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Documentary : Where Grapes--and Trust--Die on Vine : * Neglected vineyards symbolize the bitter mood in Nagorno-Karabakh, ruled by ancient enmities.

March 03, 1992|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OVERLOOKING AGDAM, Azerbaijan — It was the vines that troubled the peasant heart of Ishan Bagdasaryan.

The 55-year-old man, balancing a homemade shotgun on his arm, gazed upon them from the rudimentary earthworks he and other Armenians had gouged into the crest of a hill.

Off in the distance, the roofs of the city of Agdam showed chalky white. There was an Azerbaijani gun emplacement out there somewhere, Bagdasaryan's colleagues cautioned, so you really should keep your head down. On the rolling fields to the rear, black smudges on sere earth showed where enemy artillery rounds had landed.

But it was the fate of the grapes that bothered Bagdasaryan, and strangely enough, that was a cheering note of humanity and decency in the hate-filled strife over ownership of Nagorno-Karabakh, a mostly Armenian-populated island here in the middle of Azerbaijan.

It certainly wasn't as if Bagdasaryan had no personal stake in the conflict. In early 1988, the little man in the blue coat recalled, "I had to flee from my home in Sumgait with not so much as a spoon."

But today, it was not his former home near the Caspian seacoast 150 miles east that was on his mind, but rather the vineyards and their neat rows of gnarled, dark brown plants that marched across the no-man's-land between the Armenians' straw-strewn trench and the Azerbaijani town in the distance. In happier times, those plants would soon be yielding the fat grapes that local winemakers by some miracle would transform into Nagorno-Karabakh's dark and heady red or into sweet vermouth.

"It's time to clean and cut back the plants," Bagdasaryan said softly, almost to himself. "We should be taking care of them. But what can we do? We can't go out there; we'd be cut down by machine-gun fire."

Did he think after more than 1,000 deaths and such a crescendo of animosity that Armenians and Azerbaijanis could ever sit down again at the same table and drink some of the wine grown on this tan-colored tableland?

Yes, he said after reflecting, he did. But many of his compatriots do not.

Beasts. Perverts. Soviet Turks. Such are the labels used by many Armenians to describe the enemy. When I asked an official of the Artsakh Society, an association of Nagorno-Karabakh natives who live in Armenia proper, why he thinks the Azerbaijanis are fighting to hold on to the territory, he replied:

"We Armenians have just one goal: to defend our hearths and homes. But they are motivated by three desires: to earn money or booty, to commit sodomy and, of course, by their Muslim fanaticism." His was an extreme view, but it illustrated how the fighting has dehumanized relations between peoples who have lived alongside one another for centuries--albeit sometimes not very peacefully.

On a weeklong visit to Nagorno-Karabakh, it was not possible for me or the Russian photographer who accompanied me to cross over into Azerbaijani-controlled territory because we might have been shot before we could identify ourselves. But beyond the vines, under those white roofs in Agdam, the hatred, by most accounts, is the same. Such emotions have many wondering what will happen when the struggle for the region ends, as all wars must.

Armen Seiranyan, a construction engineer of Armenian origin from Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh's capital, is one of the pensive ones. He virtually learned his trade from an Azerbaijani instructor at a local building institute. At least 10 times, he recalled fondly, he was invited to his mentor's home. "He received me just like a member of his own family," Seiranyan recalled.

But those dinners of mutton and endless glasses of hot, heavily sugared tea were before the two ethnic groups went at each other's throats after a 1988 request by Nagorno-Karabakh's legislature for the territory to be removed from Azerbaijani jurisdiction and made part of Armenia. A few weeks ago, Seiranyan, this time carrying a gun, was back in his former instructor's town, Malybeili, a predominantly Azerbaijani settlement outside Stepanakert.

Armenian fighters had just stormed the place, since the Azerbaijanis were using it to fire artillery and rockets onto the capital. And in the fighting, the house of Seiranyan's friend, who had since moved to Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, had been set ablaze.

"I watched it burn," Seiranyan remembered. "And as it blazed and finally burned down, I asked myself: Will that man and I ever be able to sit down again together, as we used to, and have a frank talk? What will we say to one another?"

If you come into Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia, as we did, you fly on a helicopter over the magnificent mountains of the Caucasus, all craggy and blindingly bright with pristine snow. Although the enclave lies only a few miles from the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, all land routes have been cut by an Azerbaijani blockade.

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