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SADARAK, Azerbaijan -- This dusty little town, tucked away in a valley where grapes still ripen in abandoned vineyards, hardly seems a likely launching place for a major war.

But an explosive combination of ethnic hatred, bald opportunism and plain destructive urges -- all spawned by the collapse of a super-power -- have come together here in geographical misfortune.

Armenian forces hold the heights above Sadarak, and for two weeks now they have been blasting away at the town with artillery and machine guns. It is another chapter in the long, nasty conflict between Azerbaijani Muslims and Armenian Christians -- except that now it has come dangerously close to the doorstep of Turkey, about two miles away.

Sporadic fighting along this border has gone on for months, but two weeks the Armenians suddenly seized the heights and unleashed their barrage.

The Turks, ethnic cousins of the Azeris and bitterly hated and feared by the Armenians, reacted with alarm. Some in the Turkish government called for military intervention -- bringing immediate warnings from faraway Moscow that such a move would meet with formal resistance from the Russian soldiers based in Azerbaijan.

At least 20 people have died here -- not so many by the standards of modern killing -- but the 2-week-old attack on Sadarak illustrates how the disintegration of the Soviet empire has thrust its far-flung regions into an intensely unstable and hazardous era.

Border areas volatile

Equally serious warfare is going on in Moldova in a struggle that could involve Romania and Russia. Christian Georgians are fighting with Muslim minorities in Tajikistan, Tajiks are killing each other.

The battle of Sardarak is typical of these conflicts. Its origins are murky, is is impossible to know who to blame and the victims are townsfolk on both sides of the border.

The last of Sadarak's 15,000 residents were streaming out of the town last week, most on motorcycles with sidecars, throwing up a curtain of dust along the road that leads to the provincial capital of Nakhichevan.

To their left were the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, the distant peaks still capped in snow, the border with Armenia a few miles away.

Even closer, to their rights, were border guards attached to the 75th Motorized Division of the Commonwealth of Independent States, virtually all of them Russians. Their job to keep watch over Turkey, which is nearly within shouting distance and definitely within shooting distance.

Just ahead, and to the right, lay Iran. This is Azerbaijan's historic predicament: It is where three great and hostile empires, the Russian, Turkish and Persian, all came together. Iran has a sizable Azeri population and therefore worries about the existance of an independent Azerbaijan. So it has supported Christian Armenia throughout the conflict. No one can be sure how it might react to a war here.

Farther on ahead, about 50 miles down the raod is the city of Nakhichevan, capital of the autonomous republic of the same name, an enclave cut off from the rest of Azerbaijan by Armenia. Here is a government run by Geidar Aliev, a heavy-lidded former Soviet Politburo member and one-time KGB boss in Azerbaijan who now runs his hometown like a personal fiefdom.

It is in a state of serene disarray. Supplies of electricity and water are fitful; gasoline is rare. Men loiter everywhere on dusty street corners. A casual visitor might never guess it is the capital of a republic in the process of losing a war.

And back on the road leading out of Sadarak, the sad, dirty parade of refugees was leaving behind the remains of a town -- roofs punched out by artillery, the winery smashed to bits, fires smoldering, windows gaping and an impromptu, ill-disciplined gang of Azeri soldiers holding out in what used to be the school.

"We're not looking for enemies, but I can't abandon my own country," said Zabir Safarov, a 26-year-old who had moved back to Azerbaijan from Russia. He had just raced past Armenian snipers to reach the forward outpost at the school -- incongruously driving a big yellow bus -- and alighted with a big grin on his face and a Kalashnikov automatic cradled on his hip.

"Look, I was in Afghanistan. I hated that murder. I hated all those lies." he said "But this is the mother-land."

Mr. Safarov was jubilant, but among the 50 or so other Azeri defenders, many of whom had already been at the school a week, the mood was downcast. They seemed to feel very much alone and very definitely surrounded by vaster firepower.

Although earlier direct hits from artillery had left gaping holes in the walls and showered rubble and concrete throughout the building, the school itself seemed to offer good protection. The soldiers and their equipment were gathered in a courtyard on the side away from Armenia.

