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‘This time the relocation is permanent’: The Armenian exodus from Nagorno-Karabakh

‘I wish I could stay there, of course. We had everything there, and it was home.’

Vehicles carrying refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh, a region inhabited by ethnic Armenians, queue on the road leading towards the Armenian border, in Nagorno-Karabakh, 25 September 2023. David Ghahramanyan/Reuters
Vehicles carrying refugees head out of Nagorno-Karabakh towards the Armenian border on 25 September 2023.

In the space of just two weeks, more than 100,000 people – out of an estimated population of around 120,000 – have fled Nagorno-Karabakh for Armenia.

The territory, inside the borders of Azerbaijan but controlled by Armenian separatists since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, fell to Azerbaijani troops following a lightning 19 September offensive, which was preceded by a nine-month blockade that starved the area of supplies. 

As few as 50 to 1,000 ethnic Armenians may now be left in the Nagorno-Karabakh, according to the UN. 

“They starved us, terrorised us, shelled us. They want to force us to take their citizenship, which we don’t want, because, honestly, given how they treat their own people, and our decades of war, who would want that,” Marat, a 22-year-old from the town of Askeran in Nagorno-Karabakh, told The New Humanitarian.

Marat currently lives in a shelter set up by Armenian NGOs in a gymnasium in the city of Artashat, near the capital Yerevan, with six other family members. Over 100 beds are installed on what used to be a basketball court, where volunteers now distribute food and clothes. 

“I wish I could stay there, of course,” Marat said. “We had everything there, and it was home. But how could we, when we have some children in my family, and they could die there? We have to think about their safety,” he added, pointing at his little sister playing around nearby. 

‘A lot of people want to rely on themselves, and not aid’

The exodus from Nagorno-Karabakh began almost immediately after Azerbaijani forces took control of the region.

A few cars with lifetimes’ worth of belongings on their roofs slowly made their way through the Lachin corridor – the lone road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. Then it was buses, trucks, and ambulances forming long queues on the mountainous road. 

Within a few days, it was all over: Nearly the entire population of the territory, which operated as a de facto autonomous republic for over three decades, had fled, leaving everything they could not carry behind. Of the more than 100,000 refugees, about 30,000 are children.

During the evacuations, the Armenian Red Cross and volunteers provided food and assistance to people crossing into the country. The refugees were then redirected to Goris, the closest Armenian city to the border with Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh, to register. Hotels filled up quickly, and Armenian authorities started organising buses to redirect refugees to cities all across the country.

This is a map of Armenia and Azerbaijan. There are four highlighted regions. In orange: Nagorno-Karabakh. In dark orange: Askeran province. In green: The Syunik province and within it there are two locator dots: Goris and Kapan. In burgundy red: Nakhichevan autonomous region. There are locator dots in Yerevan, Baku and Stepanakert

Like Marat, many Armenians who fled Nagorno-Karabakh have no relatives in Armenia and nowhere to go. They are completely dependent on humanitarian aid for both emergency assistance and longer-term support, as most of them lost their livelihoods. The financial assistance provided by the Armenian government, equivalent to around $100 per month, is not enough to rent an apartment.

“A lot of people want to rely on themselves, and not aid, because there is this feeling that this time the relocation is permanent, and not temporary, as opposed to 2020 during the war,” said Shoushan Keshishian, the CEO of Hub Artsakh, an NGO that had been based in Nagorno-Karabakh. 

“We first focused on providing an emergency response and humanitarian aid, but quickly realised that people were worried about employment and legal issues like passports, or registering a business here in Armenia,” she said.

Despite being displaced itself, Hub Artsakh has vowed to continue assisting the Armenians fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh. The NGO, which is soon to open an office in Yerevan, has already created a hotline for refugees, with a team of operators to match them with lawyers and human resource specialists.

‘What if they attack again?’

Azerbaijani officials have said they want to “reintegrate” the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh and have pledged to respect their rights and freedoms, but refugees The New Humanitarian spoke to said they do not trust them and fear repression and violence. 

Armenia and Azerbaijan have been fighting over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh for decades. A first war in the 1990s, won by the Armenians, left 30,000 dead on both sides. A million people fled their homes.

After the war, there were virtually no Azerbaijanis left in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, and virtually no Armenians left in Azerbaijan, apart from in Nagorno-Karabakh, which Azerbaijan continued to claim as its territory.

A new war broke out in September 2020, which Azerbaijan won, recovering 80% of the territory it had lost 30 years earlier. More than 7,000 people were killed across both sides. 

In December 2022, Azerbaijan closed the Lachin corridor, subjecting the population of Nagorno-Karabakh to a nine-month blockade with no electricity, no water, and numerous food and medicine shortages, before attacking on 19 September. The Armenian population of the enclave fled, fearing ethnic cleansing, violence, and persecution, while the Armenian authorities that had governed Nagorno-Karabakh as the unrecognised Republic of Artsakh for more than three decades said they would dissolve and cease to exist by the end of this year. 

Meanwhile, tensions are still high between Armenia, Russia, and Azerbaijan. Russia has traditionally been the arbiter of peace, using its relations with both countries and military power to maintain the status quo. But Russian peacekeepers did not intervene when Azerbaijani forces launched their offensive on 19 September. 

Armenians now fear Azerbaijan will seek to grab more territory in Syunik, the southernmost province of Armenia, to create a land route connecting the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan with the rest of the country. 

Refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh, who are still recovering from one humanitarian disaster, already fear another war. 

“I was offered housing in Kapan. But it’s a city on the border. You can see an Azerbaijani checkpoint a few metres away… I am scared, I want to live far away from them. What if they attack again?” said Marina, a 40-year-old mother of two from Stepanakert, who The New Humanitarian met at an aid centre in Goris. “I could not bear losing everything and being displaced again.”

Edited by Eric Reidy.

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