STEPANAKERT, Nagorno-Karabakh—Stretched on a gurney, a soldier lies wrapped in gauze. Fifty percent of his body is burned, even inside his throat and lungs, says one of the paramedics in the back of the ambulance, which is making a seven-hour drive from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia’s capital Yerevan. War broke out almost one month ago between Azerbaijan and Armenia over a disputed border territory.
The ambulance snuck out of Stepanakert in between air raid sirens, as Azerbaijani shelling of the city picked up again after a six-day break. Only the soldier’s burned lips, a small part of the nose and his burnt eyelashes are showing. His hopes of survival are tied to a beeping respirator and the two paramedics constantly injecting him with morphine and saline solutions.
Reporters have been kept away from soldiers and the direct impact of the war in recent days, but plans scrambled by the reinvigorated shelling of Stepanakert lead to The Daily Beast suddenly finding ourselves in the back of this ambulance, being given an accidental glimpse at the human consequences of the war.
Kamikaze drones purchased from Israel have been used to devastating effect by Azerbaijan. These small craft also known as loitering munitions are able to surveil targets including tanks, artillery installations or troops before blowing themselves up. Larger Turkish drones are also flying high above the disputed region and launching missile strikes.
While the soldier in the ambulance has been unable to tell medics how he was so badly wounded, his head injuries and extensive burns are consistent with what they have seen with drone strikes, one doctor at the hospital in Stepanakert told The Daily Beast.
“He was damaged on the front line,” says one of the paramedics in the ambulance, “We see many of these injuries. We need help here. We need to stop the war. It is terrible what is happening.”
Before leaving the war zone and entering the relative safety of Armenia, there is a problem with the respirator. A female paramedic starts pumping air into the wounded soldiers’ lungs manually. As they are about to lose the soldier, the ambulance comes to a full stop, while the driver is trying to get the motorized system running again. Shelling can be heard in the distance.
The mountains cause the sound to echo, making it hard to tell whether the shelling is close or far, but that does not hide the discomfort of the crew forced to pull over in the midst of another bombing.
A Bloody War In the Making
The war in Nagorno-Karabakh, which was almost entirely controlled by the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh, broke out on Sept. 27. Artsakh is a small mountainous pocket in the Caucasus which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but has been claiming independence for almost 30 years. The population is almost entirely ethnic Armenian and the breakaway state is supported by Armenia. The republic declared independence after the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which lasted from the late 1980s to 1994, claiming 30,000 lives.
Since then, the dispute over the region has continued. The two sides fought a four-day war in 2016, but the current battles are the worst fighting the region has seen since the devastating war in the ‘90s. Armenia says it has lost around 900 servicemen, while Azerbaijan does not declare its death toll. However, according to Russian President Vladimir Putin, nearly 5,000 people have already died, and there are several reports about the huge loss of military hardware such as tanks on both sides despite two ceasefires negotiated in Moscow with Russia as the main mediator.
The ceasefires have already been broken and the crisis is of global significance. Nagorno-Karabakh is located next to regional superpowers such as Turkey, which support Azerbaijan militarily and politically in the conflict. At the same time, Russia has a defensive pact with Armenia, making the situation tense. The Republic of Artsakh is also located next to Iran, a major player in the region.
“We must be attentive that the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan does not become a regional war,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said, according to BBC.
“We have for a long time declared tanks to be dead without it happening… but tanks have not done well in the current crisis”
— Ian Williams, missile defense expert
The war is also attracting increased attention in Washington, D.C. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had leaders from both Azerbaijan and Armenia over for seemingly fruitless talks, while Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), among others, has called for an immediate ceasefire.
“Azerbaijan’s aggressive actions, fully supported by Turkey in Nagorno-Karabakh and against Armenia, must stop,” said Markey. “Since Azerbaijan continues its attempts to resolve…