Armenians flee victorious Azerbaijani troops in Nagorno-Karabakh

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Armenians flee victorious Azerbaijani troops in Nagorno-Karabakh

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Thousands of ethnic Armenians are not waiting to see whether they can trust the Azerbaijani troops who seized their enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh last week. They are fleeing their homes despite pledges of fair treatment from their historic enemies.

More than 19,000 ethnic Armenian refugees have fled Nagorno-Karabakh since separatist authorities and self-defense militia there surrendered to Azerbaijani forces, according to an Armenian government estimate. Several thousand more are said to be looking for fuel and a way out of the region. While Azerbaijan insists it wants to “reintegrate” the 120,000 ethnic Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians into Azerbaijan, the refugees do not trust the authorities and fear repression and more violence. 

“They shelled us and killed some of us and then asked us, ‘Do you want to go?’ What do you think? Does the world really not understand what is going on? Is that a real choice?” Arsen asks angrily. 

A wooden cross dangles from the rearview mirror. His wife is looking back, talking on the phone with relatives. “I have family in Armenia, but how many days can you stay at someone else’s house? I am a refugee now. Depending on someone to give me some bread if he wants to,” says Arsen, tears rolling down his cheeks. 

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Armenia and neighboring Azerbaijan have been fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-populated enclave within Azerbaijan, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Tens of thousands of people died and more than a million were forced to flee their homes on both sides before 2,000 Russian peacekeepers stepped in three years ago to monitor a cease-fire agreement that ended the most recent bout of hostilities.

Since the invasion of Ukraine, Moscow’s attention has been elsewhere, and President Vladimir Putin has also been angered by the way Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has distanced himself from traditional ally Russia.

Moscow has neglected some of its cease-fire obligations, including its pledge to guarantee freedom of movement for people and goods along the Lachin Corridor, a road that links Nagorno-Karabakh with sovereign Armenian territory. Azerbaijan took advantage of this last December to close the route, leading to serious shortages of food, medicines, and other necessities in the breakaway region.

“What did the Russians do? Nothing, zero,” complains Gayane Sargsyan, a resident of Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, in a phone call. “They watched us in the blockade. Azerbaijan starved us; we lived without electricity, water, and food.”

The 29-year-old woman, who is still trapped in Nagorno-Karabakh, unable to find enough fuel to leave the enclave with her family, says she is surrounded by chaos and panic. “My mother’s cousin died, my friend’s brother; we have a lot of people missing,” she explains. “It’s very simple. I don’t want all my friends and family to die, even if that means we don’t keep our homeland. We need to evacuate now.” 

Fearing she will never be able to return home, Ms. Sargsyan is visiting all the places she loves in her native city and taking pictures, in order not to forget. “The terrible choice we have is whether to bury our relatives or not; we don’t want to flee and leave them behind,” she says. 

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The Azerbaijani authorities, meanwhile, insist that they are facilitating the provision of humanitarian supplies to residents of Nagorno-Karabakh and suggest that there is no massive exodus of Armenians. “Those who want to go are mostly family members of military personnel,” Hikmet Hajiyev, foreign policy adviser to the Azerbaijani president, wrote in a tweet.

“Azerbaijan is also preparing its own plan with regard to the short-term and mid-term political, social, and economic reintegration” of ethnic Armenian residents, and would discuss it with local leaders, Mr. Hajiyev told Al Jazeera television. He pledged that those fighters who surrendered their weapons would be free to return home, and that his government would pursue only a handful of leaders accused of war crimes against civilians during the first war.

While peace negotiations are underway between the Azerbaijan government and officials from Nagorno-Karabakh, the European Union on Tuesday hosted a meeting in Brussels of senior officials from Azerbaijan and Armenia, who are expected to prepare the ground for a pre-arranged meeting between Prime Minister Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev next month in Spain.

The terms of any peace treaty remain cloudy, though Azerbaijan, which forced Nagorno-Karabakh defense forces to capitulate last week, clearly has the upper hand.

Three scenarios are conceivable, says Tigrane Yégavian, an expert on the Caucasus who teaches at the Paris campus of Schiller International University. “A first possibility could be to open a humanitarian corridor with pressure from the international community, since the Russians do not really seem to be willing to do that,” he says. 

“A second scenario would be to protect Nagorno-Karabakh like Kosovo, but that seems unlikely, given the international community’s lack of a response for now,” Mr. Yégavian adds.

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“The third possibility is that Azerbaijan will actually get what it wants … several hundred people, civilian and military officials, to judge them in Baku. And in exchange, maybe Azerbaijan will facilitate the evacuations and empty the region,” the expert concludes.  

Azerbaijan’s victory in Nagorno-Karabakh may not mark the end of hostilities in the South Caucasus, some observers warn. Azerbaijan, backed by its close ally Turkey, has designs on part of Armenia’s Syunik province, which lies between Azerbaijan and its exclave, Nakhchivan. On Monday, Azerbaijani President Aliyev and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan held a meeting in Nakhchivan, ostensibly to launch a gas pipeline.

“The Armenian government has a rationale of making successive concessions in exchange for a hypothetical peace. But there are fears that Azerbaijan is not going to stop here, as it has territorial claims over the region of Syunik in Armenia too,” Mr. Yégavian says.

Back in the city of Goris, people evacuated from Nagorno-Karabakh are already thinking about long-term plans – and they do not include a return to their homes. 

“I am a hard worker, we all are,” says Parkev Agababyan, who was evacuated from Nagorno-Karabakh. ”If we get a little help from the government, we will find jobs and houses, and start our lives again in Armenia. But if war starts again here, then where can we go?” he wonders. “The only thing I know is that we will not go back. I have a family, and I want them to be safe.”


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