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‘We left everything’ Uprooted and jobless, Nagorno-Karabakh refugees start from scratch in Armenia

Source: Meduza

Story by Sona Hovsepyan for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.

Two months ago this week, Azerbaijani forces carried out a 24-hour offensive that led to the fall of Artsakh, the erstwhile breakaway republic in Nagorno-Karabakh. After more than three decades of bloody conflict that included two full-scale wars, Azerbaijan’s blitz offensive on September 19–20 forced the surrender of the separatist government and its army. Following Stepanakert’s capitulation, Baku finally lifted the Lachin Corridor blockade, opening the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia after nine long months. Fearing reprisals at the hands of Azerbaijani forces, Karabakh’s predominantly ethnic Armenian population began fleeing the region en masse. By October 1, Armenia had taken in more than 100,000 displaced people — nearly the entire population of Nagorno-Karabakh. 

For many Karabakh Armenians, this was not their first evacuation from the region. But with Azerbaijan in full control of Nagorno-Karabakh, it seems unlikely that they will return. With this in mind, the Armenian government has rolled out financial assistance and is offering a “temporary protection status” for the displaced, as well as the prospect of full citizenship. In the meantime, many displaced families struggle to find adequate housing and make ends meet. For The Beet, Yerevan-based journalist Sona Hovsepyan reports on how Karabakh refugees grapple with the difficult task of rebuilding their lives from scratch.

This story first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.

“My six-year-old grandson woke up in the middle of the night and cried, ‘Grandpa, I want our home,’” Areg Mirzoyan recalled, breaking down in tears.

Mirzoyan’s family is originally from Arajadzor, a village in Nagorno-Karabakh. They are among the more than 100,000 ethnic Armenians rendered homeless and unemployed after Azerbaijan’s lightning offensive drove them from the disputed enclave in late September. Mirzoyan’s family settled in Malishka, a village 130 kilometers (80 miles) south of Yerevan, Armenia’s capital. Locals provided them with temporary housing: a single bedroom for a family of six.

“I never imagined it would turn out like this. I thought we would go back to our homes,” Mirzoyan told The Beet.

Areg Mirzoyan at his family’s temporary home in Malishka. October 9, 2023.
Sona Hovsepyan

But nearly two months after the exodus, finding permanent accommodations and employment are now top priorities for former Nagorno-Karabakh residents. 

On October 17, during his speech to the European Parliament, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan stated that Armenia had accepted 100,000 displaced people in the space of a week “without establishing refugee camps and tent settlements.” He also added that Armenia needs more international assistance, including financial support.

Earlier, Armenian Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Khachatryan reported that various governments and international organizations had donated more than 35 million euros ($37 million) in aid through the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).  

Mirzoyan’s family members are struggling to find jobs in the village, where farming is the only occupation. His son, Amran, was a soldier in the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army, but he has yet to find work and does not plan to continue serving in the military. Mirzoyan and his wife, Sevil, are both retired but have yet to receive pensions from the Armenian government. 

In late October, the Armenian government announced that displaced Karabakh Armenians would be granted “temporary protection status.” Labor Minister Narek Mkrtchyan later clarified that refugees registered at an address in Armenia may also be eligible for pensions and other government benefits. However, those who take Armenian citizenship would forfeit the social support provided to refugees.

During the interview, 63-year-old Mirzoyan pointed to the clothes on his back — the only things he could save while fleeing his home during the Azerbaijani attack. 

The family left in a rush without taking additional clothing, money, or food with them. Mirzoyan’s three-year-old granddaughter, Alice, arrived in Armenia barefoot because her shoes were broken. Neighbors and volunteers in Malishka donated new clothes and other necessities for the children.

‘The stores in Artsakh were empty’

Mirzoyan recounted how his grandson, also named Areg, was astonished upon entering a grocery store in the Armenian border city of Goris, which was the first to receive displaced people from Nagorno-Karabakh.

