T-72 Tank belonging to the Artsakh Defense Forces (courtesy of Armenpress)

Attack on Artsakh: First-Person Accounts

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STEPANAKERT — On September 27, a peaceful Sunday morning, residents and tourists alike in Artsakh awoke to the boom of artillery fire and the eerie buzz of Azerbaijani drones.

(Fighting near the border as captured on video above. Artsakh’s Army reports that Azerbaijan has sustained heavy losses.)

This cacophony marked the start of a full-fledged attack, as Azerbaijani howitzers opened fire along the entire line of contact, shelling multiple settlements including Stepanakert, Artsakh’s capital. In the wake of the renewed attacks, the Artsakh Ministry of Defense branded the Azerbaijanis aggressors and murderers at a press conference at 11 a.m. The Ministry of Defense reported that Azerbaijani artillery fire had struck arms caches and other military targets. They reported 10 civilian casualties, including one child, and called on every able-bodied man to fight.

The shelling of Stepanakert (courtesy of Armenpress)

For people in Artsakh, the escalation in hostilities was marked by confusion, fear and uncertainty. By quarter past seven, the cool morning air in Stepanakert became filled with the haunting drone of Azerbaijani unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), and the shattering thunder of Artsakh’s artillery and anti-aircraft guns.

Holiday goer Lucy Vartevanian reported that her hotel room windows shook with each instance of artillery fire, as air raid warnings blared, and civilian vehicles sped through the city flashing their hazards and honking their horns. She assumed it was a training exercise. “I initially thought the shooting was part of a training exercise,” she explained, “but as the booms got louder, and warning sirens went off, I soon understood this wasn’t just practice.”

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Lucy and her husband ultimately opted to make their way back to Yerevan despite a lack of information: “We were concerned as we didn’t know if the roads would be blocked or the border closed.”

Nevertheless, the decision to leave proved to be well-timed, as the situation continued to deteriorate.

“I am convinced this was a malicious and well-planned attack by Azerbaijan,” she added.

Less than an hour following the attack, the city became a hive of frenetic activity as columns of military vehicles left Stepanakert for the border and ambulances zoomed across the city.

Leaving Togh

Perched in the picturesque valleys of Hadrut province, Togh is a village with a rich history, sporting remnants of architecture from the time of the Karabakh melikdoms [Armenian principalities of the late medieval and early modern period]. Located around 60 kilometers from the Azerbaijani border, it is today one of the centers of winemaking in Artsakh, with Kataro wineries based there. Founded and run by the Avetissyan family, Kataro has experienced significant success and expansion.

Kataro has begun to host students from EVN Wine Academy of Yerevan, who hope to gain insight from the internships into the winemaking business. Two such interns are Arpi Soukiassian and Loucine Sahakian, who were forced to flee when hostilities began: “We had been working all night harvesting and processing grapes, and only got to bed by 4 a.m. The night had been so peaceful, but I woke up around 7:15 because my bed was shaking from the shooting, and I smelt gunpowder. We also heard drones that were bombing,” Sahakian stated.

In the days leading up to the attack, villagers in Togh had come to believe that an assault was imminent: “We heard that the army had gone to danger readiness level 1 [the highest level of readiness], because masses of Azeri tanks and artillery guns had been spotted moving to the border. It seemed that something was going to start,” Soukiassian explained.

Once the shooting began, the intern’s landlady implored them to leave Togh. “We packed what we could in 15 minutes and jumped in the car. Our winemaker, Andranik Manvelyan, also told us to leave. We didn’t even have time to pay our landlady,” added Sahakian.

After arriving in Stepanakert, the two interns resolved to head for Goris and decide whether to return to Artsakh from there. But upon calling people in Togh, they found that the situation was far from resolved. Manvelyan reported that most of the men working at the winery had gone to fight, leaving around half of the grapes unharvested. To make matters worse, the shooting and shelling has only continued: “Our landlady said they are still being bombarded, and that it is awful,” Sahakian noted.

To help cope with the influx of refugees, Loucine and Arpi volunteered for a food and clothing drive in Goris. “We saw it as crucial to do whatever we can to help,” explained Sahakian.

Martial Law, National Mobilization

As martial law and national mobilization are declared in both Armenia and Artsakh, it is clear the situation is far from de-escalation. Azerbaijani howitzers continue to bombard communities throughout Artsakh, including Stepanakert. As of this writing, 13 civilian casualties and 16 military casualties have been reported on the Armenian side.

As part of national mobilization, scores of ambulance brigades from all over the country have been dispatched to Artsakh, and many patients are being transported to Yerevan to help Artsakh cope with an influx of wounded soldiers, reported to be 200 as of September 28. The national mobilization has thus placed an immense burden on highways leading into Artsakh, which have also had to cope with an influx of military traffic, and an exodus of refugees trying to get out of harm’s way. The crowding was especially evident at Armenia-Artsakh border crossings, where lines of cars stretched back hundreds of meters.

Speaking at a press conference on September 27, Pashinyan declared that “[previous actions by Azerbaijan] clearly indicate this aggression was pre-planned and constitutes large-scale provocation against regional peace & security” (courtesy of the press office of government of Armenia)
In Yerevan, the atmosphere was one of fervent patriotism. Scores of motorists put large Armenian flags on their vehicles inscribed with messages of solidarity for troops in Artsakh. Near Yerevan’s Circus, a large digital screen proudly proclaimed “GOD PROTECT OUR TROOPS” in national colors, and as columns of army transports left the city for Artsakh, they were greeted by motorists honking their horns and pedestrians cheering.

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