Surrounded by rubble, Azerbaijanis mourn their losses
The second city of Ganja has been hit three times in the war over Nagorno-Karabakh, killing at least 26 people including a 10-month-old girl.
Ganja, Azerbaijan – It is Sunday, the afternoon sun is bright and 41-year-old Rovshan Asgarov stands in the remains of his neighbourhood.
He is surrounded by rubble. Bricks, wires, wood and metal that once held his house together are piled up around him.
Against the grey backdrop, which is covered in a layer of dust, there is a shock of pink – an abandoned toy, a little plastic car that would have brought a young child endless joys.
On October 17 at around 1am, his neighbourhood in central Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second city, was shelled.
“All members of our family were trapped in the rubble, including me,” he told Al Jazeera. “I shouted loudly so that anyone could hear my voice. They helped, I came out.”
At the time, eight of Asgarov’s relatives were at home.
Five died: his father Suliddin; younger brother Bakhtiyar; his sister Sevil and her 10-month-old daughter Narin, and another niece, Nigar, his elder sister’s daughter.
Thankfully, his wife and youngest son were not at home. But his elder son was, 15-year-old Amin.
“I can still hear my son saying, ‘Father, help me,’. My son was injured and is currently in hospital.
“My mother Silduz was also released from the hospital. My mother and son (Amin) still do not know about our losses. My mother’s health condition is not good and we do not know how to tell the bad news.”
According to Ganja politician Mushfig Jafarov, 15 people were killed and more than 50 were injured in the attack, which Azerbaijan blames on Armenia-backed forces.
As is customary in Islam, Asgarov’s relatives were buried on the same day they died.
Teymur, Asgarov’s brother, held 10-month-old Narin tightly before she was lowered into a grave.
He cried as he hugged her tiny body, covered in a white sheet, one last time. A photo of the moment has been widely circulated, as a symbol of the human cost of the war.
“We buried the mother and the child in the same grave. The other girl we lost in our family was my elder sister’s daughter, Nigar. She would have turned 15 on October 18. We also buried her that day,” Teymur told Al Jazeera.
Teymur lives with his family in another neighbourhood of Ganja.
“Even though we were far from the scene, my son, a sixth-grader, was stunned by the sound of a rocket fired by Armenians, and now he has a speech impediment.”
Since September 27, Azerbaijan and Armenia have been fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, a region that is internationally recognised as Azerbaijani territory but controlled by ethnic Armenians.
Two attempts at a truce, brokered by Russia, had failed to stop the clashes. A third, brokered by the US, was announced late on Sunday and came into effect on Monday morning. Like the previous two, there were reports of the ceasefire being broken almost as soon as it began.
The Azerbaijani Prosecutor General’s Office has opened a criminal case against the Armenian military-political leadership in connection with the October 17 attack, the Azerbaijani APA news agency reports.
So far this month, three assaults on the city have killed at least 26 people, including six children and 10 women.
Ramin Gahramanov, 41, lost four family members on October 17 – his daughter Laman, sister and her two children.
Laman had been hoping to go to university this year having won her place, but was unable to enjoy life as an undergraduate before she died.
“The Scud rocket hit directly our home,” said Gahramanov.
His relatives were pulled from the rubble a day after the attack. The bodies, he said, were unrecognisable.
Some survivors have returned to the site to collect any belongings that escaped damage – essential items and those that hold memories of their late loved ones.
Ramiz Agayev, 45, lost his father.
“My father fell on me from the second floor, I was downstairs,” he told Al Jazeera.
Ramiz has been coming to his ruined house for several days now.
“We usually take the children’s winter clothes, if we can find any. But everything is in a useless state, even my car. I asked my relative to use his car to collect what is left here.”
The Azerbaijani government has promised the victims new homes, a welcome move. They told this reporter that they are reassured that they will be provided with high-quality, new apartments. But no one, they said, can replace their family members.