Battle for control of Nagorno-Karabakh has frequently plunged the South Caucasus into turmoil, but the latest hostilities are threatening to cause a regional humanitarian crisis, with tens of thousands of civilians displaced amid resurgent COVID-19 outbreaks and at the onset of winter.
Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but populated by ethnic Armenians who reject Azerbaijani rule and run the territory as a de facto independent state. After the Soviet Union collapsed, a war broke out that ended in 1994 when Armenia forced out Azerbaijan's troops and occupied several territories around the enclave, displacing hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis in the process.
The conflict is currently on a disastrous trajectory: The previous war was fought over several years and claimed more than 30,000 lives, but nearly 150 civilians and at least 1,200 soldiers have been killed in the last six weeks alone.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the distraction of the US elections, relief efforts have so far been largely homegrown, even though the scale of the displacement, the destruction, and soaring coronavirus cases pose urgent and longer-term challenges for both countries.
According to Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan, more than 90,000 people from Nagorno-Karabakh (60 percent of the population) have been displaced since the outset of the war. Azerbaijani missiles and drone strikes have been bombing the territory almost daily, hitting hospitals, churches, and schools. Civilian deaths in the territory stand at around 40, while the Karabakh authorities have announced over 1,200 military losses.
The Azerbaijani government has indicated that an additional 40,000 people have been displaced within Azerbaijan. The country does not release military fatalities but has reported over 90 civilians killed. As well as populated areas around the front line, Azerbaijan’s cities have also been hit by Armenian missiles, including a strike on the town of Barda on 28 October that reportedly killed at least 21 people – the deadliest civilian incident of the war so far.
Zaur Shiriyev, an analyst for the International Crisis Group based in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, said aid operations within Azerbaijan have largely been a government-led effort, with support from the Azerbaijani and Turkish Red Crescent, and from the International Committee of the Red Cross. “I estimate that more than 150,000 people live within a 10-kilometre range of the line of contact,” Shiriyev told The New Humanitarian.
Pervana Mammadova from YUVA, an Azerbaijani NGO, told TNH that the conflict has also prompted a rare spirit of volunteerism to flourish in the country.
Citizens and businesses have been spontaneously donating food, winter clothes, and hygiene items that her volunteers distribute in the border areas, and in the badly affected cities of Terter and Barda. She said the Azerbaijani government has provided informal temporary shelter and food for those displaced, but added that other needs are also emerging.
“Schools were closed recently due to the pandemic and the children had online classes,” said Mammadova. “In these temporary shelters that isn’t possible, so we are trying to provide social workers to distract the children and give the parents a break.”
Meanwhile, many of those displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh itself are being hosted by friends and family across Armenia.
The Armenian government is using a community centre in the outskirts of the capital, Yerevan, as a registration and temporary reception facility for those who don’t have this option. On a recent visit by TNH, between 100 and 200 people – mainly women, children, and the elderly – lay on rows of camp beds while trying to find news of their friends and family. The mass military mobilisation in both countries means most men below the age of 50 are either signing up or being drafted to the front line.
Naira Tadevosyan, a psychologist for the Armenian Ministry of Social Welfare and Labour working at the centre, told TNH that as well as the more immediate needs, many evacuees in Armenia will have lasting trauma.
“We try to continue working with them even after they leave the centre,” Tadevosyan said. “Children have seen rockets explode killing their neighbours and ruining their houses. Some are afraid even when they hear the sound of a car passing outside; they think it’s a drone coming to bomb them.”
Volunteers stepping up to help
On the morning of 27 September, Lilit Dolokanyan took her young children to the basement as the sounds of explosions rang out around Stepanakert, the de facto capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. For a day they slept on the cement floor without electricity as they anxiously tried to find out if their friends and family were safe. The following day Lilit’s husband arranged for them to be evacuated in one of the many cars racing towards the enclave to collect civilians and take them to Yerevan. It was a close call.
“We left at 3pm and the city was still under artillery fire,” Lilit recalled, sitting with her son in a Yerevan hotel run by volunteers. “We didn’t have time to take many belongings. And we thought that it wouldn’t last long. A few days later our neighbour’s house was bombed. It’s not there anymore. Our windows and doors were blown out.”
UN assistance hasn’t been requested by either country, and the UN has no presence in Nagorno-Karabakh due to the territory’s status, while NGO efforts are largely in the planning and assessment stage.
In 2017, the US foreign aid department, USAID, reported that civil society organisations in Azerbaijan operate in a “severely restrained civic space”. Several international organisations are on the ground in Armenia and carrying out needs assessments, but the country is under martial law and they are still awaiting a formal request for help from the government.
John McGhie, emergency response director for the International Medical Corps in Armenia, told TNH that NGOs are informally liaising, but there is no cluster system for addressing specific needs in place yet. “The traditional actors who would normally take the lead are not, and the military infrastructure takes over, so it’s understandable that they don’t wish to provide full access to and share information with organisations who they don’t know,” he said.
In the absence of a greater international response, local groups and volunteers have been stepping in to help.
Grigor Yeritsyan, president of the Armenian Progressive Youth NGO, told TNH he receives regular lists of family sizes and needs from the Yerevan municipality, and assembles packages of food, clothes, and medicine items to deliver to the displaced.
Yeritsyan said APY’s parcels are being switched from weekly to monthly – an acceptance that this is now expected to be an extended crisis, and one that will put great strain on both the state and the individuals accommodating the displaced.
