Locals sigh with relief as their Armenian village of Movses, close to the border with Azerbaijan, disappears in the lilac mist rolling down from the Kardash mountain, where Azeri snipers have fortified positions. "The mist is our salvation. When visibility is zero, we know the Azeris won't be shooting," said Khanum, an elderly Armenian woman who, like other Movses residents, lives in constant fear of Azeri snipers. But just across the frontline, on the Azeri side, the fear is no less intense. "The streets are deserted during the daytime," said Ismail Nabiyev, who lives in Alibeyli, an Azeri village. "We can't hold wedding parties or funerals. The Armenians shoot at us when they see people gathering." The bloody Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict over the Nagorny Karabakh region formally became a frozen one over two decades ago. In reality the war has never stopped for Azeri and Armenian villagers living along their countries' border. The villages of Movses and Alibeyli lie around 200 kilometres from Nagorny Karabakh itself. But violence has spread far beyond the epicenter of the conflict, with Azeri and Armenian sharpshooters along their border threatening the shaky peace as tit-for-tat bloodletting annually claims dozens of lives.
Sparking fears of a new all-out war between the countries, last year saw an unprecedented spiral of violence with more than 70 people from both sides killed. At least for those living in these rural border areas, war has already returned. "Our houses are under constant fire from Armenia," said Khatira Aliyeva, a young mother of two who was wounded in the arm in February when her house in Alibeyli came under sniper gunfire from across the border. "I'm afraid of letting my children go to school. In the mornings, we run to the school fearing the Armenians might notice us and start shooting," she said. "After classes, children are forced to stay at home. It's too dangerous for them to play in the courtyard." That nightmare is echoed from the other side by Sudarik Aperian, an 82-year-old resident of Movses, who says: "Azeri snipers shoot day and night -- at our houses, at peaceful civilians, at people working in their orchards." "At night, I am afraid of switching the lights on. When Azeris see lights in our windows, they immediately start shooting," she said standing by her bullet-riddled gates.
The decades-long dispute over Nagorny Karabakh has its immediate roots in a 1990s war that left some 30,000 people dead after ethnic-Armenian separatists backed by Yerevan seized the territory from Azerbaijan. Despite years of internationally-mediated negotiations since the 1994 ceasefire, the two sides have not yet signed a final peace deal. Karabakh is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but the ethnic-Azeri community, which before the war made up around 25 percent of the population, was entirely driven out. Almost all of the current 145,000 population of the enclave is Armenian and the region has declared itself the Nagorny Karabakh Republic. The uneasy standoff is not only fraying along the frontlines, but suffering from increasingly heated rhetoric from politicians on both sides. Energy-rich Azerbaijan has repeatedly vowed to retake the region. Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, said in February that the peace will be under threat as long as Armenia continues its occupation of Karabakh and seven adjacent Azeri districts, territory that adds up to some 20 percent of Azerbaijan. But in January, Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian threatened Azerbaijan with an "asymmetrical" response to any military assault by the cash-rich Azeri army. "In the event of a major and menacing (military) concentration on our border or along the (Karabakh) frontline, we reserve the right of a preventive strike," he said. The sabre-rattling rhetoric in Baku and Yerevan highlighted the unprecedented level of escalation on the ground. In the most serious single incident on the Karabakh frontline since the ceasefire, Azeri forces shot down an Armenian military helicopter in November. Then January turned out to be especially bloody. At least 12 people from both sides were reported killed and 18 wounded in border clashes, "the highest confirmed number of victims in the first month of a year since the 1994 ceasefire," according to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
Analysts warn that the current skirmishing could now tip over into something far more serious. "Starting from the summer of 2014, we have witnessed an unprecedented escalation," Mubariz Ahmedoglu, the director of Azeri Centre of Political Innovations, told AFP. "Armenia and Azerbaijan have deployed large-calibre artillery and rocket weapons along the Karabakh frontline," he said. In Yerevan, Armenian analyst Sergey Minasyan, with the Caucasus Institute think tank, was similarly pessimistic. "For the last 20 years, the situation on the ground has never been as tense and dangerous as it is today," he said. One resident of Movses, near the frontline, put the situation this way: "Our future is just as hazy as this mist over the Kardash mountain."