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Living in Limbo

Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh take life day by day, with no war and no peace

Outside Roma Arequilian's house in this sleepy and remote village, a clutch of turkeys picks at the dry earth around the rusted and burned-out hulk of an armored personnel carrier.

The turkeys - valuable birds in a land of scarcity - represent the Armenian farmer's tenuous grip on normality. The personnel carrier, a relic of the Azeri attack that drove him from his home six years ago, reminds him of his fears for the future.

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"I need only one thing - peace," Mr. Arequilian says, standing in a courtyard cluttered with construction materials. "I am rebuilding my home, but I am not sure that the Azeris won't come back and destroy it again."

Uncertain but defiant

Everywhere you go in the self-declared "republic of Nagorno Karabakh," an Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan, the mood is uncertain. Living in limbo between war and peace, the people of Karabakh are taking their lives one day at a time, holding little hope that the future of their disputed land will be decided any time soon.

On the ground after eight years of war the Armenians control nearly 20 percent of Azerbaijan's territory, including a sizable strip that joins Nagorno Karabakh to Armenia. But no government has recognized the "republic," and Azerbaijan is demanding its land back.

At the same time, Karabakh's 150,000 inhabitants - all Armenian since Azeri villagers fled during the fighting - say they will not consider ever living under Azeri rule again after decades of harassment and discrimination.

At one time the fighting in Nagorno Karabakh, which claimed thousands of lives, was a focus of international attention, proving Moscow's inability to keep order in the provinces and heralding the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Today, aside from a handful of diplomats engaged in endless rounds of largely fruitless negotiations, the world has forgotten this mountainous corner of the Trans-Caucasus.

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So people like Arequilian adapt as best they can to the uncertain circumstances. He, for example, sold the golden rings and bangles that Armenian tradition had dictated he should buy for his wife when they married, and spent the proceeds on livestock.

He now has 20 sheep, two-dozen turkeys, and two cows. He pays neighboring villagers in meat for the help they render him in rebuilding his house, which was partially destroyed when a tank shell exploded in his kitchen on New Year's Day 1991.

His neighbors are glad for the work, since jobs are hard to come by in Karabakh. In the town of Martuni, for example, not far from the front lines that have been quiet since a cease-fire took hold in 1994, the wine factory and the carpet factory - once big employers - have been shut for years.

"We live very badly here because there are no jobs," complains Anya Sarkisian as she tends the counter of a street kiosk doing desultory business in candies, biscuits, and plastic knickknacks. "There's a big difference between people's salaries and the price of the things on sale here."

A few years ago life was easier, Ms. Sarkisian says, "because we still had things at home that we could sell, and we could take things from the [Azeri] towns and villages that our armed forces captured."

'We won'

The looting may be over, but Martuni's residents are still making use of former Azeri property.

In the warm autumn sunshine, David Jakobjanian tends the pomegranate trees from which he says his old Azeri neighbor and friend Peyrouz used to offer him fruit. Peyrouz's house is now nothing but a skeletal shell of bare stone walls, but Mr. Jakobjanian plans to restore it and move in himself if he can find the money.

This seems normal to him. "We won," he says simply. And if Peyrouz wanted to come back to his former home "he would have to fight for it," Jakobjanian says. "If we lost, we would go.

"Who knows what will happen now?" he wonders. "Perhaps they will come back and massacre us."

The ethnic and religious hatreds that blazed between Christian Armenians and Muslim Azeris still flicker in the eyes of Armenian Karabakh residents as they talk about their enemies as "Turks." They are even more evident in the cemetery at Archadzar, an abandoned Azeri village in western Karabakh. Tombstones lie shattered or lean askew, graves stand opened and defiled, a skull sits in the long grass by a pit that was once a tomb.

This sort of scene, and people's attitudes toward their former neighbors, suggest that however Karabakh's future turns out, its Azeri inhabitants are unlikely to return. Ironically, one of the few things that Azeri, Armenian, and Karabakh negotiators have agreed with their international mediators is that refugees from both sides will be free to go back to their homes.

No room for the Azeris

There would be little room for the former Azeri inhabitants of Shushi, for example, a historic town on a bluff overlooking the capital, Stepanakert. Originally Armenian, as evidenced by its pencil-spired 17th-century cathedral, then settled by Azeris after a massacre in 1921, the town is now being repopulated with Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan.

So is Lachin, a deserted Azeri town outside Karabakh, which sits astride the lifeline road between Armenia and Stepanakert. That road, a tortuous hairpin dirt track that hugs the mountainside, is now being widened and improved with the help of $12 million raised from the Armenian community in the United States at a Los Angeles telethon last May.

With no functioning economy to speak of, Karabakh depends almost entirely on aid from the Armenian government and from the Armenian diaspora. And with investors unlikely to show any interest until the political future is clearer, that dependence is expected to last indefinitely.

In the meantime, people are getting on with their lives. "I know it's difficult, but what can we do?" asks Melsik Ulubabian, a hoe in hand, as he pauses for a spell from work on his garden plot in Martuni. "We just have to work so that the country can stand on its own two feet in the future."

Georgy Sahakian, a school headmaster in Stepanakert, takes a similar attitude as he makes plans to open a private university. "Of course we don't have any confidence in the future," he acknowledges. "But we cannot just sit with our arms folded."

"We are living on a volcano," chips in his wife, Eleonora. "But we are living."

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