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article image'So, so frightened': civilians shelter from Karabakh shelling

By Dmitry ZAKS (AFP)     Oct 13, 2020 in World

Tears didn't well up in Tatyana Pashayeva's eyes until the shells were exploding all around as she hid in an Azerbaijani basement by the Nagorno-Karabakh frontline.

"I am so, so frightened," the 56-year-old whispered. "No one even warned us that the war was about to start."

The bitter feud between Christian Armenians and Muslim Azerbaijanis over a prized patch of the Caucasus mountains re-erupted into new fighting on September 27.

Pashayeva and more than 20 other mostly elderly men and women have been living in a brick basement about seven kilometres (four miles) from the front ever since.

Heavy shelling has left the streets of Terter almost deserted
Heavy shelling has left the streets of Terter almost deserted
Bulent Kilic, AFP

The Azerbaijani town of Terter has borne the brunt of some of the heaviest shelling from ethnic Armenian forces in the northern half of the conflict zone.

An AFP team saw Azerbaijani multiple rocket launchers whizz by and then fire rapid salvos up into the mountains of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Repeated rounds of shells and other munitions rained back down on the deserted and badly damaged town moments later.

"The Armenians are shelling us constantly," said pensioner Akif Aslanov.

"Listen, they are shelling us now with different weapons: with missiles, bombs, tanks, rocket launchers -- they use it all."

- 'Hiding' -

The attacks on Terter mirror ones Azerbaijani forces have been inflicting on the Nagorno-Karabakh capital Stepanakert and the region's other ethnic Armenian towns.

Among the civilians who have not fled the fighting altogether, the artillery duel has forced many underground.

Most of the people sheltering in one sparsely-lit Terter basement are pensioners
Most of the people sheltering in one sparsely-lit Terter basement are pensioners
Bulent Kilic, AFP

The basements in Terter are basic: gravel floors and peeling walls are lit up with sparse lightbulbs.

Some families have battery-powered radios they turn to for updates about the battles raging overhead.

They also sign up for basic food rations distributed by Azerbaijan's emergencies service during periodic shelling lulls.

"What else can you do? We have no choice," said pensioner Roza Aliyeva from her corner cot.

The 85-year-old suffered multiple injuries when she fell while struggling to get to the basement during the first attack.

"We run, we fall down, we stand up again, we get injured, and now we are here, hiding," she said.

- 'I will never leave' -

The two sides had technically signed up to a humanitarian truce in Moscow on Saturday that was meant to give talks another chance.

But the Azerbaijanis sheltering in the Terter basement said they have been unable to sleep for over two weeks because the fighting never really ceased.

Men shelter from shelling in a basement of a building in Terter
Men shelter from shelling in a basement of a building in Terter
Bulent Kilic, AFP

"In general, we cannot sleep," said Azer Mammadov, a veteran of past fighting in Karabakh.

"When they stop shelling for an hour, an hour and a half, we can close our eyes and nap," he said.

"You sleep and wake up, you sleep and wake up, over and over again."

Mammadov was one of several men in the basement who had fought in the original Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that killed 30,000 in the 1990s as the Soviet Union fell apart.

But even elderly women who had not taken an active part in that fighting said they were ready to suffer through hardship to take back lands they view as their ancestral home.

Sariya Makharramova said she also stayed behind in Terter when the conflict flared up in 2016.

The elderly pensioner said her sons and grandchildren where now fighting at the front.

"I cannot leave them here and leave the city," she said.

"I did not leave in 1992, I didn't leave in April 2016, not now -- I will never leave."

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