It also reflected the wider outrage at the cease-fire in Armenia and among ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, raising further questions about whether the pact can hold despite nearly 2,000 Russian peacekeepers deployed to enforce it.
Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Armenia on Friday that the only alternative to the truce would be another “suicidal” war.
In biting cold and clutching plastic cups of homemade cognac, the Armenian troops watched the smoke from houses in the hilltop town of Shusha — known in Armenia as Shushi — which was ceded to Azerbaijan’s government.
Azerbaijan lost Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts in the 1988-to-1994 Nagorno-Karabakh war after ethnic Armenians in the enclave split away. Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence was not recognized by any state, including Armenia, and more than two decades of peace talks under the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe failed to agree on the return of territory to Azerbaijan or on the enclave’s status.
Under the deal brokered by Putin, Azerbaijan recovered the seven districts and part of Nagorno-Karabakh, including the strategic town of Shusha.
Many of the dead in Nagorno-Karabakh were conscripts, barely older than children. Others are volunteer soldiers from across Armenia and the diaspora who left their lives and jobs behind to join the war effort.
“Rescuers found one man alive today,” said a 40-year-old soldier, an Armenian who left his home in St. Petersburg and a job at a granite plant to fight.
He spent five days battling in a village below Shusha, traveling from the front line in the east of the enclave. He spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss his views on the war and the cease-fire.
They held out for as long as they could, he said, but they were outgunned by Azerbaijan, which had a critical battlefield edge with attack drones purchased from ally Turkey and others.
“It hailed shells. They hit our transportation, and eventually they surrounded us in three different areas. This is how we were defeated, and they could go on to take Shushi,” he said, using the Armenian name for the town. “We were so close to each other. I killed an Azerbaijani soldier at a range of just 15 meters.”
Senior Russian officials — Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Health Minister Mikhail Murashko and others — arrived in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, on Saturday to reinforce the deal, as protests over the agreement continued.
Shoigu said nearly all Russian peacekeepers were in place. “A total of 23 posts have been deployed. We’re monitoring the road to Stepanakert, ensuring the return of refugees. Peaceful life has already been established. And our main task is preventing bloodshed,” Shoigu said in a meeting with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who has faced calls to resign over the deal.
“If it was up to me, we wouldn’t have a cease-fire, we would have stood until the end, and we would have been victorious,” said Seryan Karabeteyan, 48, a construction worker and veteran from the 1990s war who also fought in Shusha.
“But there were a lot of casualties. We took out a lot of wounded and a lot of dead from the gorge with many types of injuries, but mostly bullet wounds,” he said, wearing a thick military coat. His father-in-law was killed in 1992 fighting in the last war.
“For sure there will be war again, sooner than you think, and I will be back. Whether my wife is ready for it or not, my death would be for our Armenian nation,” he said.
The Kalbajar district is one of the seven adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh that have been controlled by ethnic Armenians for decades but returned to Azerbaijan under the terms of the truce.
Many in the area burned their houses, killed their animals and cut down trees, determined to leave nothing behind for Azerbaijanis. Some scrawled their names on cliff walls in a last statement of ownership.
“Did I put on a roof and make renovations so that an Azerbaijani can enjoy it? It is better to destroy the things you love than allow that. Those who couldn’t take their stuff killed the animals and burned the rest,” said Hovsep, 35, a pig and sheep farmer who gave only his last name.
He volunteered on the front line for six weeks as a machine gun operator. He smoked a cigarette and watched with weary eyes as flames licked through his home after he set it ablaze.
One couple took a plastic water bottle they had filled with spring water from their garden, with tears filling their eyes. It was for their children, who had already fled to Yerevan, as one last reminder of home.
“My husband has told Russian peacekeepers to live here,” said Alina Ohanyan, 47, who was also fleeing her home near the Dadivank Monastery, a religious site for 1,000 years.
She worked with a friend to rip the floorboards in the house her family built 20 years ago. They removed the windows and said they would not leave anything useful behind.
“[My husband] even asked if he could join their regiment so he could stay,” she said, referring to the Russian peacekeepers. “He told them that they can take this house and live in it, but if an Azerbaijani will live in it, then they must burn it to the ground.”
Many believe, or at least hope, that they will return some day.
“The cease-fire won’t stay this way. It won’t last long,” war veteran Pavel Makunyan said as he brought his band of 150 volunteer soldiers down from their front-line post near Askeran after the fighting finished.
“We have been fighting for decades, and we will fight on,” he added. “Maybe not today, but tomorrow.”
Mukanyan is a well-known figure in Armenia. He served in the Soviet forces before fighting in the 1990s war and later becoming one of the main figures in a hostage crisis in Yerevan in 2016, when he and others seized a police station by force and called for the resignation of the then-government.
His men gathered in the border town, hugging one another and returning their guns while smoking cigars and sharing pomegranates, the juice dripping onto the floor.
“You know, when we came, I said we are nothing without a victory, but we have not been defeated,” Mukanyan told them. “It will not end with this, but future generations we have something to fight for.”
Dixon reported from Moscow.