TALISH â€" For some, this is a forgotten war. For others, it's a frozen conflict. There are also those who consider it a proxy war between Turkey and Russia, with Moscow on the side of the Armenians, and Ankara supporting the Aliyev family, which has ruled Azerbaijan for the past half-century.
But before all else, this is a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and one that has raged on and off for 25 years.
Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed border region, declared independence not long after Azerbaijan obtained statehood in the early 1990s, but no country recognizes it â€" not even its erstwhile ethnic ally, Armenia.
So far, the conflict here has killed 30,000 people, produced some one million refugees and cost billions of dollars in weapons. Fighting escalated dramatically in April this year, with 300 dead and hundreds more displaced.
The road that leads to Martakert and Talish, the towns that were targeted in a recent offensive by Azerbaijani Turks, or Azeri, is lined with the ruins of abandoned towns destroyed in the 1990s. From the town of Aghdam, known as the "Hiroshima of the Caucasus" for the expulsion and slaughter of its 20,000 Azeri inhabitants, to Maragha, the site where dozens of Armenians were massacred, the area is a testament to the horrors of the past.
Soldiers sent to the rear for a brief moment of rest â€" Photo: Roberto Travan/La Stampa
A report from the Halo Trust, a British organization founded in 2001 that works to demine the region, said that some villages have been targeted by cluster bombs. "The combatants have dropped hundreds of cluster bombs, which are prohibited by an international convention, and the Azeris have dropped them on civilian targets in Nerkin Horatagh and Mokhratagh," said Yuri Shahramanyan, the organizationâ€™s local director.
In the frontline town of Mataghis, a schoolâ€™s windows are shattered from a rocket attack. Miraculously, there were no casualties.
In Talish, the only inhabitants are soldiers in camouflage, many of them are volunteers from the Armenian diaspora who traveled here from all over the world to defend this land they call by its ancestral Armenian name, Artsakh. They seem exhausted, with their clothes drenched in this day's rain and AK-47s slung over their shoulders. The people who used to live in Talish abandoned everything they owned to flee to safety in Stepanakert, the regionâ€™s capital, a few hours drive away across rough roads.
"It was too dangerous up there, but my son stayed to fight," said an elderly displaced woman in Stepanakert, who left Talish with her grandchildren and daughter-in-law.
"The Azeri soldiers are like the Islamist militias, they fought as mercenaries in Iraq and Syria and now they fight for Azerbaijan," said one Armenian. Another claim asserts that Azeri soldiers killed three old men in Talish and then severed their ears. These stories, true or not, fuel the increasingly religious nature of this nationalist conflict.
"Islam is at our gates and we are the last bastion of Christianity," said one local official.
A mass celebrated in Talish â€" Photo: Roberto Travan/La Stampa
In the battle to regain control of Talish, Armenian forces shot at everything they could see, including the abandoned houses left behind by farmers and shepherds. The town is littered with devastation including walls pocked by bullets, collapsed roofs, and the charred shells of cars destroyed in the fighting.
"People are tired of Russia's double-dealing, it's been selling weapons to both sides and speculating on this conflict for too long," said Kahren Ohanjanyan, the local coordinator for Helsinki Initiative 92, an NGO dedicated to maintaining peace in the area.
Now, many ask if a new war is about to open up in Nagorno-Karabakh. The last one went on quietly for a quarter of a century.