MAJ. Nikolai Barsukov reaches down to pick up twisted pieces of metal lying on the ground.
"This is shrapnel from an anti-tank rocket," the veteran Russian officer of the former Soviet Army explains. He points up to the bullet-pocked walls of a small food-processing factory, every window shattered, evidence of two days of Azeri attacks on this remote Armenian village in the mountains on the border between the two Caucasian states.
The firefight in Aikepar is a tiny echo of battles raging not far away inside Azerbaijan, in the Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
There, Azeri and Armenian forces go to war with tanks, rockets, artillery, and helicopter gunships, with daily casualties reportedly in the hundreds. Reports of atrocities from both sides reflect the intensity of the killing after four years of conflict over the status of that mountainous region where some 180,000 Armenians live.
While the border exchange is small in comparison, it is a portent of what many fear and often discuss from the mountains down to the Armenian capital of Yerevan and beyond: the widening of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict into a full-scale war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Such a war brings a danger of further expansion as politicians in Turkey threaten to come to the defense of their ethnic brethren in Azerbaijan. Arms buildup
Major Barsukov, whose unit tries to keep the peace on the border, says he has seen a steady buildup of military hardware on the Azeri side, including armored vehicles and intensified artillery fire from clearly bountiful ammunition supplies. "I believe there will be full-scale war," the blond, red-cheeked officer says matter-of-factly.
In the village, whose walls stand only 160 feet from the border and whose vineyards lie open to Azeri gunfire from the hills above, the men gather nervously, automatic rifles slung over their shoulders. "There's lots of movement on their side," says David Gulgenian, a carpenter-turned-militia-leader, with a green cap pulled over his brow. "Every second we are expecting war."
At the military commandant's office in the city of Ijevan, men sit at desks and tables compiling lists of all the former Soviet servicemen who are still in the region. It is not a mobilization, insists commander Maj. Vahakn Sagradian, only prudent preparation.
The three men who volunteer to drive the Western reporters over the mountains into Azerbaijan in a white Volga sedan with a bullet-hole in the windshield make their own "preparations." They stop in a village to pick up a rifle and ammunition for the trip. Soviet Army ineffective
In these conditions, the isolated units of the former Soviet Army provide at best ineffective lines of communication. In Moscow, their commanders have said the border units are being withdrawn, as the last unit was from Nagorno-Karabakh, but Barsukov has heard nothing. He is frustrated with the lack of clear orders, with his inability to act to stop the fighting. Instead, they are reduced to being negotiators, crossing the border to try to release hostages taken by Azeri fighters.
Their comrades in outposts of the Fourth Army, stationed across the border, are even more ineffectual, he says. Two of three outposts were overrun by Azeri National Guard units and the third saved when his men rushed over to defend them from attack. Barsukov's soldiers have difficulty understanding the need for them here, the major adds.
The former Soviet Army is supposed to be neutral, but the Russian major does not conceal his sympathy for the Armenians. The shooting always begins from the Azeri side, he says, with the Armenians only firing in reaction. "People here and there in these little valleys don't want war," he says. "But they can't do anything to stop it. They talk about how they used to be friendly with the Azeris across the border. Now this conflict has divided them."
A deep hatred now colors this recently peaceful land. Armenians and Azeris each tell similar stories of atrocities the other side has committed. Azeris angrily charge the Armenians with massacring hundreds of people in the Karabakh town of Khojaly in late February. In Aikepar, Armenians describe three people abducted on March 7 from the vineyards.
"We are defending our land," Spartak Hagobian, the leader of Aikepar's village militia, says from his bed in a chilly hospital room in nearby Berd. "We have not entered one centimeter into their land.... They come into our farms and take people...."
From the capital to this craggy town many hours' drive away, people plead for someone from the outside to come and separate the warring partners before it is too late. There are no prospects now for direct negotiations, says Zori Balayan, a member of the former Soviet parliament from Karabakh and a leader of the Artsakh (the Armenian name for Karabakh) Committee in Yerevan. "In this situation until they calm down, forces must stand between the two peoples," he suggests, either from the United Nations or Soviet troops under a UN flag. Armenian role
The Armenian government has denied any direct involvement in the conflict and has so far avoided following Azerbaijan in forming its own army. But Mr. Balayan and other Armenian politicians argue that if the clearly superior Azeri forces are on the verge of overrunning Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia could intervene. "I'm sure sooner or later, Armenia is going to be involved in war with Azerbaijan," Balayan predicts.
Such predictions sound unnecessarily dire, but they reflect the gloomy mood in Yerevan. The city already feels like it is in the midst of war. An Azeri blockade has cut virtually all the gas and oil supply lines which run through Azerbaijan to Armenia.
Men stand in idle clumps on Yerevan's streets because factories are shut down. Under the best conditions in recent months, only about 30 percent of Armenia's fuel needs have been supplied, says Energy Minister Sebouh Tashjian, an Armen- ian-American who left his executive post at Southern California Edison to come here a few months ago. In recent days the situation has become "super critical," he says, with all gas for household use shut off and electricity supplied at most for half the day.
"We meet every night at 7 p.m. to determine who will receive gas or electricity the next day," Mr. Tashjian says, with bread plants, hospitals, and water-pumping stations getting first priority.
An estimated 60,000 to 80,000 tons of Russian heating oil is sitting on rail tracks in Azerbaijan, he says.
"Three days ago we got excited when a train arrived with 30 tanker cars, but they were all empty," Tashjian says. "We call them and we get excuses," he says of the Azeris. "It's a pity they use the oil as a political weapon."
The blockade conditions and the toll of the fighting have shaken confidence in the moderate nationalist government of Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan and deepened anger toward Azerbaijan.
A group of seven men in black leather jackets stands behind a small stone house in a workers' area next to the huge but silent Nairit chemical plant. All are out of work, their factories shut down for months due to lack of power.
They burn chemicals from the plant to make glue, used in turn to make shoes in a small workshop, then use the shoes to barter for butter or dry milk from Russia.
The government wants to negotiate, but there have been many victims, says one Yerevan resident, whose brother died fighting as a guerrilla in Nagorno-Karabakh last year. He accuses the government of not providing weapons for the fighters.
Inside the house in a cold room warmed by a primitive wood stove, Zobel Yeritsian tries to keep her family going on a combined income of 720 rubles (about $7.20) a month. Her grandson and granddaughter cannot attend school because of the lack of heat - their mother goes once a week to get their homework assignments. "I have lost all hope," she says. "We trust only in God. Jesus will help us," she points to a corner of the room filled with religious pictures.
Mrs. Yeritsian tells a tale of her father, who was driven out of Turkey in the forced deportation and massacres during World War I.
"Now they are doing the same thing," she says, anger and tears rising in her voice, an evocation of a bitter historical memory that a visitor hears often here.
"The Turks will never stop the war," she pronounces, "They will go on until they take this small land of ours. By all means, we are going to defend our nation."