they could savour fine French cuisine back in Saigon at dusk. Others pine for the friendships they forged in the jungles of El Salvador and Nicaragua, the adrenalin-saturated days sprinting across Sarajevo’s notorious sniper alley (I only did it once) or the limb- and life-shattering violence caused by homemade bombs during more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I was reminded of my own enduring connections to Nagorno-Karabakh over the weekend. After a long pause, fighting between the Armenians and Azeris over a mountainous scrap of land the world recognizes as part of Azerbaijan had erupted. I had not been tracking this saga at all, though I should have been.

Few Canadians may know where it is, but Nagorno-Karabakh matters. It straddles an ancient fault between north and south and between Islam and Christianity.

Fighting erupted over the weekend, leaving nearly 70 civilians and soldiers dead. If the brutality continues to escalate, the shock waves could whipsaw Ankara and Moscow and roil the neighbourhood in unpredictable ways.

Before I ended up in Nagorno-Karabakh in the winter of 1992, I’d seen guerilla warfare and death squads in Central America and had witnessed bloody coups and assassinations in eastern Europe, Africa and South Asia. But relatively speaking, nothing prepared me for what I saw in the Caucasus.

Post-Soviet Nagorno-Karabakh was my first major war. It was in that mountainous enclave of 160,000 Armenians surrounded by 10 million Azeris that I discovered how inglorious fighting could be. A combatant could be mortally wounded. The person beside them might not get a scratch.

It was also a place where, as in so many other fairly recent wars, if things became too hot, journalists could flag down a clapped-out Lada to escape to the front.

It was on the southern rim of the Kremlin’s crumbling empire outside the local capital, Stepanakert, that I got firsthand experience of how inhuman humanity can be. An Azeri soldier who had been crouching a few metres from me was struck by a sniper bullet from a high-powered rifle that tore off half of his face. By some miracle the Azeri was still alive, talking quietly and without apparent concern about what had just happened. He then suddenly went into shock. A minute later he was dead.

Aside from this ghastly death, the other vivid memory that I have of Nagorno-Karabakh was of the confusion, chaos and carnage that I found inside a First World War-style hospital train where overwhelmed doctors and nurses tried to provide rudimentary primary care to the wounded in makeshift wards where the floors were covered in grisly streams of blood. When the dozen railway carriages that had been parked on a siding became full of patients, the train was sent to Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku. Another hospital train that was empty was then shunted into the siding and the process repeated itself.

Most Canadians would likely classify what is happening in Nagorno-Karabakh today as an obscure war. It is, but not to those who are fighting in it. Nor is it obscure for the Russians who are aligned with the Armenians or the Turks who support the Turkic-speaking Azeris. The keen interest in the outcome demonstrated by two of the region’s three big boys (the other is Iran, which does not have a dog in this hunt) makes it especially tricky for the Armenians and Turks or for outside parties hoping to restore stability.

Predictably, each side and their powerful backers allege that it was the other that started the first serious fighting since the late 1980s and early 1990s when nearly 18,000 people died. About all that has been agreed on was that the side they supported had a legal right to defend itself.

The Armenians and the Turkic-speaking Azeris have not gotten along since long before the fall of the Ottoman Empire, which mostly controlled the territory in the years before the Bolshevik Revolution spread its dark tentacles south and east. Because it suited Soviet interests at the time, Stalin encouraged the Armenians and the Azeris to make trouble for each other.

Later, the Kremlin forced the two sides to become friends, or at least to tolerate each other. That artificial amity ended as the Soviet Union collapsed and the narrow corridor that became the lifeline between Armenia and the enclave in Azerbaijan came under strain.

Where this most recent bloody spasm might lead is hard to divine. Odds are that some sort of temporary ceasefire will be worked out until the next time the Armenians and the Azeris go to war over Nagorno-Karabakh.

To be frank, I remember my first major war but not really for sentimental reasons. I am content to sit out this latest chapter of the interminable Armenian-Azeri dispute.

As I saw again and again later in the Balkans and Chechnya, there is something chillingly familiar about the killing and maiming that takes place in isolated mountain redoubts.

What I observed nearly three decades ago in Nagorno-Karabalk, I will remember forever.

Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas

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