As Azerbaijan struggles, civilians are the victims

September 09, 1993|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Staff Writer

MAHMUDLU, Azerbaijan -- The helicopter took off again in a hurry, and for a moment, as the heavy sun beat down on a richly green field, there was no sight or sound of the thousands of refugees who have streamed toward this pocket of a war-ravaged and despairing Azerbaijan.

The crickets whirred. The sunlight shimmered on brown hills a few miles away to the south, across the border in Iran. Five miles to the north, the advance artillery of the invading Armenian forces was silent.

Then 15-year-old Ali Ibragimov ambled out of the rushes that grow along an irrigation ditch, waving an antique double-barreled shotgun as if it were a drum major's baton.

Amiably, he showed the way around the ditch and down the lane to the rail siding he now calls home.

Thirty-three boxcars sat baking in the 100-degree heat. Three families live now in each car -- 20 to 25 people per car -- refugees from the Armenian advance. They came down out of the hills, from the village of Suleimanly, and from the outskirts of Mahmudlu itself.

Thousands more, maybe 100,000 in all, are similarly homeless, in a narrow band all along Azerbaijan's southwest border, living in schools and tents and just out in the open. Some brought their sheep and cows with them; some loaded their bedsteads into trucks and have set them up again in the shade of roadside pines; some came with nothing.

They have collected in a long strip, between the Armenians just to the north and Iran just to the south, across the Aras River. They are everywhere -- passive, downcast, with nowhere to go.

The flood of people has set off jitters in Iran and angry denunciations in nearby Turkey. Both have demanded that the Armenians withdraw. So has the United Nations.

The Armenians are close enough that they could fire their guns right into Iran now. The refugees' only sure connection with the rest of Azerbaijan is by helicopter, and the Azerbaijani government appears to be woefully ill-equipped to handle the crisis.

Emblem of war

But the growing tide of refugees is in a way only an emblem of this war that bears down heavily on the civilian populations of both sides even as their seemingly heedless fighters go on battling. The Christian Armenians, blockaded, are without heat, fuel, or regular electricity. The Muslim Azeris, uprooted by the hundreds of thousands, are losing their homes and farms.

For five years, the two former Soviet republics have fought over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, a section of Azerbaijan that has a predominantly Armenian population. The war has brought widespread disruption, ethnic riots, coups, the burning of villages, the kidnapping and killing of civilians.

In that respect it is not so different from the other wars raging along the edges of the former Soviet Union, in Georgia and Tajikistan. And, as in those other wars, it is not neighboring Iran or Turkey that will count in the end, but the old imperial power -- Russia.

Moscow has made clear its interest in most of the former Soviet republics. Over the last four days, Russia has beefed up its troops on the border between Armenia and Turkey. Yesterday, the Turkish prime minister, Tansu Ciller, flew to Moscow for talks on defusing the crisis.

Since Monday, the Azerbaijani acting president, Geidar Aliev, has also been in Moscow, meeting with top Russian officials -- President Boris N. Yeltsin, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, and defense chief Pavel Grachev -- in search of a way out of the impending catastrophe. Where just a year ago many Azeris were thumbing their noses at Moscow, today more and more believe that only Russian influence could bring peace to their battered country.

Yesterday, Mr. Aliev said he is optimistic that Russia will help bring "this senseless war" to a close. He said Russia's leaders had shown "complete understanding" in their discussions. "The role of Russia as a great power is immense," he said.

For months the Armenians have controlled all of Nagorno-Karabakh, and now they are bringing the war to Azerbaijan proper. And the Azeris, who once eagerly turned their guns on Armenian villages, are on the run.

The refugees here along the Iranian border fled from Fizuli, when it fell two weeks ago to the Armenian summer offensive, and from Jebrail, Kubatly -- which was taken last Wednesday -- and from hundreds of villages in between.

They fled because the Armenians left them no choice. Azeris caught in their own villages are taken hostage, or, in some cases, simply shot. The Armenians appear to be intent on clearing a broad swath of Azerbaijani land surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh.

'Distinction of this war'

"This is a distinction of this war," said Capt. Azad Isazade at the Azerbaijani military headquarters in Baku, the capital. "Civilians can't stay in their homes, or they'll be taken hostage or killed. It wasn't even like this in the war between Hitler and Stalin."

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