“He said to me, ‘Grandpa, look at how many candies there are here.’ The stores in Artsakh were already empty, with literally nothing in any of them. The child was amazed,” said Mirzoyan.

A humanitarian center in the town of Goris welcoming refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh
Antoine Martin / SIPA / Scanpix / LETA

In the nine months leading up to Azerbaijan’s September 19–20 attack, Nagorno-Karabakh was under a blockade. It began when Azerbaijani activists blocked the only road connecting Karabakh to the outside world: the Lachin Corridor, or “the road of life,” as Armenians call it. As access to food, medicines, and vital services dwindled, the region descended into a humanitarian crisis. 

On the eve of the Azerbaijani offensive, Nagorno-Karabakh’s human rights ombudsman, Gegham Stepanyan, told The Beet that the region was experiencing a “humanitarian catastrophe.”  


Living in limbo The Lachin Corridor blockade has upended daily life in Nagorno-Karabakh — and there’s no end in sight


Living in limbo The Lachin Corridor blockade has upended daily life in Nagorno-Karabakh — and there’s no end in sight

“Nagorno-Karabakh residents had no access to basic necessities such as food and healthcare during the blockade, nor the right to free movement,” said Mariam Muradyan, the children’s rights officer for the Caucasus at Global Campus of Human Rights. The blockade and subsequent exodus have had a huge impact on children from Nagorno-Karabakh, she added. 

“The government has to look at the individual demands of Karabakh refugees, which is a challenging process,” Muradyan said. The most important thing now, she continued, is that the Armenian government provides psychological help to displaced children and their families.

UNICEF-supported social workers reported in October that Nagorno-Karabakh’s displaced children — who number more than 30,000 — were showing “signs of severe psychological distress” and were at risk of deteriorating mental health unless they received immediate support. 

Displaced Armenian children from Nagorno-Karabakh play on the playground of a kindergarten serving as a temporary shelter. Masis, Armenia. October 8, 2023.
Diego Herrera Carcedo / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Mirzoyan said his grandson Areg remembers the recent fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh well; even weeks later, every loud noise makes the six-year-old jump out of his skin.

‘Everyone calls for peace, but nothing changes’

Despite everything they’ve been through, the Mirzoyan family still hopes to return to their homeland one day. However, they fear living under Azerbaijan’s control. “If we have the opportunity to go back, we will go back immediately, but we can’t live side by side with Azeris,” Mirzoyan said. 

After taking control of Nagorno-Karabakh in September, Baku presented a plan for reintegrating the region’s ethnic Armenian population. However, Human Rights Watch warned that Baku’s assertions are “difficult to accept at face value” given the months-long blockade of the enclave, decades of conflict, impunity for apparent war crimes, and Azerbaijan’s poor human rights record.

Seda Avanesyan, 69, fled Nagorno-Karabakh with her family on September 25 after Azerbaijan opened the Lachin Corridor. Initially, they stayed with relatives, but now they rent a house in Malishka. Avanesyan’s family members are willing to undertake any work to earn a living, but her daughter has yet to find a job. Her son-in-law, a soldier, plans to continue serving in the Armenian army. And her grandchildren, eight-year-old Anahit and 11-year-old Nare, have already started attending a local school.

Seda Avanesyan with her granddaughter Anahit at their temporary home in Malishka. October 10, 2023.
Sona Hovsepyan

Avanesyan, who is from Askeran, recalled a time when Karabakh Armenians used to interact with Azerbaijanis from a neighboring town. But now, she said, people find it difficult to trust the reintegration process.

“We had a good relationship during the Soviet Union; we used to communicate and trade with Azerbaijanis from Akna, but now it is not possible to live alongside each other,” she told The Beet. (Akna is the Armenian name for the town of Aghdam, which was left completely destroyed and deserted after the first Nagorno-Karabakh war. Yerevan ceded Aghdam to Azerbaijan under the ceasefire that ended the 2020 war.)

“We were hungry and thirsty for 10 months, but in the end, we hoped everything would be fine,” Avanesyan continued. “The opposite happened. Everyone calls for peace, but nothing changes.”


