It looks as if war had come to California.
This besieged corner of southwestern Azerbaijan is a lovely land of tawny rolling hills and irrigated valleys thick with orchards and vineyards. Pomegranates grow by the side of the road, and on the southern side of the Araks River are the dusky purple mountains of Iran.
But refugees are camped at every crossroad. They have fled on tractors, in cattle and vegetable trucks, on motorcycles with sidecars heaped with dirty children, mattresses, bags of flour and odd bits of furniture. Some have herded up their cattle and come on foot.
"The children are all sick, and some of our cattle have died also," said Zemrut Zainalova, 60, one of tens of thousands living in roadside tents and cardboard lean-tos about 25 miles west of the war zone. "We have no bread, we are getting no help at all. Winter is coming; where will we live?"
In the last three months, more than 200,000 Azerbaijanis have been driven from their homes as Armenian forces have surged out of the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh to shell, burn and loot cities and villages left defenseless by the near-collapse of the Azerbaijani army.
The Armenians from Karabakh, underdogs for most of the 5-year-old war, now control one-fifth of Azerbaijan's territory, an area nearly the size of Connecticut. The captured land covers at least 4,800 square miles, stretching from the border of the republic of Armenia as far as 15 miles east of the Karabakh enclave and south to within a mile or two of the Iranian border.
Armenians and Azeris have been disputing ownership of the mostly Armenian-populated Karabakh since before 1920. The explosive issue resurfaced in 1988 when Armenian nationalists began lobbying the Soviet Union to have Karabakh deeded to the Armenian republic.
The ensuing ethnic clashes escalated into a full-scale war that has killed about 15,000 people and driven well over a million from their homes.
Officials in Karabakh insist that they are ready to hand back the seized Azerbaijani territory in return for peace with security guarantees. They say their offensive is aimed only at knocking out Azerbaijani artillery that had long terrorized their villages.
Feliks O. Mamikonian, Armenia's envoy to Moscow, said Karabakh officials launched the offensive after Azerbaijan ignored repeated warnings to move its heavy artillery 30 miles back, out of range of Karabakh's villages, but the Azerbaijanis have refused.
"For five years, Azerbaijan has been trying by military means--purely by military means--to kick all the Armenians out of Karabakh," Mamikonian said. "They wanted to annihilate the Armenians."
Azerbaijanis counter that the Armenian forces have gone far beyond establishing an artillery-free "buffer zone" around Karabakh. They say the Armenians, with help from Russia, are trying to drive Azerbaijanis out of all of western Azerbaijan in order to annex their lands.
In an interview in May, a month before the current offensive began, a regimental commander in the Karabakh city of Shusha told The Times: "Our ultimate goal is to intimidate the Azeris to such an extent that they would never, ever think of imposing their rule on us again.
"Sheer demonstration of strength is the only method of solving our problem and attaining real and secure sovereignty," said the commander, who requested anonymity.
Azerbaijanis believe that the Armenians are plotting a land grab of historic proportions.
"Their plan is to create a Greater Armenia from the Black Sea to the Caspian," charged Irshad N. Aliev, who heads the Azerbaijan state committee on refugees.
Whatever the truth, these days Azerbaijani civilians are doing most of the suffering. The Azerbaijani army that once rained shells and rockets down on Karabakh villages is reduced to a shambles by the years of fighting, political strife, warlordism and corruption.
Commanders near the front lines say discipline and morale are at an all-time low. Conscripts are deserting with impunity, they say, while other soldiers simply turn tail and flee the battlefield.
"When two or three soldiers see one single tank, they prefer to run away and tell the commander there were five tanks," said a battalion commander at the eastern edge of the war zone. "This is how the Armenians easily took the hills around Fizuli," one of the four major Azerbaijani towns that have fallen since June. The others are Agdam, Jebrayil and Kubatly.
Armenians have captured much of the equipment that Azerbaijan inherited from the old Soviet army. Azerbaijani supply lines have all but collapsed. Zangelan, located at the end of the 80-mile southern front, had no gasoline to move trucks earlier this month.
The wounded are also suffering from the army's logistic collapse.
A 20-year-old soldier shot recently through both legs was jounced screaming in pain over bad roads to a military hospital in Belagan, on the eastern edge of the war zone. Doctors said one shattered leg might require amputation without special surgery that could be performed only in Baku. But the next helicopter was not scheduled until the following day. By the next morning, the leg was growing cold.
Still, wounded soldiers get top priority. Civilian refugees say they have had to leave their wounded behind to die or be captured.
Shelling also hinders evacuation of the wounded. Pilots of the evacuation helicopters say they have been fired on not only by Armenians but also by Iranians when they flew too close to the border.
