Azerbaijan and Armenia are once again clashing over the disputed region of Karabakh, as competing territorial claims and Russian intervention dim the prospect of peace.
KARABAKH, Azerbaijan — For over a year, the Azerbaijani army has been entrenched on Leletepe, a hilltop overlooking the disputed Karabakh region, guarding it from Armenian incursions. The strategically important hilltop was occupied by Armenian forces for more than 25 years, but the Azerbaijani army retook it in April 2016.
After a year of calm, fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia resumed along the line of control in Karabakh on Saturday. The Armenian-backed rebels killed five Azerbaijani soldiers and injured dozens. Azerbaijan retaliated with mortar attacks of its own. Both sides accused the other of being the primary aggressor.
The atmosphere on Leletepe is tense. Three Azerbaijani soldiers are staring out of box-like holes in the ground, maintaining a strict vigil towards Armenian posts in a damp bunker made of mud bricks. The holes have been covered with a black cloth to block the light and ensure that the Armenians have no idea who is inside.
"They're watching us as closely as we are watching them. I'd be careful to put the cloth back once you're done peeping through it," warned the commanding officer who had accompanied TRT World to the top.
As the Soviet Union's grip over Azerbaijan loosened in the final months before the USSR's collapse, Karabakh's ethnic majority of Armenians insisted on their right to either independence or accession to Armenia.
In 1988, Armenian separatists declared independence in Karabakh, creating the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, which is recognised only by Armenia. Soon after, the Armenian army entered Karabakh, and took control of the region. Armenian forces also occupied Azerbaijani territory outside of Karabakh, so as to create a contiguous corridor between Armenia and the disputed territory.
Ever since, Azerbaijan has wanted all of its territory back. The fresh round of fighting has once again brought the two countries to the brink of large-scale conflict.
"What we see in the latest round of fighting is an obvious prelude or preparation for yet another major offensive that many of us expect to come in the next few months," said Richard Giragosian, founding director of the Regional Studies Center in Yerevan.
For both sides, Karabakh is a grim reminder of previous rounds of bloodletting. In early 1992, Armenian separatists, sensing imminent victory over Azerbaijan in the Karabakh region, decided to target the last remaining vestiges of ethnic Azeri presence in the disputed territory. They set their sights on the Azeri-majority town of Khojaly.
"They attacked us as we slept," Durdane Khanum said, recalling the violence. A resident of Khojaly, Khanum survived the Armenian assault on the town. She told TRT World the town was already under attack. Then came the night of February 25, 1992: "The Armenians began using heavy weapons and people caught up inside soon realised a ground operation was imminent."
The Armenian separatists were backed by remnants of the Soviet military, including Soviet tanks, which had completely choked the town and the surrounding areas.
"There was no way to escape," said Valey Husaynov, another resident of Khojaly, who witnessed what happened next. He said the Armenians had blocked all roads in and out of the town that night. "We thought we would be safer in the forest."
"The only way out was through a dense forest next to the town," Khanum agreed. "As we were escaping, Khojaly was burning behind us."
Husaynov said the Armenians soon realised that some people had found a way out of the burning town: "They turned their guns and artillery towards the woods." He said the forest became a killing field as mortars started blowing up people there.
"There was nowhere left to run. We were blinded by smoke and the sound of explosions. I couldn't even hear people scream," he said.
As the dust settled and the guns went silent, Husaynov recalled seeing body parts lying all around him. That was when he saw his wife lying on the ground.
"She had been killed in the shelling. I froze," he said. Overcome with grief, Husaynov sat next to his wife until a group of Armenian fighters came across him and took him prisoner.
"They tortured me for 27 days. First they pulled out my finger nails, then they broke my fingers. My teeth were punched out and they broke my legs," he said.
Azerbaijani authorities say that at least 613 ethnic Azeris were killed over a three-day period in Khojaly by Armenian separatists. Armenia doesn't deny that ethnic Azeris were killed in Khojaly, but says both sides suffered casualties and the number of Azeris killed has been highly exaggerated.
Richard said Khojaly represented a very sad chapter for Azeris. "But for the Armenians, Khojaly is equally tragic as the pogroms in Baku that drove the Armenians out of Azerbaijan," he said, referring to anti-Armenian riots which took place in the Azerbaijani capital in January 1990.
The blueprint for a resolution to the dispute lies in the first ceasefire agreement in 1994 between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Despite being violated many times, it offers the best chance for peace, many observers argue. But international mediation has so far failed to bring all sides to the negotiating table.
Azerbaijan refuses to negotiate directly with the separatists, insisting that they are an illegal occupation force backed by Yerevan.
The involvement of Russia has also complicated the situation. Moscow has played an important, if at times divisive, role in the conflict. It backed Armenian separatists in their attempt to take over Karabakh, and has since supplied weapons to both Armenia and Azerbaijan.
"There is a genuine sense of frustration by Azerbaijan from the lack of any substantial progress from the peace process," said Giragosian. He said despite a resumption of hostilities, "talks were the only way forward to resolve the crisis," but that "events on the ground had overtaken diplomacy."
Return to homeland
Durdane Khanum wrote a book about her own experiences in Khojaly, called Eight days. It covers the eight days she says she spent in Armenian captivity.
"Sometimes I feel like I want revenge," Durdane said. "But then I feel an eye for an eye would not be justice."
Valey Husaynov said Armenian separatists released him after 27 days in captivity, in exchange for three ethnic Armenians. He said the memories of the bloodshed in Khojaly still haunt him, but he uses his experience to keep the conversation going.
"Justice will be when we can return to Karabakh and live in our lands again," Husaynov said.
Richard Giragosian said the latest escalation of violence between the two sides is the result of different interpretations of the historical records; of competing translations of historical facts.
"All sides in this conflict are prisoners of the past," he said.
Additional Reporting by Cagri Gunal and Dervis Eray Caglar