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Both Sides Suffer as War-Torn Caucasus Enclave Lies in Limbo

Conflict: Leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan meet with Bush today as major powers try to end stalemate.

April 09, 2001|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SHUSHA, Azerbaijan — On almost any day, artist Hovik Gasparian can be found here seated on a stool, bent over an easel, putting oil on canvas to show the ruins of the city he loves.

Deftly he paints the blown-apart buildings, the piles of rubble, the broken beams and the crushed fountains of this historic settlement high on a mountain in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. From his studio in the town's half-ravaged art gallery, he looks out at the remains of the school he attended as a boy three decades ago.

Those memories, too, go into his art.

"I just try to portray what my heart and soul feel," the painter explained to a visitor walking the ghostly streets. "They are in pain, and I want to convey that on canvas."

Seven years after a cease-fire between Armenians and Azerbaijanis ended a six-year war fought over this region of glorious mountains and stunning valleys, the enduring suffering on both sides is palpable.

Ethnic Armenians, having fought and died to assert their claim to the land, now scrape by in the small, heavily defended, self-proclaimed state of Nagorno-Karabakh--struggling economically, cut off from the world and unrecognized as sovereign except by Armenia itself.

On the other side, at least 570,000 Azeris were ejected from their homes, with many living in bleak limbo in Azerbaijan. For them and for Azerbaijan, the humiliation of defeat remains an open wound that continues to fester and roil the country's political life.

Trying to break the stalemate, the United States, France and Russia last week brought together the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan for the latest in a series of peace talks, this time in Key West, Fla. The two leaders will meet separately with President Bush at the White House today.

The aim of the diplomacy is a final settlement that would be a victory for both sides, allowing refugees to return home, borders to be reopened, and trade and commerce to resume in a part of the world considered increasingly important since the discovery of huge oil reserves nearby.

In Shusha, those talks seem far away. The picturesque town used to be mainly Azeri and numbered about 16,000 residents. Now a mere 2,000 to 3,000 people live here, virtually all Armenian. Some, like the artist Gasparian, were born here and know its small cobbled lanes. Others are Armenian refugees, transplanted from Azerbaijan in the mutual "ethnic cleansing" that characterized the first phase of the war.

The war was fought over the Armenian majority's demand in Nagorno-Karabakh to be allowed to secede from Azerbaijan and join Armenia. Demonstrations and ethnic killings gave way to pitched battles, in which an estimated 30,000 people died. Shusha (Shushi in Armenian) was a major battleground.

From Shusha, Azerbaijani soldiers shelled Stepanakert (known as Xankandi in Azerbaijani), the enclave's main city, six miles to the northwest in a bowl-like valley. Armenian forces grimly scaled the heights of this town in 1992, forcing the Azerbaijanis to flee. Tall minarets with tiled designs still stand, and drinking fountains are adorned with Islamic symbols, though the mosques of the Azeris are ruined or derelict.

The largest Armenian church--imposing, white-stone Christ the Savior--was used as an ammunition storehouse by the Azerbaijanis, and now has been renovated, with shiny new chandeliers and freshly painted frescoes paid for by Armenian Americans.

While rueful about the past, Gasparian is skeptical that a solution can be found that satisfies both sides after their bitter fight.

Most of the talk so far has focused on Nagorno-Karabakh being formally returned to Azerbaijan, but with a high degree of autonomy guaranteed. Gasparian scoffs at that idea, saying it is exactly the situation that existed before the war.

"I lost cousins, nephews, my sister's husband," said the 40-year-old artist. "Material losses? I lost my house and everything in it. Everyone in Karabakh has lost something or someone."

But the situation of no-war, no-peace is equally intolerable, taking a psychic as well as an economic toll on the Armenians living here.

"I expect war to break out again. You can almost smell the powder in the air," fretted Mais Gevorkian, 27, who was a machine-gunner in the last war. In his bare apartment, he takes out a treasured envelope and pulls out already fading black-and-white photos of himself crouched on the ground, posing with his weapon and his squad. Now he is unemployed, living in a former Azeri apartment and depending on odd jobs and vegetables from his garden to feed his three children and wife, pregnant with No. 4. People are appreciative of the fighters, he said, but there is no military pension; he is on his own.

It's not the peace he imagined when he was fighting. "I thought we would be able to live without pressure, and I thought life would be easier," he said.

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