Turkey and Azerbaijan deny that Syrian mercenaries were used in the recent offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh but four Syrians have told the BBC that after enlisting for sentry duties in Azerbaijan, they were unexpectedly thrown into battle on the front line.

It was back in August of this year that the rumours started to circulate in rebel-held areas of northern Syria: there was well-paid work to be had overseas.

“I had a friend who told me that there is a very good job you can do, just to be at military checkpoints in Azerbaijan,” one man told me. 

“They told us our mission would be to serve as sentries on the border – as peacekeepers. They were offering $2,000 a month! It felt like a fortune for us,” said another, whom I will call Qutaiba. 

Both applied for the job through Turkish-backed rebel factions that make up what’s known as the Syrian National Army, a force in northern Syria opposed to President Bashar al-Assad.

In an area where few earn more than $1 a day, the promised salary seemed like a godsend. It’s estimated that somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 men signed up and travelled to Azerbaijan, via Turkey, on Turkish military transport aircraft.

But the work wasn’t what it seemed. The men, many of them with no military experience, were being recruited for war – as they soon discovered when they were taken to the front line and ordered to fight.

“I didn’t expect to survive,” Qutaiba says. “It seemed like a 1% chance. Death was all around us.”

Nagorno-Karabakh is a disputed enclave that fell under Armenian control during a bloody conflict that ended in a ceasefire in 1994. Tens of thousands died and hundreds of thousands were displaced, both from the enclave itself and from surrounding territory occupied by Armenian forces. The international community has not recognised the self-declared Republic of Artsakh (the Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh) and this year, sensing its growing military superiority, Azerbaijan decided to go on the attack.

Although Azerbaijan and its ally Turkey deny the use of mercenaries, researchers have amassed a considerable amount of photographic evidence, drawn from videos and photographs the fighters have posted online, which tells a different story. 

The Syrians seem to have been deployed on the southern flank of the Azeri advance, where casualties on both sides were extremely high. The fighters I spoke to came under heavy fire and seemed to have been traumatised by their experiences. They didn’t want to be identified, for fear of reprisal from militia commanders, so I have given them different names.

“My first battle began the day after I arrived,” says Ismael. 

“I and about 30 guys were sent to the front line. We walked for about 50m when suddenly a rocket landed near us. I threw myself to the ground. The shelling lasted for 30 minutes non-stop. Those minutes felt like years. It was then I regretted coming to Azerbaijan.

“We didn’t know what to do, how to react,” says Samir, who adds that he and many of his fellow recruits had virtually no military experience or training. 

“I saw men dying, and others who just went crazily running. They didn’t have any sense of where they were going, because they were basically civilians.”

All of the men say they were given little protective equipment or medical support. Many of their fellow fighters appear to have bled to death from wounds that battlefield medics could easily have treated.

A video posted online in early October and geolocated to the front line near Horadiz shows a 23-year-old Syrian praying as shells land nearby – he has been identified by researcher Elizabeth Tsurkov as Mustafa Qanti from Hayyan, near Aleppo

“The hardest moment was when one of my mates was hit,” says Ismael, who was himself later hospitalised with shrapnel wounds. “He was 20m away from me when the shell landed. I saw him fall. He was calling to me, screaming. But his spot was exposed to the Armenian machine guns. I couldn’t help him. In the end, he just died there.”

Another Syrian says he was paralysed by fear when the shelling started. 

“I remember I just sat on the ground and cried and my injured friends started to cry as well,” he says. “One guy got shrapnel in his head. He died right there… Every day I see this. When it comes to me, I sit and cry, even now. I don’t know how I survived this war.

Read the full article at BBC.com