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‘No one’s going to fight for us’ As Baku takes power in Nagorno-Karabakh, tens of thousands of refugees are flooding Armenia, without a hope of returning home
After Baku gained unequivocal control of Nagorno-Karabakh last week, mass protests erupted around Armenia, whose population blamed Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan for failing to prevent the dissolution of Artsakh, an unrecognized breakaway state established in the region by the ethnic-Armenian majority there. While Artsakh is being officially dissolved, refugees from Karabakh, who have already endured a nine-month blockade and now lost their homes, are lining up at the Armenian border. Journalist Alexander Atasuntsev traveled to Armenia, where he talked to protesters, refugees, and those who try to help them on arrival, in the Armenian border city of Goris.
A tribunal, some day
“What’s happening in Artsakh is genocide. Our relatives — people who simply want to live in their homeland — are dying. If we’re real Armenians, we have to stand with them,” says Anahit, a young woman holding a flag of the unrecognized Artsakh Republic.
Anahit is a student at the French University in Yerevan. Her family, including her several brothers, have remained in Nagorno-Karabakh. They are originally from the village of Gadrut, which had been transferred to Azerbaijan in 2020. When this happened, all the ethnic Armenians who lived there had to leave.
Protests have been ongoing in Yerevan since September 19, when Azerbaijan launched what it described as a “localized anti-terrorist operation” in Nagorno-Karabakh. Several thousand Armenians gather daily in Yerevan’s Republic Square, opposite the government building, whose pink-limestone portico is lined with rows of riot policemen. Behind their backs, gape the building’s broken windows — the result of the crowd’s unsuccessful attempt to storm the building.
The square is full of young people. They’re blocking the traffic, stretching broad red banners across the square. Many of them are Karabakh Armenians who lost family members during the 2020 war. Some of them speak about relatives who had endured the Azerbaijani blockade. People are constantly clasping their smartphones, sending messages and making calls. Some of them are weeping.
Anahit says she is demanding the resignation of Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. She says that Pashinyan betrayed both Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. She doesn’t think Russia is responsible, but criticizes the Armenian government, which “didn’t act in a worthy fashion.” “If they don’t ensure the safety of the people who live in Artsakh, why should Russia?” she says. “If Armenia doesn’t defend them, what right do we have to demand anything of Russia.”
Among the protesters, I also meet 19-year old Vagan, his father Vardan, 49, and their friend Farad, 69. “We came here to save our blood relations — the 120,000 Armenians who live in Artsakh,” says Vardan.
In his opinion, this is only possible if Armenia takes back its recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as a part of Azerbaijan. This is why it’s necessary to push through Pashinyan’s resignation, he says:
If that scum leaves, our partners — our allies Iran and Russia — will let us ensure the safety of Artsakh Armenians. Of course, no one is going to fight for us there, but the Armenians themselves are ready to fight. In the 1990s, no one wanted to help Armenia, and things were far worse.
“It’s originally Armenian land,” Farad pipes up. He is a veteran of two Karabakh wars and a member of the Armenian nationalist party Dashnaktsutyun, also known as Armenian Revolutionary Federation. I notice that whenever he speaks of Nikol Pashinyan, he avoids using his name, resorting to slurs instead.
“We don’t want this traitor to spend another day in office,” says Vagan. “If we can’t save Karabakh, we must at least ensure that its residents can escape safely. But our prime minister does nothing. This is why we’re here.”
All three of them seem to be ambivalent about Russia: though it came to Armenia’s side, Russia is still partly responsible for Armenia’s loss of Karabakh.
Vardan chimes in again: “It’s not up to Russia,” he says, “but up to that Turk, that traitor in the prime minister’s chair. He wants to leave the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the agreement, dating back to 1991, that our borders should be protected by Russia’s troops. He wants Armenia to be friends with NATO. But we know very well that the biggest NATO army is in Turkey. We’re never going to be friends with them. We’re a thorn in their side.”
A middle-aged man standing nearby is listening to our conversation. His body language makes clear that he disapproves of what is being said. When they start talking about how Armenia could take back Nagorno-Karabakh, he spits out angrily: “No way.”
His name is Mikhail. It turns out that he works in the city administration. In his mind, the protesters gathered in Republic Square are two kinds of people: either they’re “lost sheep” or “traitors.” Mikhail himself came to the square to listen to what people were saying. He isn’t a fan of Pashinyan, either, blaming him for not having done enough to keep Armenia independent of Russia:
Twenty years ago, when Putin came to power, it was already clear that Russia and Armenia were going different ways. I have nothing against Russia, it’s a Christian state, but Armenia should have realized that Putin is evil. Instead, Armenia sold itself to Putin.
“All these Kocharyans, Sargsyans,” he goes on, referring to the second and third presidents of post-Soviet Armenia, “are people who fed at the Russian trough. Pashinyan tried to get away from it, that’s why Putin hates him. When he started canceling exercises with the Collective Security Treaty partners, and started conducting exercises with the U.S., Putin decided to take revenge.”
