TWO teenage girls search the shelves of the bookstore intently before selecting romance novels to bring to the cash register.
A perfectly ordinary scene, but here in the battered capital of war-torn Nagorno-Karabakh it is peculiar. The bookstore's doors opened on May 18 after countless months, emerging into life from a desperate siege, like the inhabitants of this mountainside city.
The windows of the bookstore are boarded up, long since blown out by artillery fire. But still, says shopkeeper Raya Shirvanian, "It feels a little like normal life."
A fitful peace has come to the streets of Stepanakert only since May 9 when the Armenian militia seized the stronghold of Shusha perched on the cliffs above this city. From there the Azerbaijan National Guard had pounded the Karabakh capital and surrounding villages with daily rocket barrages.
The Armenian forces control virtually all of Karabakh, an Armenian-populated enclave within Azerbaijan, for the first time in four years of political and military struggle. Children play in the makeshift bomb-shelters where they had lived for months. Electricity and water flow again, and limited food supplies come across a land corridor opened to Armenia.
But Ms. Shirvanian is still afraid to sleep in her house. A large-scale Azeri offensive, backed by tanks, helicopter gunships, and jet fighters, was launched June 12, apparently catching the Armenians by surprise. Both sides claim to have inflicted heavy casualties on their foes but the Armenians admit to losing control of the Armenian-populated Shaumyan district north of the Karabakh border.
The fighting again dims hopes for peace talks which the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) is trying to organize in two weeks in Minsk. Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan accuses the Azeris of launching the attack to deliberately "torpedo" those talks. The Azeris issue their own charges of Armenian "aggression."
Not far from the bookstore, the parliament of the self-styled Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh is meeting in temporary quarters in the city's theater. The parliament is divided between the radical Dashnak (Armenian Revolutionary Federation), which controls it, and members of the moderate Armenian National Movement led by President Ter-Petrosyan.
The split among Karabakh Armenians makes it impossible for the parliament to elect a new chairman. Many in the hall are angry over the wearying wrangle.
"The war has just begun," independent parliamentarian Vyacheslav Agabalyan warns from the dimly lit theater floor on June 4. "Do not test the patience of the nation and divide it into two parts." The victories on the battlefield have only intensified that partisan conflict, emboldening the radicals who say the Yerevan government tried to sell them out in peace talks with Azerbaijan. There is evidence that the Armenian government has little control over the Karabakh forces.
The Armenian attack on Shusha was launched just when Ter-Petrosyan was sitting in Teheran holding Iranian-mediated peace talks with the Azerbaijan government. "We were informed by the Iranians," the president told the Monitor on June 3. "It was embarrassing to me."
"There was pressure from the government of Armenia not to attack Shusha," says Dashnak spokesman Abo Poghikian. "They were afraid it would create international problems." The decision finally to attack was made "by the Karabakh people themselves," he says, provoked by fears that the continuation of the siege would bring disease and hunger.
The offensive was swift, beginning on the night of June 8 and ending the next day with an Azeri retreat. The Armenian forces pushed on, taking the town of Lachin, which lies just outside Karabakh's borders, and breaking the Azeri blockade by gaining control of the six-mile corridor from Karabakh to Armenia.
The signs of battle are visible in a drive down a pitted road now largely trafficked by trucks filled with gasoline or bags of flour.
From high Armenian meadows where sheep graze, the road winds down into Azeri territory, through a narrow river valley and back up to Lachin. The stone houses there are deserted, many blackened from the inside by fire and stripped clean by looters. The only sign of life are small squads of Armenian guerrillas guarding the crossroads atop the plateau.
The road from Lachin to Shusha is carved out of the mountain sides. A stone bridge across a stream is destroyed, a tank with its turret blown off and an overturned armored car lying below it, mute testimony to the fruitless Azeri attempt to defend their retreat.
The resort town of Shusha, filled with hotels and mineral springs, has a spectacular vista of mountainous Karabakh, looking down upon Stepanakert and beyond to the distant plains of Azerbaijan. But the tourists and the residents were replaced by Azeri gunners who fired missiles into Stepanakert.
The battle for Shusha left it heavily damaged. But Armenian families, refugees from villages destroyed in the war or those who fled Azeri cities, are moving into the deserted apartments that are still habitable.
"Since our houses were reduced to ruin, we don't feel its wrong to live here," says Karine Belayan as she unloads her belongings from a truck. Armenian refugees and others drive up to Shusha with pieces of paper giving them permission to take furniture and other goods. A tractor pulling an overloaded wagon is stopped by guerrillas at a checkpoint for taking more than its allotted share of the booty.
In some cases, it is just one more event in an endless cycle of ethnic violence. Azeris who fled Armenian towns were given the apartments of Armenians who had been driven from Shusha. On the floor of one ransacked Shusha apartment lies the photo album of an Azeri soldier, Kagani Gasanov, celebrating his 1979 return to Stepanakert from a military academy in Leningrad.
An old man from the village of Karintak where only 50 of 180 houses are left standing has come to Shusha to settle. What if Azeris return, he is asked. "If they come, they will kill us first," he retorts.