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article imageMayor of desolated Karabakh village vows to 'rebuild everything'

By Emmanuel PEUCHOT (AFP)     Oct 20, 2020 in World

Dressed in military fatigues, the mayor of Martakert leans on his desk topped with coils of cables and two landline telephones in a makeshift basement office, his Kalashnikov rifle resting behind him.

His town in the northeast of the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh region has come under regular shelling since fighting erupted between Armenian separatists and Azerbaijan forces last month, forcing most of its 5,000 inhabitants to flee.

Now, Misha Gyurjyan, thinning grey hair framing a round face, spends most of his days in his basement office, coming out only occasionally to assess the damage.

The 61-year-old accompanied AFP journalists on a tour of the deserted town, where only stray dogs and pigs searching for food could be seen wandering its streets.

More than 30 per cent of homes have been destroyed in fighting over the disputed province, the mayor estimates, cautioning that he can't be sure of the figures until daily Azerbaijani shelling ends.

"The fighting needs to stop so we can go street by street to calculate the damage," he says.

There are no bombing sirens in Martakert to warn residents of looming attacks, the mayor notes.

"We no longer have electricity," he adds during a drive across town punctuated by the deep rumbling of shelling from the front line 10 kilometres (6 miles) away.

Gyurjyan pauses at a house he says was destroyed by shelling several days ago.

Misha Gyurjyan's two sons are at war  his wife has fled to Armenia's capital Yerevan
Misha Gyurjyan's two sons are at war, his wife has fled to Armenia's capital Yerevan
ARIS MESSINIS, AFP

Ripped metal sheets from the roof are scattered around the garden, a bunch of black grapes hang from a trellis and the house's charred walls have partially collapsed.

In the garden of another destroyed home nearby, flies swarm around the body of a dead dog.

Further on, the mayor stops in front of a large one-storey building he says was attacked on October 10, saying it used to be his own family home.

The walls withstood the attack, but the windows were all blown out. Trees in the garden are in disarray, their trunks blackened by fire.

- 'We will rebuild everything' -

"My son was here," Gyurjyan says.

"He was coming back from the front to rest. He had time to get out before the airstrike," hit, he adds, lighting one cigarette immediately after finishing another.

Gyurjyan's wife has sought refuge in the Armenian capital Yerevan, while his two sons are serving in the military.

He checks his watch: 2:30 pm. "A bad time. They (the Azerbaijanis) could start bombing," he explains, climbing back into his car.

Back in his three-room, dimly lit basement that serves as office, dormitory and kitchen, Gyurjyan is joined by members of his municipal team -- half a dozen men, most of them in combat fatigues.

The former traffic police chief who became mayor in 2011 recalls that the new fighting over Karabakh could not have come at a worse time.

"We had just finished rebuilding a road, people were buying apartments, the (pomegranate) crops were ripening," he says with regret.

Armenian soldiers have to be alert for drone attacks
Armenian soldiers have to be alert for drone attacks
ARIS MESSINIS, AFP

Of the more than 800 people who have died since fresh fighting started just over three weeks ago, three were killed in Martakert, he notes.

"I didn't imagine it would start again," he says, referring to frequent flare ups over the disputed region since a post-Soviet war left 30,000 dead.

"But these are different weapons -- aerial bombardments, drones. Before we fought with rifles," says Gyurjyan, a veteran of the first war that ignited the decades-long conflict.

When one of his phones rings he immediately picks up. It's a resident who fled, calling for an assessment of the situation in the town.

"It's okay...it's calm," he says down the phone, again lighting a new cigarette after replacing the receiver.

"We will rebuild everything when it stops," he says, his eyes red from hours of lost sleep.

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