War Intensifies Inside Disputed Province of Nagorno-Karabakh
STEPANAKERT, NAGORNO-KARABAKH — AS the fighting has intensified, the task of covering the war in Nagorno-Karabakh has become increasingly daunting. The more casualties mount, the more each side suspects Western journalists unless they propagate only the one side's view of right and wrong. And as the war grows more sophisticated, the perils of reaching the Armenian-populated enclave inside Azerbaijan grow apace.
The route through Azerbaijan goes only as far as the border as recent Armenian military victories bring more and more of the region under their control. But the only way in from Armenia is via helicopters that have been the regular targets of gunfire or have crashed as they try to fly low over the mountain crests.
Our host, Zori Balayan, a prominent writer and politician who runs the Karabakh support committee in Armenia personally "guaranteed" our safety. His assurances had to be continually weighed against his unconcealed desire for outside observers to report the Armenian view.
Last Thursday we were offered a ride in to the newly recaptured airstrip on a small, Yak-40 Aeroflot jet carrying medical supplies to Stepanakert, the besieged capital of Nagorno-Karabakh.
"Welcome to Nagorno-Karabakh which will be defended to the end," Mr. Balayan announced cheerily as we screeched to a halt on the runway.
We piled into the back of an open truck and rode quickly up the mountain road into Stepanakert, a city of 70,000 people who have endured three months of steady bombardment from Azeri rocket artillery batteries stationed above it in Shusha and, until the recent offensive, below it in Khojaly.
We attended a press conference with the Karabakh government leadership in an icy cold room in the parliament building, the windows blown out long ago by rockets.
The back of the building was shattered. The former Communist Party headquarters next door, the statue of Lenin still standing out front, had been turned into a hospital, but its top three floors had been destroyed by a rocket two weeks ago. The doctors were reduced to working in a downstairs inner room, operating often by candlelight when the portable generator ran out of fuel.
After spending hours in the makeshift bomb shelters where the city residents spend much of the day, we made our way to the police headquarters. Not long afterward, a series of loud bangs began. Unschooled in the nature of GRAD rocket artillery which makes no sound coming in, we thought it was outgoing cannonfire until the shock wave pulsed through an open window.
Two rockets slapped into the abandoned barracks of the former Soviet Army's 366th regiment just across the street. By nightfall the resulting inferno lent a rosy tint to the sky.
We made one excursion during the attack, a breathless run to recover gear at the parliament building with a stop at the hospital where the grisly casualties lay in the darkened lobby.
A small group of us spent the night in the police building, fearful to move very far. The night passed quietly, as did the next day when some of us sought to leave during a cease-fire that evaporated by Saturday morning. We waited in the barren former airport terminal with a group of women hoping to escort their sick children to care in Yerevan and wounded soldiers, chatting with the Armenian soldiers guarding the airport.
By late afternoon our plane arrived. The local commander ordered us behind the closed doors of the building as they unloaded crates of weapons quickly into the back of a dumptruck. As the jet's engines roared in our faces, the soldiers shoved us onto the plane - wounded soldiers first, then journalists and children.
The babies cried as we handed them into the plane, its seats stripped out. A coffin filled one corner, an old man on a stretcher lay along one wall. The children and mothers sat down on the floor while we stood gripping the luggage racks on both sides of the small craft. The plane rushed down the runway, banking to the left as soon as the wheels left ground to avoid the Azeri positions ahead. It flew at near ground level for what seemed an eternity before leaping over the mountains toward safety.