ONE moment Raffi Kocharyan was living the life of a simple farmer in rural Soviet Armenia. The next, shellfire reduced much of his house to rubble, and he joined the swelling ranks of victims of a simmering ethnic conflict that has boiled over into all-out war. ``I had just walked out of my living room when there was a tremendous explosion. I feel lucky to be alive,'' Mr. Kocharyan says, pointing to the gapping 10-foot hole in the roof and wall. Rubble piled a foot high covered the floor and furniture of the room.
Such is the nature of the conflict that pits predominantly Christian Armenia against the neighboring southern republic of Azerbaijan, inhabited mostly by Muslims.
The hit-and-run style of combat can turn sleepy hamlets, such as Berkaber, nestled in lush hills along the jigsaw-puzzle-like Armenian-Azeri border, into frenzied battle zones almost at any moment.
``We suffered mortar attacks every day - at all hours - from May 1 to May 7,'' Kocharyan says. He adds that the shelling came from an Azeri village on the other side of the valley, about a mile away.
Armenians and Azeris have been rivals for centuries but coexisted relatively peacefully under Communist rule. The root of the current problem is the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. For three years, the republics have been struggling for control of the area, which lies in Azerbaijan, but whose inhabitants are mostly Armenian. The dispute has created hundreds of thousands refugees from all over both republics. Almost all ethnic Azeris have fled Armenia.
In recent weeks, ethnic violence has intensified in the border area and dozens of people have been killed. For the first time in such an ethnic conflict, regular Soviet Army units have been deployed to act as a peacekeeping force.
Soviet Army helicopter gunships patrol the region and sometimes even fly over Yerevan, Armenia's capital, where hundreds of additional Soviet soldiers were recently deployed.
``The helicopters are flying over us all the time,'' says Avetik Arzumanyan, a Berkaber resident, as he watched a pair of gunships circle the village. ``I have seen the helicopters fire into a village just like this one.''
Whether or not Mr. Arzumanyan's claim is accurate, just the ``thup-thup'' of the rotor blades echoing ominously among the hills appears to have stirred up tension.
Armenians claim President Mikhail Gorbachev and the Army are siding with Azerbaijan in the conflict, because Armenia is seeking independence while the orthodox Communist Azeri leadership remains loyal to Moscow.
``Gorbachev is pursuing a policy of violence because Armenia is taking serious steps toward independence,'' says Ruben Shuganyan, a policy adviser to the Armenian parliament. ``Also, the only way he can keep Communists in power in Azerbaijan is by whipping up national hysteria.''
Mr. Gorbachev has ordered that all ``bandit'' formations in the region be disarmed; on several occasions, joint Army and Azeri forces have surrounded Armenian villages in efforts to confiscate weapons. Armenians view this as an attempt to strip their side of its defenses, while leaving armed Azeri police units in place. There are armed militants, Armenian officials admit, but they are trying to defend their homes against attempts to destroy them and deport residents.
Azeris and the military say the Armenian volunteers supposedly hiding in the mountains are responsible for the violence. Yerevan's decision to allow representatives from Nagorno-Karabakh to sit in the Armenian parliament also helped provoke the clash, Azeris add.
``The Armenian militants have expelled all Azeris from Armenia. Now they are trying to take over our land,'' says Makhad Ismailov, a resident of the city of Kazakh in Azerbaijan.
Judging by the scene at the border, Armenian claims that the Kremlin has taken sides seem justified. At border checkpoints near Berkaber, about 110 miles northeast of Yerevan, Armenian police were allowed to carry only pistols, while their Azeri counterparts toted machine guns.
In addition, weeping Armenian refugees told stories of being forced from their villages.
``The Azeris kicked me out of my home, burned it down, and took all of my belongings,'' says Lucik Apresyan, an elderly Armenian refugee from the Azeri town of Getashen.
But the craters left by a May 3 mortar attack on Kazakh indicate the Armenians are not without the ability to strike back. ``This is proof the Armenians are heavily armed. This attack killed two people,'' says Makhmoud Kasimov, who witnessed the barrage.
The Soviet Army also has taken casualties as nine soldiers were wounded in an ambush by Armenian militants about 13 miles from Kazakh on Friday.
There has been a letup in the fighting of late, and Azeri officials have called for negotiations. However, Mr. Shuganyan says many Armenian officials think a political settlement will be possible only when democrats have replaced Communists in Azerbaijan's government.
The Kremlin also won't leave Armenia alone for long, because of the republic's determination to hold an independence referendum Sept. 21, Shuganyan says.
``They'll let up to give us a chance to sign the new union treaty,'' he says, referring to Gorbachev's attempt to reshape the union. ``When they see we have no intention of backing away from independence, the provocations will start again.''