Centuries Of Hatred, Moments Of Terror

I'll be the last person onto the helicopter--if I make it. I'm the only woman, and as I climb in, a soldier grabs my arm to pull me back out. I struggle through the door, scramble over the camera bags of six fellow journalists, and settle in next to an Azeri soldier holding a Kalishnikov.

No one drags me out. But do I really want in? There's nothing to hold onto, no straps and no seats, let alone seat belts. Orders to sit are yelled back in Russian. Out on the tarmac of Agdam's crude airport, two other helicopters also have started up their engines.

We think we're going to Khodjali, a town of 6,000 Azeris in the predominantly Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh within the former Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. This is where Christian Armenians and Moslem Azeris are waging the latest installment of an age-old blood feud. Earlier this winter, two Azeri helicopters with VIPs aboard were shot down, and there has been heavy fighting ever since. The Armenians, armed with Soviet weapons, have the upper hand, and refugees arriving in Agdam have told wild stories of Armenians massacring hundreds of Azeris around Khodjali.

Our MI-24 is piloted by a Russian mercenary and armed with powerful cannons. All three helicopters in the flight have camouflage painting but are marked "Aeroflot," the name of the old Soviet airline. It's late February, and the wind blasts in through the open gunport as we scud toward the dark, snow-tipped Karabakh Mountains. We flash over Azeri fortified positions, then, on a hilltop, an Armenian machine-gun nest.

DEADLY DANCE. There's a thump on the side of the helicopter, then yelling in the cockpit. We're hit, and we bank violently. I'm losing my balance--we're all caught up in a jumble of winter clothing, camera gear, and each other.

Amid the dizzying maneuvers, I glimpse a window full of serene blue sky. We level off, and the starboard cannons fire three bursts, filling the cabin with acrid smoke. "What's happening?" I shout. One of my colleagues turns around, smiling. He shrugs and yells something drowned out by the rotors. I try to smile back, but strangely, I can't move my lips--because of the cold, the terror, whatever. It will take hours for my emotions to catch up with the shock of what I'm now experiencing second by second.

A British reporter shrieks as glaring red balls of tracer fire grow bigger and bigger and then hurtle by, only yards away, it seems. Through the window, there are now not two but three helicopters spinning around in a dance. The third is Armenian, and it's firing on us. I sprawl as the MI-24 lurches into another evasive maneuver. As soon as I can tell up from down, I strain to see what's going on, and the soldier at the window shifts a bit to make room for me to spot five bodies in bright civilian clothing down below on the dry hillside. One of the other copters in our flight touches down to retrieve the corpses.

Our mission--finding a sufficiently gory massacre site to dramatize the Azeri plight for Western journalists--is apparently accomplished, so we return to Agdam. Men crowd around the airlifted corpses, now in the back of a cattle truck. A small child, clothes ripped, body mangled, lies beside two old men, their stiff limbs sticking into the air.

I had been in military helicopters before, in Iraq and Turkey, in the wake of the gulf war, but never in combat. A few hours earlier, the concept of doing something I would probably never get another chance to do had intrigued me. How could that have been, I wonder now. My feelings are mixed. I want the whole experience to end, to erase itself. To be totally honest, though, the excitement also has addictive powers.

NO TICKET OUT. It's dark now as we head into Agdam itself, a city of about 120,000. Guns are firing somewhere. The empty streets sparkle with glass shattered by 30 or more rockets that rained down the day before. Half the town seems to be at the railroad station, frantic to get out, like I am. I've seen enough for my story, and I'm scared. Everyone is trying to cram into the night train for Baku, the Azerbaijan capital. The Russian stationmaster has given up issuing tickets, and I give up on the train.

The only place still serving food in town is a small teahouse behind the main mosque. Police officials and Baku businessmen trying to evacuate their relatives huddle over tea. One man has a paper bag under his seat: Someone dear to him had perished in the rocket attack, and the bag holds the remains, an arm.

Down the street a bit, at his station, a mustachioed police captain, Rafik Kasimov, tells me that the racist Russians are in cahoots with the Armenians, which is probably true. No one is helping the Azeri side, he laments. "I have no gun," he says. "I cannot do anything." A colonel comes in to tell us with a gold-toothed grin that the battlefront is only one or two kilometers away, but Kasimov nudges me not to believe him.

I join a group of refugees and mourners at the mosque. Three women have scratched their cheeks bloody, part of the Shiite mourning ritual. Aliev Aslan, a farmer from Khodjali, tells his tale of Armenian terror. "From the hill, I looked back on the town, and they were destroying our houses with tanks, shooting at people trying to leave." He falls to the ground and mimics how he crawled away with his wife.

Back at the railroad station, a hospital train is on a siding. One car is used as an operating room, another as a ward. Boris Hamdov, a dazed 13-year-old sitting on a dirty bunk, can't grasp the gum I offer because his hands are so swollen. Old cloth covers the gangrene spreading on his legs and feet. He doesn't know it yet, but one leg will have to be amputated. In the boy's three-day trek to safety, he lost his shoes, and his feet froze. He watched neighbors die in the flight. His mother was captured by the Armenians, he says, and he doesn't know where the rest of his family is. "I ran off into the forest," he says simply.

The welter of startling experiences finally subsides, and as I edge out of the crowded hospital car, the tears come.

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