On a hillside overlooking the capital is Armenia’s last line of defence in the event of war. Squeezed between a junkyard and a Soviet-era apartment block is a dusty assault course littered with rusting cars, discarded water bottles and a replica rocket launcher. This is the training ground of Voma, a paramilitary group that prepares ordinary citizens to fight for the future of their country. That future is looking increasingly uncertain.

“Last week, we had just 15 people attending training,” says Nanée, a 24-year-old volunteer teaching first aid. “Now, we have more than 150. Old, young, men, women — everyone wants to know how to act in case there’s another invasion.”

Days before, on 13 September, Armenian towns and villages came under a heavy artillery barrage from neighbouring Azerbaijan, which lasted for two days. Baku insists its forces were attacked first, but after the blasts came its troops, pushing across the frontier and capturing territory inside Armenia in the most dramatic escalation since the two nations fought a bloody war in 2020. There are fears a humanitarian ceasefire could collapse at any moment.

At the heart of the conflict is the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is situated within Azerbaijan’s internationally-recognised borders, but has been held since the fall of the USSR by ethnic Armenian separatists. Two years ago, Baku’s well-armed forces pushed past the barricades and across the minefields to take back swathes of territory in a shock-and-awe offensive. But Moscow swiftly intervened, brokering a peace deal that left the Karabakh Armenians in control of only around a third of the area.

This time, though, it’s different. Baku is insisting that Yerevan formally recognises its sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh and ending the three-decades-long stand-off over the region; Azerbaijan says it’s a matter of international law, while Armenians in the breakaway territory fear ethnic cleansing if they are abandoned. The sudden outbreak of hostility towards Armenia, which many see as a tactic to force a deal, has reportedly killed 105 Armenian troops and 71 Azerbaijanis.

To make matters worse, Moscow is refusing to play peacemaker. Armenia is formally an ally of Russia, as a member of the Moscow-led CSTO mutual defence pact. But its pleas for Kremlin support have fallen on deaf ears, with other member states like Kazakhstan ruling out sending troops to de-occupy the territory. Russia is clearly reluctant to spare any resources or manpower from its war in Ukraine, leaving the Armenians on their own.

“My uncle was one of those killed in the shelling,” says 18-year-old Aram. He signed up to take part in civil defence training the next day, spending his evenings drilling with a heavy wooden mock assault rifle and running laps with other volunteers. “My parents have mixed feelings about it. They don’t want me to go to war and die — but my dad bought me my new uniform.”

Voma is dependent on donations of cash and military surplus gear from the public to train volunteers — many of whom then formally enlist. However, once they are part of the armed forces, many find there’s still not enough equipment to go around.

Lusine, 38, also decided to join up after going through civil defence training. “They gave me a list of everything I need to provide myself — a sleeping bag, a flashlight, a hunting knife, even a spoon. They’ll give me an AK-47 but, as a woman, being captured isn’t an option, so I need to get hold of a pistol as well and save a bullet for myself.”

Armenian society was shaken when reports surfaced days after the latest offensive about the fate of several female soldiers who were captured by Azerbaijani forces. In one video shared online, 36-year-old mother of three Anush Apetyan is raped, murdered and mutilated, her dismembered finger pushed into her mouth. While Baku has not responded to the video, in neighbouring Turkey — a close ally of Azerbaijan — women’s groups gathered to condemn the apparent atrocity, holding placards reading “no to femicide”.

The incident has left many Armenians feeling they are fighting a battle for their very existence. “This is my home. And they’re trying to invade and destroy something that I’ve come to love,” says Joe Kasabian, an American-Armenian and former US soldier who first moved to the country last year. “We just want to be left alone, and they won’t let us. The fight is here whether we want it or not.” Now, he says, when the time comes, he’s ready to serve again.

Many see the conflict through an ethnic and religious lens, priding themselves on being the first country in the world to adopt Christianity, bordered on two sides by Turkic Muslim nations. Armenia is also a place where genocide lingers within living memory. From 1915 to 1917, shortly before the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians living in what is now modern-day Turkey were rounded up and purged, loaded onto boats and sunk, forced into death marches or made to flee their homes for Western Europe. Turkey and Azerbaijan insist the events never took place, despite growing international recognition from countries like the US, France, Germany and Russia.

Now, once again, Armenians are hearing echoes of ethnic cleansing in rhetoric coming from their neighbours. “Make up your mind,” ultranationalist Turkish MP Mustafa Destici told Armenians in mid-September, as pressure built from Azerbaijan to recognise Baku’s sovereignty over the entirety of Nagorno-Karabakh. “I remind you once again that the Turkish Nation has the power to erase Armenia from history and geography, and that they stand at the limit of our patience.”

Others though have sought to downplay ethnic tensions. “This isn’t about hatred for Armenians,” a top Azerbaijani official tells me on the condition of anonymity. “We’ve lived together side by side for centuries; we’re a secular nation with many ethnic and religious minorities. This is just about respecting international law. Karabakh is ours, and we will take it back one way or the other. They’re preparing for war when they should be negotiating for peace.”

Yet Armenia’s domestic political situation has made any kind of peaceful deal even harder to reach. Following the heavy shelling in September, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan indicated he could be about to secure a deal recognising Azerbaijani sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh. Within hours, massive protests had been organised, with marchers climbing the gates of the parliament building and demanding he step down.

“No document has been signed,” the Prime Minister said in a surprise statement, designed to calm tensions, “and I can say that no document will be signed”. And yet, while the U-turn may have prevented an all-out riot, it’s not clear that officials have any alternative plan to avert further conflict. In a nation that sees surviving genocide as a core part of its identity, political concessions are often viewed a milestone on the road to total obliteration.

That said, the Armenian government has so far refused to begin mass mobilisation. Having come to power following a wave of street protests in 2018, known as the “Velvet Revolution”, many local analysts say embattled Pashinyan has purposefully kept the army relatively weak. He is distrustful of the top brass, after senior officers called on him to resign following military defeats in the 2020 war. The post of Chief of the General Staff was left vacant for most of this year, making top-down reforms harder.

As a result, the army is woefully underprepared for war. Near the village of Nurevan, just a stone’s throw from the border, a detachment of troops are fortifying their positions and bracing for what many see as an imminent onslaught. However, the young soldiers — many of whom are 18-year-old conscripts — are kitted out with uniforms that are falling apart at the seams, their foam lining breaking out through the camouflage. Few have modern helmets and even fewer have body armour. “Our troops need everything from socks to weapons to coffee,” says Armen Hagopjanyan, the head of the local district.

Feeling their government is doing too little to prepare, ordinary citizens are taking matters into their own hands. Seventeen-year-olds Edwin and Serge are among those who have set up an all-night collection point in Yerevan, calling on locals to donate whatever they can to those standing guard on the border. “I’m too young to serve,” Edwin says, manning the bench and packing up boxes of supplies at 1am, “but this is how I can contribute”. As well as clothing and long-life instant noodles, the most popular donations are cigarettes and lighters, which those who have done military service say are as valuable as bullets at the front.

Few Armenians truly believe they can beat Azerbaijan on the battlefield. But with their government unwilling and unable to grant political concessions, many are bracing for an inevitable fight.

Former foreign minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan is among those calling for the country to get ready to defend itself. “God bless our Army — we can win even when it seems impossible,” he says. At the same time though, he quotes one of Winston Churchill’s more morose lines: “You may have to fight when there is no hope of victory, because it is better to perish than live as slaves.”

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