Mikhail is certain that Yerevan’s conflict with Baku will not stop at Karabakh, and that Armenia is also at risk of losing its southern territories. Baku doesn’t even hide its interest in the so-called Zangezur corridor, where Azerbaijan wants to build a motorway to connect it with its exclave, the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic.
“All these people,” Mikhail says,“are just a bunch of suckers. They’ll never go and fight for Karabakh, especially not against Turkish weaponry. Just look at the number of these people, it’s nothing,” he says, pointing at the crowd of several thousand.
“Those who organize these protests are all traitors to Armenia, and they’ll ruin it.” He thinks that Armenia will also lose its southern territories. “Wouldn’t it lose them with Pashinyan?” I ask him.
“It’s not about Pashinyan,” he replies. “It’s that they have no one to replace him with. And if they come to power, they’ll ruin Armenia, which is exactly what Russia wants. Nikol is an idiot, and he is weak. If you’re going against Russia, go all the way.”
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Shushanik Arevshatyan, director of the popular Armenian Radio Van, is not the kind of person who would take to the Republic Square to protest over Karabakh. Chain-smoking in the kitchen of Radio Van’s editorial office, she muses:
In 2020, I was still a pro-Russian person, and my radio station had always broadcast in Russian. But after 2020, I understood what kind of game Russia was playing.
There are two kinds of people protesting now. The first is Karabakh natives, which is emotionally understandable: they’ve left their families there, and they came out in protest because they can’t stay home. But the terrible thing is that the other portion are paid provokers, that pro-Russian public whose goal is to overturn the Armenian government.
While we talk, she pauses several times to tune into the live broadcast in the background. People remaining in Nagorno-Karabakh are talking about what’s happening there.
She is sure that this isn’t the right time to oust Pashinyan. “We’re already weak, and who should be appointed instead? Is this the time to mess with things? We might get 120,000 refugees from Karabakh, God willing. They’re going to need housing. Some day — when it’s all over and done with — then, yes, let’s have a tribunal, and draw and quarter. But not today, not now.”
‘You’re all fascists!’
The first large Armenian city after crossing the border from Nagorno-Karabakh is Goris. The streets seem quiet at first, and it’s hard to believe that the city might soon be flooded with thousands of refugees.
But the city’s larger spaces — schools, hotels, and the drama theater — are already being stocked with bags and boxes of humanitarian aid. I notice several people smoking by the city hospital. Some of them turn out to be local doctors, while others have arrived just recently from Yerevan. The city’s largest hotel, also named Goris, has already reserved rooms for more 100 refugees.
From December 2022 onward, Nagorno-Karabakh was blockaded by Azerbaijan. On September 24, many people still thought that no evacuation would be possible, and that instead Karabakh Armenians would be subjected to the worst: ethnic cleansing.
The humanitarian situation in the region deteriorated even before Azerbaijan launched its military strike on September 19. Stores were empty of food staples. The region had been without gas for several months. Food, medications, fuel, and hygienic products were all in short supply. A week before the strike, Karabakh lost electrical power, and therefore telecommunications as well. People remaining online were afraid to talk to journalists, for fear of repercussions from Baku.
The kind of assault that Stepanakert came under on September 19 hadn’t happened to the city since 2020, says a woman who lives there. (She asked to remain unnamed.) “I don’t just remember it,” she says about the start of the shelling, “I’ll never be able to forget it.”
I was making tea on an electric cooker, since we hadn’t had gas since March. And suddenly, I heard a blast. And then another, and another. My dad went outside, and so did I, and there was everyone running, with strollers and with children in their arms.
People were running for shelter. Shelling had started in the early afternoon, when children were still at school. In the first hours of the assault, there was chaos in the streets. Without working telecommunications, people couldn’t find one another. Concurrently, Azerbaijan launched its on-the-ground operation. Its military surrounded towns and villages without entering them. Instead, it carved up Karabakh into sectors, firing at communication infrastructure. Some districts of Nagorno-Karabakh still remain in isolation.
Those who managed to escape this lockdown headed to Stepanakert. Some went on foot, since there was no fuel. On September 20, thousands of people had crowded at the Russian peacekeeping base at the now-defunct Stepanakert airport, in hopes that evacuation would begin there — but it took another four days before evacuations started. The airport was unsuitable for large numbers of people staying for days. Many ended up living in tents or cars, another Stepanakert resident tells me, also anonymously.
Tatiana Oganesyan is a physician and the director of Viva, a medical non-profit serving the victims of Baku’s aggression in Nagorno-Karabakh. Her sister lived, until recently, in Martakert. She and her family spent the first night of the strike in the woods, later reaching Stepanakert on foot. Some of Martakert’s residents remained there, but they can’t be reached, Oganesyan says.