“Winters are very cold in this region, and the taxes for heating are very high for the average citizen,” Yeritsyan explained. “If you have 10 or 15 people who are guests in your house, I don’t know how this will work out, with the municipal budgets and state budgets mainly directed to public health and the military.”
Yeritsyan also indicated that the underdeveloped Armenian health system was struggling to treat other patients as hospitals continued to receive war casualties. “Right now, elderly people and soldiers are competing for the same bed, which is unfair, but that’s how it is,” he said.
A crisis compounded by COVID-19
The coronavirus pandemic is casting a long shadow over the conflict, as both countries were hit hard by a first wave of the virus and are now experiencing their highest ever daily caseloads.
On Wednesday, Azerbaijan recorded 1,227 new cases out of a population of 10 million. With a population of under three million, Armenia’s situation appears far more acute. On the same day, the Armenian Ministry of Health announced 2,374 new cases and a total of more than 36,000 active cases – more than one percent of the country’s population. Armenia’s health minister has warned that hospitals are struggling to cope with the surge in infections aggravated by the war.
However, Armen Hagopjanian, a Los Angeles-based foot and ankle surgeon who flew to his native Armenia after the war broke out and started treating patients in Stepanakert, told TNH that the coronavirus was the last thing on anyone’s minds.
“COVID-19 was another enemy you couldn’t protect against,” he said. “If you are in a bunker with 50 or 60 people, how many masks can you wear? We were treating two patients in the same room, blood everywhere, sometimes with no time even to wash the operating theatre before the next ones came in.”
The ICG’s Shiriyev said the pandemic is similarly deprioritised in Azerbaijan.
“When the war started, there was an evening curfew, and they have extended school closures,” he said. “But the government is sensitive about bringing back hard measures like lockdown because there is a big impact to social life and businesses.”
The Azerbaijani government says it was already hosting between 800,000 and one million refugees and displaced people from the first Karabakh war of the 1990s. Both the recent and long-term displaced are adamant they wish to return home as soon as possible, but the scale of recently dropped weaponry may delay this process significantly: Amnesty International has verified the use of banned cluster bombs by both Armenian and Azerbaijani forces.
Miles Hawthorn, operations manager of The Halo Trust – a British-American demining charity, and one of the few international organisations that has been operating long-term in Nagorno-Karabakh – said the latest conflict had thrown up a host of new challenges.
“It’s a different kind of clearance. Instead of mines, there are a variety of different munitions used,” he said. “The cluster bombs are particularly dangerous as they can maim and kill indiscriminately and remain dangerous for a long time. People are not used to seeing them, and the pink ribbon makes them unfortunately attractive to children.
“So far, we have managed to clear the visible ones on the streets, but there are still many in people’s gardens, balconies, and submerged beneath rubble, which poses a risk for when the displaced people return.”
Hawthorn said HALO’s clearance operation is currently projected to last a year, and to involve over 200 staff at a cost of $4-5 million.
And such operations aren’t restricted to Nagorno-Karabakh. Elnur Gasimov, operations manager for Azerbaijan’s National Agency for Mine Action, or ANAMA, told TNH that the government-run demining body has already removed over 300 items of unexploded ordnance and more than 1,110 rocket and missile components, including cluster munitions, from Azerbaijani territory.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has issued an emergency appeal for 9.2 million Swiss francs for food distribution, hygiene kits, and emergency cash assistance for affected people in the region.
Several governments – including Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom – have already contributed. The EU, historically peripheral to the conflict, has pledged €500,000 to the ICRC and a further €200,000 to both Armenia and Azerbaijan via the International Federation of the Red Cross’s Disaster Relief Emergency Fund.
Both countries are experiencing hardship, but there is a huge economic disparity between the two, as Azerbaijan is a wealthy oil-producing state.
Armenian fundraising efforts, however, have been helped by its engaged diaspora.
Buoyed by a high-profile $1 million donation by fourth-generation Armenian Kim Kardashian, the Hayastan All Armenian Fund (the country’s largest non-profit) has collected over $160 million. According to the Fund’s external relations director, Anna Aghajanian, a third of the total has been raised from inside Armenia, where the average salary is around $280 and nearly a quarter of the population live under the poverty line.
“In these dark times, it has been a flash of brightness,” said Aghajanian. “I kept a note from a pensioner who couldn’t leave her home and needed us to pick up 5,000 drams, which is less than €10. But it’s the thought behind it.”
The Fund coordinates with Armenia and the authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh to facilitate the transport of supplies arriving by cargo plane to displaced people and those still living in the conflict zone. It says its priorities are ambulances, electric heaters, heated blankets, wood stoves, and electricity generators.
Aghajanian said that although the total raised was impressive, it was a drop in the ocean compared to what would be required for the months – possibly years – ahead.
“We also work with a rehabilitation centre for troops requiring amputations, and the equipment they have is not state of the art,” she said. “Some of the injuries are horrific and will need long-term care and prosthetics.”
The three ceasefires brokered by Russia, France, and the United States over the last month have all been broken within minutes, and regional powers have a history of stoking the conflict. Russia, which sells weapons to both sides, maintains a military base in Armenia, while Turkey has been providing military support to Azerbaijan, including deadly drones and Syrian mercenary fighters.
Azerbaijani forces are edging closer to cities in Nagorno-Karabakh and have retaken several territories to the south along the Iranian border from where the Lachin corridor – one of the only highways connecting the enclave to Armenia proper – could be targeted. Such a move could risk the besiegement of Nagorno-Karabakh, disrupt supplies reaching civilians during tough winter months, and further escalate an already ruinous war.