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The war over the unspoiled mountains and fertile valleys of Karabakh is a blood feud with roots that reach deep into the history of the region. In 1915, during the twilight of the Ottoman Empire, Armenians living in Turkish Armenia were deported into the deserts of what is now Syria. At least 1 million people of Armenian descent were either killed or died of starvation, though modern Turkey disputes that figure as exaggerated. Azeris are ethnic cousins of the Turks, and in Karabakh today some Armenian soldiers claim they are continuing the historic battle. "For the Azeris, the only solution is to rid Karabakh of all Armenians, just like the Turks in 1915," says Artur, one such freedom fighter in Stepanakert. "But we won't let that happen again."
In 1923, after Soviet power had been established in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Bolsheviks granted the disputed region of Karabakh to the Azeris. Before Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, Armenian protests over Karabakh were sporadic and quickly suppressed. But in 1988 the Armenian movement to free Karabakh from Azeri rule went public, and the fighting began.
Until the Soviet Union's collapse, the Kremlin tended to favor the Azeris in the conflict, largely because Azerbaijan was the last bastion of communist orthodoxy in the Caucasus. Soviet army and Interior Ministry troops alternately tried to keep the peace or assisted the Azeris in military operations. Though the Azeri government in Baku accuses Russia of helping Armenia, it is the Azeri fighters in the region who are far better equipped with Soviet military weaponry than their opponents.
While Gorbachev was President, the international community treated the Karabakh conflict as an internal affair of the Soviet Union. But as the fighting increased this year and former Soviet troops pulled out of the enclave, the United Nations, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (C.S.C.E.), and Iran, which shares borders with both Armenia and Azerbaijan and is trying to expand its role in the region, all launched efforts to resolve the conflict. The first cease-fire brokered by Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati collapsed within a few hours. The second one lasted for several days, with both sides reporting relatively minor violations. That was long enough for U.N. special envoy Cyrus Vance to visit Stepanakert on a fact-finding mission late last month and to declare his hope that third-party mediation could help bring peace.
But early last week artillery shells cascaded in violent waves upon Stepanakert. From mid-morning until after nightfall, the city rattled to the thunderous explosions of 157 GRAD missiles, highly destructive artillery- launched shells. Karabakh leaders said more than 500 Azeri troops had moved down the mountain from Shusha to attack Stepanakert's outskirts. At a makeshift hospital on the first floor of the city's former Communist Party headquarters, doctors operated throughout the shelling as jeeps and ambulances arrived carrying the wounded. In the building's foyer, an old woman stared in grief at the body of her dead son, her rhythmic cries punctuated by the deep roar of artillery. On the sidewalk outside, a man waiting for news of his own son's wounds turned to those near him and asked, "Do you see the life we live?"