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‘Everything we have is here’ In Armenia’s southeast, local residents are still reeling from September’s attacks

Source: Meduza

Story by Teresa Di Mauro for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.

Rising tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia are stoking fears of renewed conflict, just when the two sides were supposed to be hammering out a peace deal and delineating their shared border. On Monday morning, a group of purported protesters from Azerbaijan blocked the only road connecting Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh — a disputed territory within Azerbaijan with a predominantly Armenian population. The blockade, now in its fourth day, has disrupted the flow of traffic and vital supplies to the region, sparking fears that it will pave the way for a humanitarian crisis. These concerns grew more acute on Tuesday, when officials from Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto government reported that Azerbaijan had cut off the territory’s gas supplies, leaving stranded local residents without heat. Meanwhile, residents of Armenia’s southeastern regions are still reeling from the conflict’s last escalation, which saw Azerbaijani forces launch attacks not on Nagorno-Karabakh but on towns within Armenia itself. The hostilities along the border, which ended with a fragile ceasefire on September 14, marked the deadliest fighting since the 2020 war that killed an estimated 6,000 people in just six weeks. In a dispatch for The Beet, journalist Teresa Di Mauro reports on how residents of Armenia’s borderland are coping in the aftermath of the September attacks. 

This article first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Meduza is presenting it again as part of the background on Azerbaijan’s military strike on Nagorno-Karabakh, launched on September 19, 2023. Sign up here to get the next issue of The Beet delivered directly to your inbox.

In the early hours of September 13, the sound of explosions awoke the residents in and around Goris, Sotk, Vardenis, Ishkhanasar, and Jermuk — towns in southeastern Armenia, near the nominal border with Azerbaijan. 

“My husband and I heard a loud noise. We thought it was a truck, then we looked outside and saw artillery fire. They were getting closer and closer, so I grabbed my son, Noy, and carried him into the living room where I thought it would be safer. We didn't know what to do, so we waited, and I put my hands over my ears. I thought we’d be next,” recalls Marusya Kalataryan, a young mother living in Goris.

The hostilities, which would last for about 48 hours, marked a serious escalation in the decades-long conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan’s army launched strikes on military and civilian infrastructure inside Armenia for the first time, while simultaneously claiming that this was in response to a “large-scale provocation.” 

A view of the town of Vardenis after shelling from Azerbaijan. September 14, 2022.
Alexander Patrin / TASS

Tensions in the border region have flared periodically since the end of the six-week war in November 2020, which resulted in Azerbaijan gaining control over seven districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh and a large portion of Nagorno-Karabakh itself. However, people living on the Armenian side of the border never imagined that their towns would become the new frontline. 

“When we heard the shooting, my son and I immediately went out of the apartment to check the situation. A moment later, a bomb hit his bedroom. We saved our lives just in time,” recalls Irina Balasanyan, a resident of Verishen, a village on the outskirts of Goris. Her house was one of three reportedly hit when villages in the area came under attack. 

The night of September 12–13 was also a nightmare for residents of Jermuk, a famous spa town in Armenia’s southeastern Vayots Dzor province. “That night, I was already sleeping when my husband woke me up and told me, ‘The town is being bombed.’ I was shocked and terrified,” remembers Armine Poghosyan, whose family runs the Hotel Central in Jermuk. “I ran from one room to the other saying, ‘What are we going to do? What are we going to do?’ [Then] I looked out the window and I saw that they [had] bombed the mountainside in front of our house.”

According to the International Crisis Group, the fighting in September killed around 207 Armenian and 80 Azerbaijani soldiers. Yerevan reported that at least five civilians were killed or missing, while thousands of others fled the region without knowing when they could return to their homes. 

‘The sound of gunfire is still in our ears’

When The Beet’s correspondent visited southeastern Armenia in late November, many local residents had in fact returned home, in the hopes of carrying on with their regular lives. But the persistent state of insecurity has made it hard for them to re-establish their usual routines. Many buildings were severely damaged and certain areas still appear to be littered with unexploded bombs.

In Ishkhanasar, a village just outside of the town of Sisian, locals said the artillery fire was less than a kilometer (0.6 miles) away during the September hostilities. Some residents believe that Ishkhanasar would have been the next target if the attacks had lasted another day. 

“When the [fighting] started, no one could understand or believe it. Now the sound of gunfire is still in our ears,” says Varya Andreasyan, an assistant to Ishkhanasar’s mayor. “My son, who is seven years old, put a knife under his chair. He said he wants to protect us. Now our children’s suitcases are ready in case they suddenly need to flee,” she adds.