A cease-fire has been in effect since Aug. 30, but it has mostly been ignored. At least two Azerbaijani villages were captured and torched early this month, and both the Azerbaijanis and Armenians continue to report deaths and injuries from artillery attacks.
Faced with a rout, the government of Azerbaijan has turned to diplomacy, pinning its hopes on Russia. Azerbaijan's new leader, former Soviet Politburo member Geidar Aliyev, flew to Moscow earlier this month to forge closer political and economic ties. In a reversal of its former independent and pro-Turkish policies, Azerbaijan's Parliament voted last week to join the Russian-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States.
Aliyev also asked Moscow for Russian help in brokering a peace settlement--and, privately, some analysts believe, for Russian peacekeeping troops.
There followed a flurry of visits and telephone calls between Russian leaders and the leaders of Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey and Iran, and a visit to the region by Strobe Talbott, President Clinton's ambassador-at-large to the former Soviet Union.
No concrete peace proposals have been made public. But the cease-fire has been extended through Oct. 5. And, on Saturday, Aliyev and Armenian President Levon A. Ter-Petrosyan met face to face for the first time in a closed-door meeting at the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow. No agreement was announced, but they emerged describing the meeting as important and useful.
So far it seems Moscow has succeeded not only in bringing the combatants to the peace table, but also in keeping its centuries-old rivals in the region, Iran and Turkey, from meddling in what it still considers its own back yard.
Iran fears a huge influx of Azerbaijani refugees and has begun constructing camps inside Azerbaijan for up to 100,000 people--an unusual move, but one that Aliyev has welcomed. Turkey has warned that it will attack Armenia in response to any Armenian aggression against Nakhichevan, an Azerbaijani enclave near the Turkish border.
But since Moscow jumped into the diplomatic fray, officials in Iran and Turkey have grown quieter, allowing Russia, whose influence in the rich and tumultuous Caucasus had been waning, to flex its traditional muscle in the region once again.
Peace, however, could prove elusive, in part because of Russia's own tumultuous domestic situation. And Armenia remains deeply skeptical that the Azerbaijanis want peace and not just time to regroup.
"Now they're in a bad position and they say, 'We're ready to have peace talks with you.' Would you trust such a person?" asked Mamikonian, Armenia's Moscow envoy.
Nevertheless, he said, "Nagorno-Karabakh is ready to swap land, not for the promise of peace, but for real peace. As soon as there is a mechanism for ensuring the peace, there will be no problem."
Time is fast running out for Azerbaijan to find such a solution. Barely able to defend itself, the Azerbaijani army appears unable to prevent renewed Armenian attacks or evacuate civilians who have not already fled the war zone. Military officials acknowledge that Armenian forces could easily cut the only road leading out of Zangelan, trapping more than 25,000 people in a potentially lethal bottleneck.
The civilians who have already left say they only want to be able to return home.
One of the refugees, Jamila Huseinova, recently recounted her family's ordeal: She was at home in the village of Alhanli, a few miles north of the Iranian border, on the afternoon of Aug. 24 when an Armenian bombardment began. As neighbors' houses caught fire, Huseinova and her accountant husband managed to gather their four children and join the stream of terrified villagers running south toward the Iranian border.
With shells falling around them, the family ran about two miles south to the sandy banks of the Araks, a slow, muddy river that marks the border between Iran and Azerbaijan. Iranian border guards shouted over the river that women and children could cross as a last resort, Huseinova said, but that the men would have to stay behind.
But Azerbaijani border guards refused to let anyone leave, she said.
Huseinova said panic-stricken villagers ran up and down the riverbank looking for missing children or parents. Some wounded were left behind; others disappeared, and it was unclear whether they were killed or captured.
Eventually, Huseinova's family walked for two days eastward along the Araks to Belagan, on the eastern edge of the war zone.
"The Armenians kept shelling; they never stopped," Huseinova said. "It seemed like they wanted to scare everyone away so they could take the land."
Now Huseinova is living with about 500 other refugees in a middle school in Imishli, where about 20 refugees are camped out in each classroom. Imishli, a town of 100,000, now has another 100,000 refugees, who are living in almost every school, rest home and hospital, and in other public buildings, officials say.
Even before the latest offensive, Azerbaijan was struggling to house about 800,000 people made homeless by the war. Now one out of seven Azerbaijanis is a refugee. Baku is so full of refugees that new arrivals are turned away.
In Moscow, Armenia's envoy, Mamikonian, acknowledged the attacks on civilians but said they were not so much the result of policy as of individual Armenian soldiers taking revenge for Azerbaijani attacks against Armenian villages.
"A man lived in his house and they kicked him out of his house and raped his wife and daughter and stole from him and scattered his belongings everywhere," Mamikonian said. "Now he has a gun in his hands. . . .
"I am not justifying it. But war has its own logic."