Europe

Nagorno-Karabakh: 'Frozen' conflict threatens to reignite

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Media captionDespite a 20-year ceasefire there are frequent fire fights and casualties

Amid fears that a "frozen conflict" is developing in eastern Ukraine the BBC's Rayhan Demytrie examines life in disputed Nagorno-Karabakh, scene of one of the former Soviet Union's most protracted conflicts.

Fourteen-year-old Karen hides the stump of his left hand in his pocket. His siblings gather round as he looks at Facebook on the family laptop.

"I can't forgive myself for what happened," says his mother, Ludmila Bagdasaryan-Mirzoyan.

Two years ago Karen found a live anti-aircraft shell in the garden. After he started playing with it, the relic from the 1990s war with Azerbaijan exploded in his hands.

Image caption Karen Mirzoyan (left) hides his injury as he uses a computer

The family live in Madagis, a village in the landlocked mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh, close to the frontline with Azerbaijan.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union there was all-out war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, from 1992 to 1994. An estimated 30,000 people were killed.

Despite a ceasefire of 20 years, the area is heavily militarised.

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Media captionThe Halo Trust has the difficult task of clearing minefields

There are frequent shootings across the frontline. Each side blames the other for military casualties, which have risen sharply in recent months.

Ludmila says her children often hear gunfire or warning sirens.

"They wake up and ask me: 'Mum has war started again?'" she says.

Abandoned homes

Azerbaijan lost swathes of territory during the conflict, and more than 600,000 ethnic Azeris from Karabakh and nearby regions were forced to flee.

More than 300,000 ethnic Armenians who used to live in Azerbaijan were also displaced by the conflict.

Today, a drive through Nagorno-Karabakh reveals many abandoned homes. Some lie in ruins, others are intact, with overgrown gardens, behind still padlocked but rusting gates.

Time, it seems, has been frozen here.

But the conflict itself is very much alive.

Image caption This abandoned building lies in the town of Shushi, as it is called by Armenians (Shusha for Azeris)

Peace negotiations mediated by the Minsk Group, under the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), have seen little progress.

"If we look at the peace process what it really represents is what I call 'back to basics' diplomacy," says Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Centre, a think tank based in the Armenian capital, Yerevan.

"It's no longer about negotiating over Nagorno-Karabakh, rather it's back to basic, minimum objectives.

"The first goal of the mediation is to keep the peace process alive and the second goal is to prevent war, rather than any real diplomacy over negotiations where they can't even agree on the agenda. That's how far apart the two sides are."

Isolated

Internationally, Nagorno-Karabakh is considered part of Azerbaijan, but its Armenian inhabitants call themselves citizens of the Artsakh Republic and remain the sworn enemies of Azerbaijan.

The territory has its own flag, an international airport, police and armed forces, although regular Armenian soldiers serve on the frontline.

Image caption A large statue shows the symbol of Nagorno-Karabakh

In reality, Nagorno-Karabakh is isolated. Financially and militarily it depends on Armenia. Its subjects hold Armenian passports. And the international airport stands empty, because Azerbaijan has threatened to shoot down any planes.

Frustrated by the lack of a diplomatic solution, Azerbaijan's leadership has threatened to retake the territory militarily. Oil-rich Azerbaijan has spent billions of US dollars on modern weaponry.

Image caption Armenian veterans of the Karabakh war are displayed in a school in the region

And most of the arms are supplied by Russia. That is deeply unpopular with Armenia. It counts Russia as its strategic ally, and hosts Russia's only military base in the region.

"We are concerned that Russia, for all sorts of reasons, is selling weapons to Azerbaijan," the Armenian President, Serzh Sargsyan, said at a recent public forum in Yerevan.

"The problem is not the quality of the weaponry, but the fact that an Armenian soldier standing at the border knows he could be killed by Russian weapons."

Azerbaijan does not recognise the Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) administration, but the territory's de facto foreign minister, Karen Mirzoyan, says that without their inclusion in the peace process, there will be no resolution to the conflict.

"When you withdraw NK from the negotiation table, it's very easy to say that it's not a conflict for self-determination, it's just a territorial problem and it's very easy to show Armenia as an aggressor. But in reality this conflict is about self-determination."

Ludmila often contemplates what the consequences of another war would be.

"If there is another war, we will suffer, my children will suffer," she says.

"[Azerbaijan's forces] won't care whether we are guilty or not, they will just think that we are Armenians and we have no right to exist."

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