Slowly, then all at once The final act in the tragedy of Nagorno-Karabakh’s collapse


Slowly, then all at once The final act in the tragedy of Nagorno-Karabakh’s collapse

The ICRC reported that only a small number of Karabakh Armenians had chosen to stay in their homes as of mid-October, while others had been unable to leave the region. According to Red Cross teams, some of these people required medical help, food and water, or assistance securing transportation out of Nagorno-Karabakh. 

Earlier, a U.N. mission estimated that between 50 and 1,000 ethnic Armenians remained in the region.

‘We don’t have another option’

Emma Baghdasaryan, a 20-year-old student living in the town of Armavir in the west of Armenia, assisted displaced families in the aftermath of Azerbaijan’s September offensive and throughout the 2020 war. She volunteers with the Armavir Development Center, a non-profit organization providing the displaced with food, blankets, and sanitary items.

“Volunteering is a form of patriotism for me. I don’t have extra money to help families. It’s the only thing I can do for Artsakh’s people,” Baghdasaryan explained. “I believe that families from Artsakh simply need warmth, understanding, and appreciation.”

A displaced woman from Nagorno-Karabakh sits on a bed in a temporary shelter. Artashat, Armenia. October 6, 2023.
Diego Herrera Carcedo / Getty Images

According to Naira Arakelyan, executive director of the Armavir Development Center, there is still an urgent need for volunteers. Arakelyan also emphasized that many Karabakh refugees are living in poor conditions. 

“Karabakh Armenians need social and psychological support; everyone is under immense stress right now. The living conditions in the temporary housing that people have rented are terrible,” Arakelyan told The Beet. “There are no beds, refrigerators, washing machines, or other necessary items in most of the apartments.” 

Andranik Aloyan, 44, fled Nagorno-Karabakh along with his pregnant wife, two small children, and 71-year-old father. Their journey from the town of Martuni to Armenia took an exhausting three days; at night, the family slept in their car. 

“We didn’t have bread after September 19. My children had nothing to eat for [a] few days. My wife was pregnant, and, in that condition, we left everything and fled to Armenia,” Aloyan said.

This marked the family’s second flight from Nagorno-Karabakh: they previously fled the region during the 2020 war. In the months before the exodus, the family experienced constant fear and anxiety due to the blockade, Aloyan recalled. His wife, Hasmik Antonyan, lacked access to vitamins and basic healthcare throughout her pregnancy, causing a delay in her childbirth. She was then hospitalized on September 19, during the Azerbaijani attack. She eventually gave birth to their son after the family reached Armenia.

Today, Aloyan and his family live in the village of Getap in Armenia’s Vayots Dzor province, a two-hour drive from Yerevan. Their new house, which they are renting, is unsuitable for winter. Some of the windows are broken, and the gas and water supply lines need to be replaced before the colder weather comes, Aloyan said. “The house is in terrible condition; it’s very damp. We are cleaning it so that we can move in. Right now, we don’t have another option,” he explained. 

A man talking on a phone gazes at the mountains of Nagorno-Karabakh in the distance. Kornidzor, Armenia.
Antoine Martin / SIPA / Scanpix / LETA

On November 13, Aloyan told The Beet that, so far, only he had received a support payment from the Armenian government, which has promised to provide each displaced person with a one-time payment equal to $250 and an additional $125 per month to cover rent and utility costs (for a period of six months). His wife, father, and children were still waiting to receive their respective payments, he said.

Aloyan was a soldier in Nagorno-Karabakh and is still looking for a new job. His son and daughter have yet to start kindergarten in Armenia. For now, their parents’ priority is readying the rental house for winter, and afterward, they will send the children to nursery school.

Having fled Nagorno-Karabakh for the second time in three years, the family has decided not to return. “No, we don’t want to go back. I am scared for my children,” said Aloyan. “We can’t live there anymore.” 

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Story by Sona Hovsepyan for The Beet

Edited by Eilish Hart

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