But that night, back in Nakhichevan, wounded soldiers being hustled into the candle-lighted hospital reported that the outpost had come under a heavy mortar attack, destroying trucks and injuring at least nine.

Armenia's rationale

The Armenians say they took the heights around Sadarak because for more than a year the Azeris were using those same hills to blast away at Armenian villages.

The mayor of the region, a 42-year-old physicist named David Zadoyan, said that the Armenians lost patience after months of firing by the Azeris. "If they were sitting on our hilltops and harassing us with gunfire, what do you think our response should be?" he asked.

Two events clearly helped encourage the Armenians push. Two weeks ago, Armenia took firm control of Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed region to the east that had been the site of most of the 5-year-old war. Its fall led to the flight of Ayaz Mutalibov, the Azerbaijani leader, and his replacement by a new government run by the Azerbaijani Popular Front.

Azerbaijani is weak and reeling. One commonwealth officer said that if Armenia wanted to conquer all of Nakhichevan, it could do so in a day. Instead, it forces stay up in the hills along the border, raining devastating fire on the villages below.

The fighting began in earnest May 18 at 5:10 a.m. Artillery began pounding Sadarak, and Armenian soldiers seized the winery.

Leily Mustafaeva, 46, her mother and four children were jolted awake when a shell exploded in their yard. Some were hurt, but they ran for their lives through the town, as others were doing, finally taking refuge in a cellar about 500 yards away.

"The wounded people couldn't be taken away. A house was destroyed and there were wounded people inside, but they were shooting along the road, so they couldn't get them out." she said. "I just wanted to save my children. I couldn't believe we survived."

Chemical warfare victims

Eventually they were rescued by Mrs. Mustafaeva's brother, but within three they were all developing sores and rashes on their skin. They were taken to the hospital in Nakhichevan, where a toxicologist from Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, said their injuries were consistent with exposure to mustard gas.

Altogether, the Azeris say that six people show similar symptoms, and that one soldier died from chemical exposure. They show the results of lab tests that they say confirm the presence of mustard gas on debris from the assault.

"Armenians believe they will go unpublished for this atrocity. It's time for the whole world to protest." said Farhad Jafarkuliev, Nakhichevan's minister of health.

The Armenians deny that they have used any chemical weapons.

Toward the end of last week, the fighting had died down slightly. Several countries condemned the Armenaian push into Azerbaijan. At the same time, Suleiman Demirel, the Turkish prime minister, flew to Moscow and said that Turkey would not intervene militarily.

In Nakhichevan, nevertheless, the overwhelmingly Russian border guards remained on alert against a possible Turkish intervention that would be warmly welcomed by the Azerbaijans.

Some Azeris would welcome help from the commonwealth soldiers. "I was in the Soviet army," said Jalil Suleimanov, who is 46 but looks much older. "I defended Moscow. When will they defend us?"

But as on Russian soldier said; "We're here to defend the CIS, not Azerbaijan.

The commonwealth troops are a frustrated and angry group of soldiers. Younger officers say Azerbaijanis steal weapons from them and they are powerless to resist. Their wives and children are in Nakhichevan, and they fear they could be taken hostage at any time.

They want to get out and go back to Russia.

The imperail mood

But the generals in Moscow make it clear that they believe Russian still has an interes in the region. Marshal Yevgeny I. Shaposhnikov, the commonwealth commander, said Turkish intervention would lead to a Third World War.

"You know, they speak about the imperial mood." said Mr. Aliev, the one-time Communist Party baron who formerly sat in the innermost circles in Moscow. "This is a perfect example of the imperial mood, of imperial ambitions. What is the legitimate right of Russian troops here?"

On May 24, according to Azeri officials, the Armenians offered a cease-fire so the Azeris could remove the bodies of 16 soldiers killed in the mountains the week before.

The small Azeri party got within 200 yards of one of the bodies, Mr. Aliev said, when the Armenians opened fire, killing one.

It's that kind of war.

Kathy Lally of the Moscow Bureau, reporting from Yeraskh, Armenia, contributed to this article.

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