Many other towns and villages, she says, are in the same situation. “Vaguas, Ganzasar,” she names the examples. “Lots of people killed and wounded.”
Oganesyan says that her twice-removed nephews are in a hospital with injuries from the shelling. She tells me this over the phone, while traveling from Yerevan to Goris to meet the influx of refugees.
Early on September 24, Stepanakert was still full of refugees from all over Karabakh. Those of them who had family in the city were staying with them, “20–30 people to an apartment,” Oganesyan told me on the phone.
A woman who lives in Stepanakert and asked me not to give her name said that locals were letting refugees into their basements and trying to feed them. “There’s no electricity,” she said, “and it seems that there won’t be for quite a while. People are making bonfires outside to cook from whatever ingredients they have left.” “We are hostages here; I don’t even know what to say, because we don’t know anything ourselves,” she admitted.
Another Stepanakert resident, named Kristina, said that the streets are flooded with hungry, homeless families. Kristina wrote to me while charging her phone in one of the city’s generator-powered telecommunications centers. “I’m trying to get an Internet connection and find out what’s in the news. We’re isolated. Lots of friends and acquaintances are surrounded and there’s no news from them.” After sending a few brief sentences, she goes offline for several hours.
By lunchtime on September 24, rumors spread through Goris that Azerbaijan was finally allowing the Armenians to start evacuating from the region. By evening, refugees started arriving on the Armenian side.
Zarimeh and her aged mother Emma were among the first to check into Hotel Goris. They had come from the village of Ekhtsakhog, several kilometers away from Stepanakert. After the Azerbaijani army captured the village, they spent four days at the Russian peacekeepers’ army base. According to Zarimeh, they were treated well there and got “food and drink.”
While they talk about escaping from the shelling, the hotel reception area is filling people. Men are carrying large sacks with possessions, and women carry children. They have very little with them, just a bag per person. Children are crying. Two elderly women in wheelchairs sit side-by-side, holding hands.
All the refugees’ faces seem to have the same expression of exhaustion and bewilderment.
Around the same time, a number of critically-wounded civilians are brought to the Goris hospital. Journalists are not allowed on the grounds. “For you, it’s about money, and for us it’s a tragedy,” a cranky security guard says to me from behind a barrier.
Around ten ambulances are parked in the hospital’s driveway. They have just arrived all the way from Karabakh. When their doors open, a group of Russian reporters glimpse the bandaged bodies of injured people. As they try to take photos of the victims being moved from the ambulances to the hospital, a young woman who happens to be passing by begins to shout: “What are you taking pictures for? What are you doing here? You betrayed us! Russia has betrayed us! You’re all fascists! Nazis!”
The security guard tries to placate her, but even as she backs away from him, she continues to shout: “Fascists! Nazis! You’re all fascists!”
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The first thing that refugees from Karabakh must do upon arrival is talk to the Labor Ministry staff responsible for housing. The agency predicts that 40,000 Armenian families from Karabakh are going to need housing, and the Armenian authorities had hotels, resorts, and sanatoriums across the country prepare to accommodate refugees.
Viva director Tatiana Oganesyan says that Labor Ministry staff conduct the initial triage: incoming refugees fill out a questionnaire, which asks them if they have more relatives remaining in Karabakh, if anyone needs to be hospitalized, and so forth. Having reached Goris by the time of this conversation, she is now talking to me from the drama theater building, which now serves as the headquarters for humanitarian aid for refugees.
Over its seven years in existence, the medical non-profit Viva has worked closely with the Armenian Public Health Ministry, and it’s once again cooperating with the government.
After they fill out the questionnaires, the refugees receive humanitarian aid packages from Red Cross volunteers. Afterwards, they meet with Viva staff to talk about any health or psychological issues. “We have a huge volunteer group, all of whom work with people who have PTSD,” says Oganesyan. Viva volunteers have also given them first aid kits with basic over-the-counter medications like Paracetamol.
Throughout the day on September 25, Goris continues to fill up with refugees. According to official figures, more than 13,000 people entered Armenia just in the first two days since a humanitarian corridor had been opened.
It rains all day, as clouds drifting from the direction of Karabakh envelop the city. Every ten minutes, a bus or a truck filled with people arrives at the drama theater, where a triage center is working non-strop. Dozens of cars stuffed with their owners’ belongings fill the parking lot in front of the building.
Inside, pyramids built of boxes with diapers, cases of drinking water, and piles of medical supplies are interspersed with the bright vests of the volunteers and Red Cross doctors working amidst the mountains of humanitarian supplies. People in police and military uniforms are also here.
Outside, an elderly Karabakh Armenian who just arrived from the Shusha district is hiding from the rain under the awning. He’s been evacuated to Goris before, in 2020, and this is where he buried his son, who had been drafted into the army. When the war was over, he returned home, to Karabakh. He doesn’t expect to go back this time.
“No one’s going to remain there,” he says. “Everyone will leave.”
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