THE sun shone brightly on the battered city of Stepanakert, melting the snow piled on the rooftops and illuminating a spectacular landscape of wooded mountains and hilly valleys.
From the windows of the Karabakh parliament building, the glass long-since shattered by bomb blasts, the entire valley stretching down to Azerbaijan was visible. A brown cloud hung over the Askeran gap, the product of exchanges of artillery fire in days of fierce fighting as Azeri forces tried, and failed, to capture the town of Askeran.
Around 3 p.m. last Thursday, the afternoon calm ended abruptly. A series of loud bangs rang in succession, distant at first, then closer until the shock waves slapped one's face. The rockets had begun to fall again.
For three months, this mountainous city of some 70,000 people, the capital of the Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, has been bombarded by Azeri forces using GRAD rocket launchers, the standard multirocket system of the former Soviet Army. After four hours of rocket barrages, 152 rockets, totaling more than six tons of high explosive, would fall on the city. By evening eight people had died, including three children, and seven more lay wounded in a hospital.
After four years of political movements, demonstrations, riots, deportations, armed battles, atrocities and allegations of atrocities, the world still refers to the situation in Karabakh as a "conflict." But there is no question here what to call this. "There is a war going on," Ashot Mkrtchyan, the head of Karabakh parliament, says simply.
At its heart, this is a war over the most fundamental of issues: land, and the self-determination of the people on that land. Mountainous Karabakh is claimed by both Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic populated mostly by Turkic Muslims and its neighbor Armenia, an ancient Christian nation. After the Bolsheviks brought both these Caucasus states into their renewed Russian Empire, they drew new borders, allegedly to give peoples their own space but often to divide and control them. In the 1923 division o f the Transcaucasus, Karabakh was drawn as an Armenian "autonomous region" within Azerbaijan, even though it lies mere miles from Armenia at its closest point.
In 1988, spurred by changes in the Soviet Union, the Karabakh Movement began seeking reunification with Armenia. Today both the Karabakh local government and the Armenian government, led by the men who organized the Karabakh Movement, avoid such demands. Instead they insist on "self-determination," claiming independence for what they call the Karabakh Republic. For Azerbaijan the issue is equally simple - the land is theirs, always has been and always will be. Cultural autonomy is as much as an Azeri off icial has offered.
Ancient enmities between Christians and Muslims, Armenians and Turks have been renewed. Hundreds of thousands of Azeris and Armenians living in each other's territory have been turned into refugees. Last year Armenians living in Azeri territory just outside Karabakh were systematically deported to Armenia, lending credibility to Armenian fears that the same fate was in store for the estimated 140,000 Armenian population of Karabakh. And two weeks ago, hundreds of Azeris were killed, some civilians whose bodies were found mutilated, when Armenian forces took the town of Khojaly.
Attempts at negotiation so far have failed, including one mediated by Russia and Kazakhstan. Cease-fires, including one declared last on Thursday night, collapse within hours or days. The Karabakh authorities point out that all these talks took place without their participation because the Azerbaijan government refuses to recognize their existence. "Only the participation of the Karabakh republic ... will promote a solution to the conflict," the republic's leader says.
The Karabakh leaders, like the Armenian government, have repeatedly sought an outside force, such as the United Nations, to help settle the conflict. Until a statement on Friday agreeing to a United Nations role, Azerbaijan had rejected this, fearing it would undermine their stance that this is an internal matter. (UN negotiator Cyrus Vance is scheduled to arrive in the area today to investigate the situation.)
In recent weeks, the Armenian self-defense forces have seized the military initiative for the first time. Their superior discipline and organization have given them an edge over their more numerous and better armed Azeri foes, outside observers say.
Volunteer guerrillas and arms flow into Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia via a fragile air-bridge of helicopters and small aircraft. Tanks and armored personnel carriers captured from the Azeris in recent fighting are visible.
Both sides trade charges of military assistance from the former Soviet Army. The Azeris possess large amounts of heavy weapons from arsenals in Azerbaijan. Conversely, although the former Soviet Army unit in Karabakh, the 366th regiment, has completely withdrawn, small numbers of Slavic officers and soldiers are openly serving in Armenian ranks.
The Armenians aim to consolidate their hold over Karabakh territory, to break the blockade, and to wipe out the fire bases from which the Azeris are raining rockets and shells on their cities and villages. They defend the attack on Khojaly as a defense against those rockets, acknowledging only that perhaps some civilians may have died in the course of a nighttime battle. A fresh attack on Shusha, the last remaining Azeri stronghold six miles away from Stepanakert is clearly in the offing.
The appalling conditions of life in Stepanakert and surrounding villages are compelling evidence of the motivation for these battle plans. The city has no electricity, with the exception of a few generators supplying intermittent power to the hospital and other government buildings. Citizens collect drinking water in buckets from melting snows, soon to disappear with the onset of spring. No shops operate, and no food is available other than a monthly ration of one kilogram of wheat and a half-kilo of sug ar.
"We make our own bread," explains Yuri Masayelian, who lives also off stocks of potatoes, onions, beans, and canned food, along with small amounts of meat that come in from the villages. "Since September there has been no money," adds his friend Vladimir Azatian, head of a local bank.
The population lives much of the day underground in cold basement cellars. A warren of rooms under one apartment building is reserved for women and children who sleep three or four to a bed. The men lie in the corridors.
The building's ground-floor meeting room is filled with people, some huddled around the wood-burning stove, others picking up ration coupons. They have become experts on GRAD rockets, explaining that the launchers have batteries of 40 rocket tubes, which take some 40 minutes for the Azeris to reload.
"We take shelter after the first one explodes and the children sit and count off the rockets," says Sergei Barsigian, a retired school principal. Morale among the population is surprisingly good, noticeably better than the dark mood prevailing in Armenia. As the staccato bang of the rockets sounds, a police officer smiles to a clearly worried Western reporter and jokes, "They're playing music - Chopin. Soon there will be a sonata."
But the toll shows, especially among the women and children. More than once, women approached the Western visitors and abruptly cry: "We have no food, no water, no electricity. Why doesn't the world help us?"
It is a question asked repeatedly in different ways here. The Iranians and Turks are coming to the aid of the Azeris, police Maj. Andranik Kovich argues. "How come the Christian countries don't come to help us?"
Major Masayelian, who has just returned from militia duty, exhibits an all-too-common fatalism about a war that is being fed by deepening wells of hatred. "It doesn't matter whether I live or die. I've got a son who will be ready to take my place."