Wearing camouflage and holding Kalashnikov rifles, volunteer villagers patrol a winding river in a Nagorno-Karabakh valley, defending a strategic area between the disputed region’s capital and Armenia.
Cannons are heard firing nearby at regular intervals as they too stand guard, covering the noisy gurgle of the Hakari river that flows between the wooded hills.
The valley leads to the Lachin corridor, a strategic point that links the ethnic Armenian region of Azerbaijan with Armenia proper.
For more than a month, Azerbaijan and Armenia have been locked in bitter fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous province that was seized by Armenian separatists backed by Yerevan in a 1990s war that left 30,000 people dead.
In the first days of the latest flare-up in fighting that erupted on September 27, Baku destroyed a bridge that goes over the Hakari river.
Since then, cars and trucks have to take a small diversion on a bumpy dirt road. Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, is just an hour away.
The valley descends parallel to the Armenian border, towards the southern front where battles rage between Armenian separatist fighters and Azerbaijani soldiers.
It’s in this direction that the cannons are firing, to stop the troops from Baku making any push towards the corridor.
– ‘Strategic gateway’ –
“We’re in a village which serves as a strategic gateway to Artsakh, which was penetrated (by Azerbaijan) in the south. Their goal is to reach Lachin by coming through us,” says Andranik Chaushyan, the village mayor, using the Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh.
He asks AFP journalists not to give the name of his village.
“They are near. They are trying to advance but they have not been able to do so because we are counter-attacking. Everything is under control,” says the 31-year-old.
In the south of the valley, residents recently fled their villages as Azerbaijani troops tried to pierce through.
“It is likely that they will pass through the valley rather than the mountains. It’s hard for them as they won’t have any vehicles. They will probably try do go through there. All (defence) positions must be filled,” he adds, sitting at a desk, three walkie-talkies in front of him.
In the 3,000-strong village that survives mainly on rearing cows and pigs, just a few women and several dozen voluntary fighters of all ages remain.
Some 50 small, one-storey houses have recently been built there, all identical with tiled roofs and a garden.
The volunteers’ outfits vary, even if camouflage trousers appear to be the norm.
One wears black fingerless gloves and the magazines of his weapon sport a white Armenian cross.
As the sun goes down behind the mountain, the mayor and the head of the volunteer group bring bread and cheese made at the village to those on guard.
They start singing a song to the glory of their homeland, raising their arm in salute as a cannon fires, a flash of light briefly illuminating the trees nearby.