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Voice of America – English: Reporter’s Notebook: Outrage Swells as Civilians Suffer From Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

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“The road is not that dangerous,” says Arsan, 50, a bus driver whose route goes from the Armenian capital of Yerevan to the border of Nagorno-Karabakh, the center of a conflict that has grown increasingly violent in the past ten days.

“At night we just drive with our lights off near the border,” he adds.

We are surprised that Arsan characterizes an area so hot that he cannot use headlights as “not that dangerous.” Many other drivers won’t go near the area, even for jacked-up wartime prices.

Grigor, left, and Arsan are bus driver who worry the current conflict is growing more dangerous than ever in about 30 years of war for Nagorno-Karabakh, in Yerevan, Armenia on Oct. 6, 2020. (Yan Boechat/VOA)

Arsan and his colleague, 59-year-old Grigor, who also declined to provide a last name, stand near a large pile of supplies being packed up for families displaced by the fighting. There is an outpouring of charity, as people bring clothes, medicine and food. There is also an outpouring of national pride, with people stopping by our microphones to declare support for their military.

And in this battle, anger and national pride have swelled on both sides. Armenia and Azerbaijanis accuse each other of causing civilian deaths and destroying residential neighborhoods. The United Nations has called for an immediate cease-fire, saying, “there is no military solution to the conflict.”

Hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh have sparked violence several times since the Soviet Union fell, chopping up the region.  Both countries claim the area — home to about 150,000 people — as their own.  Armenia currently controls most of it and Azerbaijan calls it “illegally occupied.”

The current fighting is seen as the worst since the 1990s, when tens of thousands of people were killed and thousands more displaced. In recent days, fierce fighting has driven people from their homes amid growing fears that outside countries will get involved.

Local volunteers gather food, medicine and clothes to send to families displaced by the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, in Yerevan, Armenia on Oct. 6, 2020. (Yan Boechat/VOA)

At the charity depot, Grigor says he attended a funeral for his friend’s son the day before. “The father said, ‘I hope this is the last death in this fight,'” Grigor recalls.

But when asked how they envisioned a solution to the conflict, both men agreed the best answer would be a victory for Armenia, their country.

“If they can make peace around the table, that would be good,” says Arsan. “But if war is the only solution, so be it.”

Hasmik Sargsyan, 41, has fled her home in Nagorno-Karabakh twice in the past four years, on Oct. 6, 2020 in Yerevan, Armenia. (Yan Boechat/VOA)

Displaced families

In a cramped, musty apartment across town, 41-year-old Hasmik Sargsyan says last week wasn’t the first time she fled her home in Nagorno-Karabakh.

“One night in 2016, we thought there was a military training going on,” she tells us. “But then it was like fireworks blew up the sky.”

The family was gone by 6 a.m. the next day, returning later to the region, hoping for a lasting peace.

But when they started to hear bombing near their village last week, they decided it was time to remove the children, before it got too dangerous.

Sargsyan and her sister-in-law, Narineh Sargsyan, found a driver who agreed to take them, along with Narineh’s five children and four of the neighbor’s children, to Yerevan the next morning. The driver warned them to have their valuables ready, because it was too dangerous for him to wait if they were late.

The children’s fathers stayed behind.

“As soon as we got to the nearest city, I thought we were safe,” says Hasmik Sargsyan. “But the driver said there could be shelling at any time.”

Some of the children cry when their fathers’ names are mentioned, adds Theresa Poghosyan, 37, the owner of the apartment hosting the women and children. Others are afraid of any sharp noises.

“This has become so very hard for the children,” says Poghosyan.

Suzie Azizbekyan, 23, says, for her, the fight for Nagorno-Karabakh is a fight for her country’s existence amid growing outrage on both sides in Yerevan, Armenia on Oct. 6, 2020. (Yan Boechat/VOA)

Youth outrage

At another charity depot in central Yerevan, Suzie Azizbekyan, 23, helps collect food, medicine and clothes for displaced families and organizes a patchwork of drivers to deliver them.

The capital is several hours by car from the war, she says, but a kind of shadow has been cast across the city, where people fear escalation even this far away. For her and other young people gathering supplies, this is a fight for the very existence of their country. “It feels like it’s now or never,” she says.

But the outrage is growing on the other side too, with young Azerbaijani’s calling for the return of what they also call “our homeland” and declaring support for their military.

On the National Assembly of Youth Organizations of Azerbaijan’s Facebook page, the last post shows a thoughtful-looking, veiled woman holding keys. The caption reads, “A woman who takes from a chest the keys from her occupied house, which she kept for 27 years … can now return to her home.”

The slogan echoes Palestinian calls for return, an emotional topic for Muslims around the world. The conflict is not over religion, but in addition to having different ethnicities and languages, Azerbaijanis are mostly Muslim and Armenians are mostly Christian.

Youth on both sides decry the other’s growing use of heavy weapons and say the other deliberately targets innocent people. Between the warring parties, scores of civilians are already reported dead.

And outside observers say young people on both sides have plenty of reasons to be angered by the suffering from a war that they had no part in starting.

The U.N. children’s agency says four children have already been killed, and seven have been wounded. It also says schools, homes and other infrastructure have been damaged.

“Without an end to the fighting,” UNICEF said in a statement on Tuesday, “These figures will tragically increase.”

Voice of America – English