Nagorno-Karabakh conflict creates a new generation of displaced Armenians

For residents fleeing the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, the latest round of fighting dispels any hopes of peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan

People wait in their cars to be checked as they leave the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, at a checkpoint near the border between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020. Azerbaijan's president says forces have taken control of the strategically key city of Shushi in Nagorno-Karabakh, but a Armenian Defense Ministry spokesman said on Facebook that "fighting in Shushi is continuing." (AP Photo)

“It’s true, isn’t it. They’ve taken Hadrut.”

Five weeks into the current war in Nagorno-Karabakh, Irina Safaryan, 28, knew that Azerbaijani forces had seized her hometown. “They’ve probably taken everything from our home already, then,” she said, fighting back tears. “Taken our whole life.”

Ms Safaryan is among tens of thousands of people forced from their homes by the latest round of fighting over the disputed region. More than a million were permanently displaced during the initial 1988-94 conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, making it one of the most brutal corners of the collapsing Soviet empire. Now a new war has created another wave of displacement.

According to the Artsakh Human Rights Ombudsman, 100,000 Karabakh civilians have been displaced since the fighting intensified on September 27, most of whom fled to Armenia, but including those displaced within Karabakh.

The National spoke to two Karabakh Armenians whose hometowns have been taken by Azerbaijani forces since September, as well as Azerbaijanis from the regions surrounding Karabakh captured by Armenian forces in 1993.

Ms Safaryan's life story is one bookended by war. "I was born in the bunker, in 1992," she said. "My parents are both from Hadrut. While my mother gave birth to me, my father was fighting on the frontline."
After growing up in Hadrut, she went to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, to study for her bachelor's and master's degrees. But she always felt the pull of Artsakh – the name used by Karabakh Armenians for their breakaway state.

Irina Safaryan. Neil Hauer for The National

“I felt like I could do more in Stepanakert [the capital of Karabakh],” she said.

That is where she was living when the latest war broke out.

“Honestly, I was expecting something to happen,” she said. “Just the day before [September 26], I was telling my friend this. But I didn’t think I would wake up the next day from the bombing.”

Hadrut, with its population of 4,000 or so, is the largest town Azerbaijani forces have seized in the war but they have also gained control of several villages.

Anush Ghavalyan, 32, grew up in a village of Talish on the north-eastern edge of Karabakh, near the frontlines. It was attacked by Azerbaijani forces in the first days of the war, becoming the scene of fierce fighting before Armenian troops were forced out.

"The other day, I dreamed that I was still there, that I could hear the children playing in the street. It’s a place of so many happy memories,” Ms Ghavalyan said.

Like Ms Safaryan, she was in Stepanakert when the war broke out. "I had some family there, but they got out," she said. "After all, we have experienced this before."
Ms Ghavalyan was referring to fighting in Karabakh 2016, popularly known as the Four Day War. Azerbaijani forces briefly entered and controlled Talish, before being pushed out a day or two later.

During their brief occupation, Azerbaijani soldiers executed an elderly Armenian couple who lived near Ms Ghavalyan’s family.

“Our house was damaged then," she said, “but we rebuilt it. Thank God, we did not experience what our neighbours did.”

On the other side, too, there are those displaced by war.

Ulvi Sarkali, now 29, was not yet two years old when his family was forced to flee Fuzuli, an Azerbaijani town that has lain abandoned since its capture by Armenian forces in 1993.

“I was too young to remember anything, but my father was on the front,” Mr Sarkarli said by email. “We don’t talk to our mother about the war; she has PTSD from her escape.”

The announcement that his hometown had been recaptured by Azerbaijani forces on October 17 sparked strong emotions.

“As a family that suffered a lot from the [first] war… there is nothing good [about war], even though there is an ember of hope that maybe this time it would be possible to go back to [our] hometown.”

For Karabakh Armenians, that hope will never exist as long as their homes are controlled by Azerbaijan.

Asked if she would ever return to Talish under Azerbaijani rule, Ms Ghavalyan could only laugh. “First, they would not allow me to return,” she said. “Second, if I even try, they will kill me. I would never go back.”

Ms Safaryan also has no illusions about ethnic Armenians being able to live in Azerbaijan, despite Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev publicly calling for Azerbaijani and Armenian communities to “live side by side” in Karabakh.

“You should see how many messages I receive [on Facebook],” she said. “Every day I am blocking 50, 60 [Azerbaijanis]. You would not believe the horrific things they write.”

This kind of hatred extends even to those involved in the two decades of internationally sponsored "peacebuilding" dialogues between members of Armenian (including Karabakh Armenian) and Azerbaijani society.

“I participated in the peace dialogues for years,” Ms Ghavalyan said. “Since the war started, almost all of them have blocked me, but some are even worse.”

In one Twitter exchange she showed The National, a former Azerbaijani colleague at these dialogues wrote that "Azerbaijan is coming to liberate Khankendi" – the Azerbaijani name for Stepanakert. He then tells Ms Ghavalyan, "run away".

“This was all just a show for the Europeans,” said Ms Ghavalyan. “[Azerbaijanis] now all cheer the war. They were never interested in peace.”

Mr Sarkarli would like to move to Stepanakert and support peacebuilding efforts.

“It is my dream to contribute to Karabakh, [so] that the region becomes a developed, peaceful, demilitarised area, a bright example of co-existence in the world,” he said.

This possibility, however, is currently a distant prospect. The Azerbaijani advance towards Stepanakert forced thousands of remaining civilians to evacuate the city on November 7.

One of the most popular Azerbaijani Telegram channels shared a video of the civilian exodus with the words, “we chase them like dogs”, a phrase that has been inscribed on the Azerbaijani drones that have played a decisive role in this conflict.

Ms Safaryan sees little hope for the "peaceful coexistence" of Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Karabakh that is often touted by neighbouring Georgia.

“Whatever land we give them, it will never be enough,” she said. “If we give them Stepanakert, they will come to Goris [in southern Armenia], and after that to Yerevan. It will never be enough.”

For the newly displaced of Karabakh, war remains, seemingly, their only path home.

“We have seen how the international community does nothing,” Ms Safaryan said. “The only thing we can rely on [for our safety] is our soldiers.”

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