BARDA, Azerbaijan – The first explosion was loud enough to force us to stop the car. It looked close and looked like a rocket, so we quickly jumped up and crouched down near a wall.
If we hadn’t stopped, I later realized we could have driven straight into one of the blasts, just 20 yards down the road.
At the time of Wednesday’s explosion, we were driving along the main street in the provincial town of Barda, Azerbaijan, towards an intersection. Azerbaijan is at war with Armenia, but the front line was 32 km away and life up to this point has been going smoothly in the region. Women did their shopping, men filled their cars at the gas station.
Then, a series of deafening explosions rang out in rapid succession, each sounding louder and louder. A woman started screaming. A man yelled at his family. They turned around the corner, his wife pulling off the sleeve of one of his children, and they all rushed down a side alley.
Across the road, blood stained the basement steps of a private health clinic. Inside, a taxi driver, who was bleeding profusely in his leg, was being treated. Nurses, patients and passers-by huddled in the basement, skirted the blood, calling their families on their cell phones.
I am in Azerbaijan with a photographer, Ivor Prickett, to cover the war that broke out last month between Azerbaijan and Armenia. It was my first return in over 20 years, but being under rocket fire was not unheard of – the Caucasus region has been ravaged by half a dozen conflicts since the disintegration of the Soviet Union .
The conflict between the two countries began in 1988 in the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian populated region inside Azerbaijan. By 1994, Armenia had made significant territorial gains, driving nearly a million Azerbaijanis out of their homes, but the war ended without solving the problem.
Now it has broken out again. Azerbaijan has launched a full-scale offensive to recapture the lost territory, and the two sides have exchanged rocket and missile barrages for villages and towns in the region.
Azerbaijan is widely regarded as having the superior firepower, using a fleet of drones to target Armenian forces with deadly precision and also launching rocket attacks against two of Nagorno-Karabakh’s largest cities.
In Azerbaijan, a series of settlements close to the front line suffered almost daily rocket strikes. The attack on Barda, who sits slightly further from the front line, appeared to be an escalation.
“You see what the Armenians are doing to us,” shouted Kamil Kerimov, 55. “Do you see anyone from the military here? Why are they doing this? You only see civilians. He added: “They want to create chaos.”
Yagubiya Hamidova, 44, a cardiologist taking refuge in the basement of the clinic, had recently left the frontline town of Terter, believing it would be safer here. “Please help us,” she said. “No one in the world knows what is happening to us.”
Outside at the intersection, a burnt out car was still smoking. Blood was flowing on the sidewalk and at the door of an office building, amid broken glass. Bomb disposal officers in suits and visors stood over exploded ordnance pieces.
We piled into the car and started driving out of town, but came across another scene of carnage at the very next intersection.
Crashed cars stood at uncomfortable angles. Someone had draped blankets over the bodies inside two of the cars. A pair of shoes and more blood lay on the ground next to another vehicle. The road was blackened and the air smelled of explosives.
“Why did they do this to him?” a woman in black moaned, as two men supported her on each arm. “People! Please watch what they are doing. Why did they kill him? Please God help us.
Rescuers opened one of the car doors with an iron bar. As they lifted the covered form, the woman fell to the ground. “My baby,” she cried.
Across the street, two more people had been shot on the sidewalk. A man and a woman, they were lying under blankets among broken branches and fallen leaves.
One was Fuad Izmayilov, 31, a sports teacher, who died just outside the door of his mother’s house.
Grieved with grief, blood stained on her face, her mother cradled her head and cried.
“He came to tell us that something was going on, and he died,” said his mother, Tabiat Izmayilova.
Widowed, Ms Izmayilova said she was a refugee from Armenia, among the Azerbaijanis who left the country when the first war broke out more than 30 years ago. “I lost everyone, and now this.”
She lamented not seeing her son get married and said she planned to decorate the house for him to live in when he got married.
“Why did you do this to us?” she asked out loud. “Armenians, don’t you have children?”
“I want peace. I don’t want anyone to suffer from this,” she told me. But she was rambling and, in the same breath, she called on Azerbaijan to take retaliatory measures. Tell our president to stop this, to take all necessary measures. ”
There is every sign that the war is escalating and losses are increasing.
In all, 21 people died in downtown Barda in the rocket attack and 70 people were injured, the government said in the evening, adding that the rockets were fired from a rocket system. multiple Russian-made Smerches and set off cluster bombs. Designed for use against armies in open spaces, cluster bombs are banned in much of the world due to their danger to civilians in residential areas.
Armenia has denied responsibility for the attack.
On Wednesday, the two main towns in the Armenian-controlled territory of Nagorno-Karabakh were also the target of rocket attacks, as they have done regularly since the fighting began. A city hospital was damaged in the regional capital of Stepanakert and a civilian was killed and another injured in Shusha, the local emergency and rescue service said.
There is evidence that both sides used cluster bombs. Human Rights Watch criticized Azerbaijan for using cluster munitions against civilian areas of Nagorno-Karabakh at least four times this month.
In the morning, we visited Garayusifli, a sleepy farming village just outside Barda, where people were burying the victims of another rocket attack. Four people died, including a 7-year-old girl, and more than a dozen were injured. Children were playing on their bikes and their parents sitting in the shade of their gardens when the missile exploded, scattering cluster bombs on the homes of several neighbors.
In Barda, some of the injured being treated at the town hospital said they first heard an explosion that seemed quite distant, and then heard what they said were cluster bombs falling.
Zergelam Aliyeva, 18, said she believed the first explosion was an air defense mechanism hitting the missile. “Then we heard the bunches come down. They made a sh-sh-sh sound, then they started raining shrapnel on us.
“When I heard the sound, I lay down on the floor,” she says. Her friend, Aysun Ismayilova, 15, lying in the next bed, suffered more serious injuries. “She ran away and he landed in front of her,” she said.
“We couldn’t believe they could shoot our village,” said Elnure Karimova, 17, who was also injured, “because there are no soldiers, only civilians.”