The hostilities also took a toll on the local economy, which mainly relies on selling fruit, aveluk (wild sorrel), mushrooms, herbs, and tea, as well as on tourists who come to ski in the mountains nearby. Now, it’s too dangerous to harvest crops or use the fields. “The fields cannot be grazed and this is a big problem for cows and sheep. Thankfully, before the [fighting] started, we already collected enough grass and hay for this year. But next year, we don’t know what we’ll do. The fields are burned. The grass might grow back in four or five years,” Varya says. 

There’s also the risk of coming across unexploded bombs — not to mention the fact that Azerbaijan’s troops are still located just a few kilometers away. After Yerevan and Baku negotiated a tenuous ceasefire on September 14, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan claimed that Azerbaijani forces had occupied a 10-square-kilometer (almost four-square-mile) area inside Armenia. This, he added, was in addition to the 40 square kilometers (roughly 15 square miles) Azerbaijani forces seized in May 2021. At the time, Baku claimed to be strengthening its own border protections.

Local journalist Gevorg Tosunyan, who conducted an independent investigation into the border incursions, estimates that Azerbaijani troops have advanced a total of 148 square kilometers (57 square miles) since last May, thereby repositioning the de facto borderline in Armenia’s southeast. Open source analysts draw similar conclusions.

‘It can happen anywhere’

On October 17, EU member states formally approved a short monitoring mission along Armenia’s eastern border. The European Union Monitoring Capacity to Armenia (EUMCAP), as it is known, aims to reduce tensions and assist in the ongoing process of border delimitation between Armenia and Azerbaijan. So far, however, the mission has remained silent on reported ceasefire violations. Many fear that the hostilities could resume at any time. As a result, few dare to travel to Armenia’s southeast, leaving businesses that relied on Armenian and international tourists struggling to survive. 

At the Goris Women’s Development Resource Center Foundation, local women turn raw wool sourced from local farmers into traditional Armenian handicrafts, including carpets, curtains, and bags. The September attacks forced the center to stop production and although they’ve since reopened, they now fear for the survival of their business as the number of tourists (their usual customers) has dropped considerably. 

“After the September attacks, not that many tourists came here. We had a few exhibitions and sold our stuff there, but as we rely a lot on tourists, the business has of course been affected,” says Naira Dajunts, one of the instructors at the center.

Emergency workers put out a fire in the town of Vardenis after shelling from Azerbaijan. September 14, 2022.
Alexander Patrin / TASS

In Jermuk, the situation is similar, if not worse. Known for its mineral water, which the town’s resorts, spas, and health centers use to provide services and treatments, Jermuk typically attracts thousands of tourists from Armenia and abroad every year, local officials told The Beet. 

“We started working again a month and a half [after the attacks], but many people are afraid to come here, because of the Azerbaijani president’s aggressive speeches and the silence of the international community,” explains neurologist Hovhannes Hakobyan, the chief physician at Jermuk’s Ararat Health Center. “We face a huge problem of how to keep specialists here because we cannot offer them work given the fact that nobody comes [here] anymore. But hopefully now we’ll be able to restart.” 

“Even some Armenians are afraid to come to Jermuk because if it happens here, it can happen anywhere,” Hovhannes adds. 

* * *

Despite the persistent security challenges in Armenia’s southeast and the constant fear of an imminent attack, many local residents have decided to stay. While some believe there is no safe place in the entire country, others simply have no desire to live anywhere else. 

“We want to stay. We want to resist and protect the village. If the village will be empty, they [Azerbaijani forces] will just come and sit,” underscores Varya from Ishkhanasar. 

Armine, from Jermuk, tells The Beet that she probably wouldn’t even have left the town during the attacks if she didn’t have a small child. “I want to live here. Even if there isn’t much to do for young people here, we just want to stay. Yerevan is a big city where you can go to the theater, concerts. I can go there and live for a month, but then I want to come back,” she says. 

In Verishen, elderly couple Kim and Arevik Salbunts are still working to fix the severe damage to their home, which came under shelling in September. The repairs have a long way to go, but they’re determined to stay and finish the job. “Where else should we go? When you eat in your town, in your house, or in another village, is it the same?” Kim asks rhetorically. “Everything we have is here.” 

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Story by Teresa Di Mauro for The Beet

Edited by Eilish Hart

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