KHRAMORT, ARMENIA // It is nearly 15 years since the Armenian residents of this village in disputed Nagorno-Karabakh began returning to their homes, but the scars of the six-year conflict with Azerbaijan will take longer to heal. Almost all of those who lived in this sleepy village - now in the self-declared independent state of Nagorno-Karabakh - lost a family member in the war that ultimately claimed as many as 30,000 lives, both Armenian and Azerbaijani.
For Roza Ghahramanyan, it is her son, Ashot, for whom she continues to grieve. In 1991, the 18-year-old became another statistic of the war. "He was just a young man studying in Yerevan [the capital of Armenia]. He came here and went to the frontline and he was killed," Mrs Ghahramanyan, 75, said as she clutched a black and white photograph of her son. Before the conflict erupted, relations between the Armenian majority in Khramort and the "two or three" Azeri families were good, according to Ashot Ohanyan, 52, a farmer. Those few Azeris left the village as the situation deteriorated in the run-up to the conflict.
The Armenians were cleared out when Azeri forces swept through in late 1991, according to villagers, leaving a wake of destruction behind them. After the conflict ended in 1994, Armenians began to return to Khramort, but according to Mr Ohanyan, only about 250 people live in the village now, a quarter of the original total. Many have gone to Russia or Armenia, he said, because there is no opportunity for them in Nagorno-Karabakh.
"It would have been better if there had been no war and they had just separated us by quiet means," said the 52-year-old, whose elder brother Hovsep was killed by a mine in 1995. "For freedom [the conflict] was worth it, but it wasn't good to have so many sacrifices. They could have solved the problem in a peaceful way. They solved the problem in Abkhazia [the disputed region in Georgia that has declared independence] quickly, but ours is so long."
The war between Christian-ethnic Armenians and Muslim-ethnic Azeris over Nagorno-Karabakh lasted for nearly six years. Nagorno-Karabakh had been an Armenian-majority enclave in Azerbaijan, but is now a self-declared independent state not recognised by any nation, not even Armenia, on which it remains heavily dependent for defence and economic survival. Although apart from the occasional skirmish at the frontlines, the guns have been silent since the 1994 ceasefire, a peace deal remains elusive.
Last year, in talks near Moscow hosted by the Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to a framework about coming to a permanent solution. Ahead of a planned meeting in Russia between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents on July 17, a recent joint statement from the Russian, French and American presidents called on the pair to "resolve the few remaining differences" and finalise an agreement on Nagorno-Karabakh.
Many, however, believe a political solution is not imminent, and with Azerbaijan having announced just over a year ago it was increasing its annual defence budget from $1.3 billion (Dh4.8bn) to $2bn, there is speculation conflict could erupt again. The absence of a peace agreement also makes it harder for Armenia to establish diplomatic relations with Turkey, since Azerbaijan is not keen for its ally Turkey to agree to their creation without the Nagorno-Karabakh situation resolved. For the people of Khramort, the lack of a solution makes them wonder what Armenia's military victory achieved.
"The sacrifices were not worth it for what we have now," said Mrs Ghahramanyan. "Maybe we could have lived with them together, the Azeris, and so many people wouldn't have died. "I don't understand anything. Why don't they solve our problems? Why should we wait 15 years with no solution? They are just making meetings and they don't get any solution." Another villager, Manya Aghadjanyan, 57, lost two close relatives.
Her first three sons died in childhood, so she gave her fourth son an Azeri name, Mamed, as these are said to lead to a long life. However, Mamed was killed in 1992 when he was 18 while in the army. Six years later, Mrs Aghadjanyan's nephew, Sergey, died when his car struck a mine while he was driving in Agdam, an abandoned former Azeri city visible in the distance from Khramort. "It was a great loss," said Mrs Aghadjanyan, who lives with her husband and her daughter Anush, 17, who has Down's syndrome. Her husband works as a gardener, but he has a bad back and Mrs Aghadjanyan said his income was only enough to pay for his medicine and cigarettes. "I'm a sick person and I cannot work," she said.