NAGORNO-KARABAKH - “It will end with our victory,” said a soldier, grinning in red-rimmed sunglasses near a telecom company in Stepanakert, the regional capital of Nagorno-Karabakh.
One journalist laughed and said, “I like your glasses.”
Two days earlier, a cluster bomb smashed out nearby ATMs, burned out parked cars and left curious pink ribbons near blast holes in the pavement.
The war was not even two weeks old Friday, but it was the third of its kind in 28 years, and locals said it could become the most destructive. Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized borders include Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region that claims to be an independent country. Armenia says the region and several surrounding areas are under its protection. Azerbaijan says the disputed areas are “illegally occupied.”
Hundreds of people have been killed in the recent violence, including dozens of civilians on both sides.
The sanguine conversation outside the telecom continued for another moment, as two photographers clicked away at the wreckage.
Then everything changed. The first bomb blast sent a cat fleeing under a car and the journalists and soldiers running. A pile of sandbags surrounded a nearby door, and the group scurried downstairs as the last blast sounded.
There were several men in the basement hanging lights on the walls. They looked unsurprised to see the newcomers. It had become a way of life over the past two weeks in Stepanakert. Some days, sometimes many times a day, the city had been hit by bombs or airstrikes, and the people who had ventured out hurried back inside.
Air raid sirens howl sometimes before a blast, but not always, as was the case Friday, when they began howling minutes after.
Under the telecom building, the men fixing up the shelter were volunteers. Like many people in the town, they were mostly former soldiers, and their sons were fighting on the front lines of the war.
“Nowadays all life is in the shelters,” said Hmayak Vanyan, 60, leaning on a shovel. “I won’t leave this place.”
A few cigarette butts were scattered in the dimly lit basement and the empty light-bulb boxes were piled into a plastic bag.
Three kittens, each about the size of an avocado, huddled in a box on the floor.
“The mother cat was killed in the bombing the other day,” one man said.
As the sirens wailed on for more than half an hour, the men tired of talking about patriotism and the future of what they saw as a seemingly never-ending war. They fought in the 1990s, now their sons are fighting, and it’s not clear that their grandsons will not be fighting.
Children in this region learn weaponry in high school, and several retired soldiers quoted the number of seconds they need to disassemble a Kalashnikov.
“But you should not disassemble a Kalashnikov,” said David Safanyan, a 63-year-old retired soldier. “You should shoot it very well.”
For ethnic Armenians in this city, this war is an existential threat, and there is very little sympathy for the other side. For Azerbaijanis, the war is equally emotional, according to Zaur Shiriyev, a South Caucasus analyst with Crisis Group.
The areas surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh that are now controlled by Armenia were once mostly populated by Azerbaijanis. Hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis were forced to flee their homes in the 1990s. Today, according to Shiriyev, as many as a million are displaced in Azerbaijan, unable to return to lands controlled by what they see as a hostile military.
“Internally displaced people are living in bad social conditions,” Shiriyev said. “It has led to uncertainty.”
After about 45 minutes, the sirens stopped in Stepanakert, and the men tromped back up the stairs, followed by the journalists. As night fell, scattered cars returned to the streets, some with dimmed headlights. A few hours later, more sirens blasted in another night of tension.
The next morning, the city was buzzing with the announcement of a cease-fire planned to begin at noon. The two sides could exchange prisoners and the bodies of their dead. By afternoon, both Azerbaijan and Armenia had accused the other of breaking the cease-fire.
But the morning in Stepanakert was quiet, without a single siren, and more people ventured onto the streets. Many were skeptical that this cease-fire would be long, or meaningful.
“After a cease-fire, there is always more shooting,” said Martik Sahakyan, 47, another former soldier with sons currently on the front lines.
Nina, 72, who did not want to share her last name, was one of the few women seen walking around the city. Most women and children had evacuated.
“In 1994 we had a cease-fire, and there was ongoing violence,” she said. “In 2016 we had a cease-fire, and here we are now.”
At the Holy Mother of God Cathedral, Pargev Martirosyan, the archbishop of Artsakh, the local name for Nagorno-Karabakh, was blunt, asking in the midafternoon, “What cease-fire?” The journalists were not allowed to interview people in the shelter because they feared the church would be targeted. They followed the archbishop into an office for an interview.
Twenty minutes later, a single blast was heard in the distance. The archbishop stood up, flipping his palm in exasperation. He knew this was coming.
“Let’s go,” he said, sighing, leading his staff and the journalists into a basement shelter.