In Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno Karabakh, time marches on, even as the locals seem stuck in place.
Try as they might to lead normal lives, there is no escaping the conflict with Azerbaijan, now in its 26th year. Men in military uniforms are omnipresent and the physical reminders of war are inescapable. Stepanakert was pummelled by Azerbaijani shellfire during the hot phase of the conflict in the early 1990s, and although much of the city has been rebuilt, plenty of buildings still bear the scars of those bombardments.
There is also a dreary mood hanging over Stepanakert’s civilian population. After dark on a recent evening, locals congregated at the small circle of fountains behind the Stepan Shahumian monument, seeking to relax. Some sat on benches staring blankly into space. Nearby, a brass band played old Soviet marching tunes, the wild-haired conductor waving his arms as if to drum up some enthusiasm among the small crowd of onlookers. Around the circle, street vendors erected displays of simple toys, including a khaki-clad, wind-up soldier that crawled along on its belly, looking through the scope of a machine gun.
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Stephen M. Bland is a freelance journalist who covers the Caucasus and Central Asia.