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In Azerbaijan, Civilians Pay Price of War

September 26, 1993|SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ZANGELAN, Azerbaijan — It looks as if war had come to California.

This besieged corner of southwestern Azerbaijan is a lovely land of tawny rolling hills and irrigated valleys thick with orchards and vineyards. Pomegranates grow by the side of the road, and on the southern side of the Araks River are the dusky purple mountains of Iran.

But refugees are camped at every crossroad. They have fled on tractors, in cattle and vegetable trucks, on motorcycles with sidecars heaped with dirty children, mattresses, bags of flour and odd bits of furniture. Some have herded up their cattle and come on foot.

"The children are all sick, and some of our cattle have died also," said Zemrut Zainalova, 60, one of tens of thousands living in roadside tents and cardboard lean-tos about 25 miles west of the war zone. "We have no bread, we are getting no help at all. Winter is coming; where will we live?"

In the last three months, more than 200,000 Azerbaijanis have been driven from their homes as Armenian forces have surged out of the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh to shell, burn and loot cities and villages left defenseless by the near-collapse of the Azerbaijani army.

The Armenians from Karabakh, underdogs for most of the 5-year-old war, now control one-fifth of Azerbaijan's territory, an area nearly the size of Connecticut. The captured land covers at least 4,800 square miles, stretching from the border of the republic of Armenia as far as 15 miles east of the Karabakh enclave and south to within a mile or two of the Iranian border.

Armenians and Azeris have been disputing ownership of the mostly Armenian-populated Karabakh since before 1920. The explosive issue resurfaced in 1988 when Armenian nationalists began lobbying the Soviet Union to have Karabakh deeded to the Armenian republic.

The ensuing ethnic clashes escalated into a full-scale war that has killed about 15,000 people and driven well over a million from their homes.

Officials in Karabakh insist that they are ready to hand back the seized Azerbaijani territory in return for peace with security guarantees. They say their offensive is aimed only at knocking out Azerbaijani artillery that had long terrorized their villages.

Feliks O. Mamikonian, Armenia's envoy to Moscow, said Karabakh officials launched the offensive after Azerbaijan ignored repeated warnings to move its heavy artillery 30 miles back, out of range of Karabakh's villages, but the Azerbaijanis have refused.

"For five years, Azerbaijan has been trying by military means--purely by military means--to kick all the Armenians out of Karabakh," Mamikonian said. "They wanted to annihilate the Armenians."

Azerbaijanis counter that the Armenian forces have gone far beyond establishing an artillery-free "buffer zone" around Karabakh. They say the Armenians, with help from Russia, are trying to drive Azerbaijanis out of all of western Azerbaijan in order to annex their lands.

In an interview in May, a month before the current offensive began, a regimental commander in the Karabakh city of Shusha told The Times: "Our ultimate goal is to intimidate the Azeris to such an extent that they would never, ever think of imposing their rule on us again.

"Sheer demonstration of strength is the only method of solving our problem and attaining real and secure sovereignty," said the commander, who requested anonymity.

Azerbaijanis believe that the Armenians are plotting a land grab of historic proportions.

"Their plan is to create a Greater Armenia from the Black Sea to the Caspian," charged Irshad N. Aliev, who heads the Azerbaijan state committee on refugees.

Whatever the truth, these days Azerbaijani civilians are doing most of the suffering. The Azerbaijani army that once rained shells and rockets down on Karabakh villages is reduced to a shambles by the years of fighting, political strife, warlordism and corruption.

Commanders near the front lines say discipline and morale are at an all-time low. Conscripts are deserting with impunity, they say, while other soldiers simply turn tail and flee the battlefield.

"When two or three soldiers see one single tank, they prefer to run away and tell the commander there were five tanks," said a battalion commander at the eastern edge of the war zone. "This is how the Armenians easily took the hills around Fizuli," one of the four major Azerbaijani towns that have fallen since June. The others are Agdam, Jebrayil and Kubatly.

Armenians have captured much of the equipment that Azerbaijan inherited from the old Soviet army. Azerbaijani supply lines have all but collapsed. Zangelan, located at the end of the 80-mile southern front, had no gasoline to move trucks earlier this month.

The wounded are also suffering from the army's logistic collapse.

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