Former Soviet Union Carnage in Karabakh

With the Russians gone, Azeris and Armenians carry on their ancient blood feud

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Rosa Babayan was in her kitchen fixing tea and slicing bread for breakfast when the first artillery shell of the morning slammed into her concrete apartment building. As she rushed down to the cellar with her family, another shell burst nearby, smashing the windows in the stairwell and sending a shard of glass into her forehead. Ten minutes later, she emerged to survey the damage, daubing the blood from just above her hairline. The corner bedroom of her fourth-floor apartment and all the rooms below it were a heap of rubble and twisted steel.

Since that February morning when a Soviet-made GRAD missile destroyed part of her home, Babayan, 53, and her family have lived in the cellar, sleeping on a row of cots alongside neighbors. They are hardly alone. Babayan lives in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous enclave fully within the borders of the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. Populated almost entirely by Armenians, Karabakh has seen more than 1,500 people die since 1988, when Armenians and Azeris, each side claiming the enclave as its own, began their skirmishing with hunting rifles. They have now graduated to modern weapons, including tanks, missiles and heavy artillery, turning their ethnic conflict into the bloodiest and most intractable of the many such conflicts bequeathed by the Soviet Union to the new Commonwealth of Independent States.

Scarcely a single building has escaped damage in Stepanakert, the target of almost daily shelling all winter from a mountaintop stronghold held by the Azeris at Shusha, just four miles away. The city has been without running water, electricity or telephones for three months; other regions of Karabakh have been without these basic services for much longer. A near total absence of fuel -- a product of Azerbaijan's economic blockade of the enclave -- has left Karabakh's factories silent, its workers unemployed and without pay. Schools that have not been leveled are closed. The basement of the partially destroyed parliament building serves as the city's maternity ward, where nurses tend newborn babies by candlelight. A member of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which opened a station in Stepanakert three weeks ago, said he fears the city could soon be struck by hunger, and, as the weather warms, by epidemics.

Once home to 70,000 of Karabakh's 200,000 residents, Stepanakert's population has been shrinking as some families send their children to outlying villages. Most of the 50,000 who remain live underground in crowded, dark basements. They emerge, as Babayan did recently, only when there is a lull in the shelling. Adapting to life in wartime, they walk the streets carefully, always trying to place the wall of a building between themselves and the likely trajectory of incoming artillery. "We will live on," said Babayan, whose sister had died the day before from shrapnel wounds. "We are simply not going to give up our land."

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