Solidarity, defiance in besieged Karabakh city

Stepanakert (Azerbaijan) (AFP) –


Most of the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh's main city have left for safety or the frontline as fighting rages between Azerbaijan and Armenia, but those who stayed behind are finding solace in solidarity.

With women and children heading to the Armenian capital Yerevan and men going to fight, it is mostly older people left hunkering down in cellars in Stepanakert.

They hide from the Azerbaijani strikes that day and night pound Nagorno-Karabakh, an Azerbaijani region now populated almost exclusively by Armenians who declared an unrecognised breakaway state as the USSR fell.

Those still in the city are proudly boasting that Stepanakert has seen none of the looting that usually accompanies wars.

At the end of a deserted street, hit in the night by an Azerbaijani rocket, the intact glass front of a grocery store seems to be waiting for a customer, with its Coca-Cola ad on the door and multicoloured plastic flowers on the counter.

Chocolate biscuits, crisps, sausages and meat are impeccably laid out on the counter. "You can take what you want! Just leave the money next to the till," shouts out a neighbour.

Empty houses and shops have been left intact. Even the fridges filled with fizzy drinks installed outside every shop remain untouched, sometimes lit up at night and almost the only light in a city that blacks out as a security precaution as darkness falls.

"The owners and employees of these shops are all at the front. Nobody would dare to approach to steal anything," said Marine Aghasyan, 49, as she stood behind the counter of a small supermarket in Stepanakert.

The shop belongs to her son who is a "volunteer on the front", she explained.

"I live close by. I open from time to time, when the neighbours need something, or to come and recharge my phone, because the electricity is cut at the house."

"No one comes to loot, people are standing together," she said, glancing at an array of chewing gum and an empty shelf that should normally store the locally produced "Noy" cigarettes.

"My son took all the cigarettes to distribute to his comrades on the front line," she said.

- 'Supporting our soldiers' -

The current ethnic composition of Karabakh means that all the residents of Stepanakert, which usually has a population of over 50,000, are united against what they see as Azerbaijani "aggression".

The older people remaining in the city express shame that they are not able to go to the front and scoff at the idea that anyone could take advantage of the situation by looting.

Those old enough can remember the hardship of the war over Karabakh that erupted as the Soviet Union collapsed, ending only in 1994.

It also helps that, for now, there are no food shortages in Stepanakert.

"Every day we find out about the needs of the inhabitants, we provide them with food, blankets, candles... whatever it takes to cope," said Suren Tarmazyan, the deputy mayor.

"Here really, people cannot loot," he added, almost surprised at the question.

Police are also still plentiful in the city, which is home to the separatist Karabakh government and its institutions.

In the end, it is only the stray dogs who sniff at the gates of the empty houses.

"Forget the looting, there is never going to be any," said Marine Aghasyan at her Boka supermarket. "What matters right now are our children. And supporting our soldiers at the front."