Grief and pride: Azerbaijani family mourns lost soldier

Quzanly (Azerbaijan) (AFP) –


"Oh my son!" the kneeling mother sang in mournful prayer over the grave of an Azerbaijani soldier as shells exploded just beyond the horizon along the frontline of Nagorno-Karabakh.

"He left his mother alone. He left his sisters alone, too," she cried after picking herself up and rubbing clean the framed photograph of her 29-year-old son with her cuff.

"Let his blood not be spilled in vain."

Aybeniz Khasanova's son died in the first days of fighting over the ethnic Armenian separatist region of Azerbaijan.

Hostilities -- that had festered since a 1994 truce ended the first Karabakh war in which 30,000 died -- exploded in disputed circumstances on September 27.

More than 600 people are known to have been killed since then -- including over 70 civilians -- in a conflict that threatens to draw in regional powers Russia and Turkey.

But little verified information exists about the true casualty figure and both sides claim to be inflicting much heavier losses on their foe.

The Armenian separatists have confirmed more than 600 deaths among their forces. Azerbaijan has not provided any figures for its military casualties.

AFP was granted access to the soldier's funeral in Quzanly by the Azerbaijani government on the condition that no details were disclosed about the cemetery or the circumstances of his death.

- Displaced -

Both Christian Armenians and Muslim Azerbaijanis view the fertile valleys and mountains of Nagorno-Karabakh as their ancestral lands.

Fitful international efforts to find a solution have floundered and a ceasefire brokered by Russia last Saturday unravelled in less than a day.

Azerbaijanis have not controlled the region -- backed but not recognised as independent by the Armenian government -- since the end of the post-Soviet war.

The mood among many on the Azerbaijani side of the front now is hopeful and fervently patriotic.

Armenia concedes that separatist forces have had to withdraw from some of the northern and southern sections of the front that they had held on to since 1994.

But the cost of Azerbaijan's gains has been high.

The volleys of mortar and rocket fire falling around Quzanly have destroyed simple wooden homes inhabited by desperately poor people displaced by decades of strife.

The slain soldier's cousin Elshan said the entire family had tried -- and failed -- to talk him into leaving military service before another major conflict broke out.

"He wanted to become a soldier from when he was a boy," said Elshan.

"We were telling him to leave the armed forces, but he would say no, I want to stay, I want to be a soldier until our occupied lands are liberated."

- Proud -

The family has been visiting the soldier's grave daily since his death just under two weeks ago.

They come in silence bearing flowers while exploding shells fall in the surrounding barren fields.

The roads leading to Quzanly are devoid of traffic because of the unpredictable nature of the fighting. The few shops along the way are mostly boarded up.

But the family still speeds to the grave site in a beat-up Lada after passing military checkpoints dotting frontline regions.

"I am destroyed inside," Elshan whispered while crouching close to the grave and running his hand across its fresh gravel.

"He was such a brave guy. It is very hard for us."

The family lost telephone contact with the soldier for three days before being officially informed that he was killed.

"Every day we are thinking about him," said Elshan. "We are trying to cope."

The soldier's aunt Garanfil said she was proud.

"He was such a brave young man," she said as the family prepared to leave the grave site.

"He died for his country."