`Why are they shelling civilian areas?'
Azerbaijan, Armenia trade accusations
STEPANAKERT, ARMENIA • Named in honour of those who helped Nagorno-Karabakh win independence from Azerbaijan 30 years ago, Freedom Fighter Street no longer has homes fit for heroes.
A plaza of Soviet- style housing in the breakaway republic's capital, Stepanakert, the street's crumbling flats have barely had a facelift since Communist times.
Now, though, the four- storey blocks are in need of more than just a lick of paint after a missile crashed into them during shelling on Friday night.
The missile — one of scores that have hit Stepanakert since war resumed again with Azerbaijan a week ago — killed an elderly woman living on the third floor and wounded dozens more.
Yet the casualty count would probably have been far higher had most of the residents not already been sheltering in the flats' basements, which double as bomb bunkers.
The residents have had plenty of practice in emergency drills: although the conflict with Azerbaijan officially “froze” after a ceasefire in 1994, it has simmered ever since, leaving Stepanakert's 50,000 people in a state of constant readiness for war.
Nearly every building with a cellar or basement doubles as a bomb shelter, and the city has a system of graded air raid warnings. A long, unbroken siren means an enemy plane has crossed the border, three minutes' flight from Stepanakert. An intermittent noise can refer to drones, which fly more slowly.
But no warning is available at all for the missiles now landing in the city, many of which have hit civilian areas.
“The missile has half-destroyed this block,” said Nelson Adamyan, 65, a retired electrician, as he showed The Daily Telegraph around the wreckage of his bottom-floor flat on Saturday. “Why are they shelling civilian areas and killing old women? Real warriors fight against each other in the fields, not in villages full of civilians.”
As he spoke, two more loud explosions rang out, forcing him to sprint again for cover in the block's basement, which is equipped with mattresses, tables and a dining area.
“We don't even know if this place is safe, it's just a basement rather than a proper bunker,” Tamara Hayrapetyan, 60, said. “But there would have been even more casualties if we hadn't been down here when the missile hit.”
The shelling became even heavier Sunday, with missiles crashing into several downtown streets. Azerbaijan also claimed that Armenian forces had fired rockets at its second city of Ganja, killing one civilian and wounding four.
Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev demanded on Sunday that Armenia set a timetable for withdrawing from the enclave of Nagorno- Karabakh and surrounding Azeri territories, and said Azerbaijan would not cease military action until that happened.
In a televised address to the nation, Aliyev said Azeri forces were advancing in a weeklong offensive to retake lands that they lost to ethnic Armenians in the 1990s.
Hundreds of people have been killed in the past week of fighting between Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenian forces, including more than 40 civilians.
But while the war shows every sign of escalating, older residents like Hayrapetyan take the bombardments in their stride. They endured far worse in the war for independence in the early Nineties, as Nagorno-Karabakh's Armenian Christians fought to secede from ethnically Turkic Azerbaijan.
Back then, Azerbaijani forces in the hilltop town of Shushi rained stockpiles of Soviet-era ordnance down on to Stepanakert, at one point firing 150 shells per day. So the residents of Freedom Fighter Street feel no great need right now to summon up much Blitz-style spirit.
In a basement bunker near the town centre, where the Harutyunyan family and their neighbours were staying, a makeshift minibar had been set up with Heineken, Martini and brandy, along with fresh walnuts, chewing gum and paracetamol.
AT FIRST YOU WANT TO BELIEVE THAT IT'S OUR OWN FORCES JUST DOING TEST FIRING.
“We've been sleeping here every night for the last six days since the fighting started,” said Hayk Harutyunyan, 18. “There's a dozen of us here in this one room, but we Armenians are very close as family so we get on well together.”
The mood was defiantly upbeat, although his neighbour, Marine Manukyan, 57, wished for a time when the sirens and bunkers were no longer part of normal life. She has already lost one son to illness five years ago, and has another now serving on the front lines.
“This is the third generation of our people who are seeing war,” she said.
“When you wake up at seven in the morning and hear explosions, at first you want to believe that it's our own forces just doing test firing. But then you realize that you're just lying to yourself, and that it's war once again.”