At Stepanakert cemetery, mothers weep for sons lost in Karabakh fighting

Stepanakert (Azerbaijan) (AFP) –


Kneeling beside Tigran Petrosyan's body draped in the flag of Nagorno-Karabakh, his mother pressed her cheek to his face one last time.

"My son, how are you... my son, how are you," she repeated, her voice shaking and her eyes filled with tears.

Petrosyan was a 26-year-old police officer in Stepanakert, the main city in this disputed region, before joining Armenian separatist forces battling with Azerbaijan for control of the mountainous province.

He was killed on Thursday in a drone strike on his vehicle as he headed to fight in the Hadrut area on the south of the frontline.

Friends, family and comrades -- some in police or military uniforms -- gathered for his funeral on Saturday in a part of the Stepanakert cemetery reserved for war dead.

They stood quietly, their faces down and their eyes red, the silence broken only by his mother's sobs.

A few of the men smoked cigarettes in the bright sunshine. There were no children -- most families fled Stepanakert when the city came under heavy shelling after new fighting over Karabakh erupted on September 27.

The region broke from Baku's control in a 1990s war that left more than 30,000 dead. Azerbaijan and Armenia, which backs the separatists, have since been locked in a bitter conflict.

The two countries agreed to a new ceasefire from midnight on Sunday but both sides quickly accused the other of violating the truce.

In the cemetery in the centre of Stepanakert, backhoes were digging up areas to bury the newly dead alongside the graves of soldiers killed in the first war over Karabakh.

- 'The wrath of God' -

Twenty-five new graves were dug for those killed in the new clashes, with simple flat stone crosses laid over mounds of dry earth or, for the poorest families, stones laid in the shape of a cross.

Another soldier was quickly laid to rest. His father, in a worn white parka, kneeled for a few minutes before the grave, his body shaking with sobs. The soldier's two brothers squatted behind their father.

At Petrosian's grave, large wreaths of artificial red, yellow and white flowers stood on tripods. Wearing a black cassock and with a crucifix in hand, priest Mesrop Khunoyan recited a prayer.

"We pray that all of this will come to an end soon, but we also pray that the wrath of God will not be late in coming and that the evil that unleashed all of this will be severely punished," he said.

The family pulled Petrosyan's mother away from his still-open coffin, and finally lowered it into the ground, arranging dozens of red carnations around the grave.

At another freshly dug grave not far away, another mother lay nearly prone at the grave of her son, weeping while repeating his name. Her daughter knelt before her, also in tears.

The families left one at a time and the silence eventually returned, except for the dull thud of explosions in the distance at the frontline.