Fear and mistrust prevent many from returning after a Russian-negotiated agreement changed the map.
YEREVAN, Armenia — Two weeks after a Moscow-brokered peace agreement changed the map of the South Caucasus, fear and mistrust stalk the communities displaced by the redrawn borders.
In the early hours of November 10, Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced a cease-fire deal had been signed with Azerbaijan and Russia to end the fighting around Nagorno-Karabakh, which has killed thousands of troops and dozens of civilians.
The punishing terms of the agreement saw Armenia cede areas in and around Nagorno-Karabakh — an enclave internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory but controlled by Armenians since the 1990s — to Baku, including the strategic city of Shusha, known to Armenians as Shushi.
The war, which began in late September, displaced a large part of the enclave’s population; Nagorno-Karabakh authorities estimated 90,000 of 150,000 inhabitants fled. Many made their way to the Armenian capital, Yerevan, sheltering in hotels, schools and apartments of private citizens. The government is struggling to find accommodation for the rest.
Some have returned. On Sunday, local officials claimed that as many as 25,000 residents had gone back home since hostilities ended.
Among the returnees was Arega Pogosyan, 64, who had fled her hometown of Martuni in eastern Nagorno-Karabakh a month ago.
Martuni has been devastated, having been bombarded throughout the six-week war. Broken glass and twisted metal line the road to Pogosyan’s house; just across the street stands the town’s cultural center, its windows blown out and walls spattered with shrapnel. But that didn’t deter Pogosyan.
“I have a daughter and six grandchildren,” she said, “and they are all back now too. We don’t have electricity or gas but we have candles and wood. We’ll survive. This is my home and it’s better to starve to death here than move.”
But not everyone shares her confidence.
In the outskirts of Yerevan, Onnik Davidian wandered around a drafty government-run shelter for displaced people. Until the fighting erupted, the 62-year-old operated a movie projector in his village’s social club, screening old Soviet and Bollywood films.
“Now,” he said, “it’s a place where we hold wakes for the dead.”
Davidian’s village of Vardadzor lies in the province of Martakert, which will remain under ethnic Armenian control, although several nearby settlements were handed to Azerbaijan on November 20. He was gloomy about the prospects of returning.
“What do we have left? We feel we are surrounded now. I know it was either death or give them the land, but Pashinyan should still resign, that’s the right thing to do,” he said.
Pashinyan has resisted repeated calls for his resignation since signing the peace deal, with unrest exploding in Yerevan shortly after his announcement. Subsequent days saw a series of high-profile resignations, including the foreign and defense ministers.
Azerbaijan, meanwhile, erupted in celebration. Baku has since said that Armenians wishing to live under its rule would become Azerbaijani citizens and be granted rights and protections.
Azerbaijanis know the pain of displacement: During the first Nagorno-Karabakh war in the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis were driven from their homes by Armenian forces in and around the contested territory. Many of them now hope to return to the areas that Azerbaijan has retaken.
Yet many Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians believe they would not be safe under Azerbaijan’s rule, and have little hope of returning. Some even set their homes on fire before Wednesday’s handover of Kelbajar, the penultimate region to be ceded to Azerbaijan.
“They say there has been looting. Do we even have a house to go back to?” asked Hrant Yardumyan, 62, a pensioner from Lachin — the last region to be transferred to Azerbaijan on December 1.
“I don’t trust anyone,” he added. “Not Azerbaijan, not Russia, not Armenia. Lachin isn’t safe anymore, the enemy is next door.”
Olesya Vartanyan, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, said that with continuing uncertainty around matters like law and order, property rights and the political status of Nagorno-Karabakh, many will be reluctant to go back.
“If an Armenian or an Azerbaijani crosses into each other’s territory, what will happen to that person? Which body will prosecute them? It’s naïve to think that life will remain the same, but the difference is how local people will view the change — as one of humiliation and living under constant threat, or one of safety and confidence,” she said.
Some are certain they cannot return.
Ani Hayrapetyan, 27, fled the town she knows as Shushi with her daughter and extended family while the male relatives stayed behind to defend their hometown.
“My husband called me twice to say goodbye,” she said. The couple, who ran a children’s entertainment business, were eventually reunited but now their city is firmly under Azerbaijani control, leaving its 4,000 former residents exiled.
Hayrapetyan and her family are sheltering in a relative’s apartment in Yerevan and have felt welcome in the city, although a recent incident while enrolling her daughter at a school has made her wonder if the mood toward the newly displaced could darken.
“As we were leaving, the psychologist came up to us yelling: ‘If you have one drop of patriotic blood in your body, go back to Karabakh. Our soldiers died for you,’” she recounted.
She added: “I’m trying to stay positive but many others are in torment and mental health is a taboo subject here. But it’s time to let go of the emotion and start the hard work. We can’t wait for help to come to us, we have to do it ourselves.”
Last week, the European Commission pledged €3 million in emergency aid to civilians caught up in the conflict and Russia said it would be sending construction materials and medical equipment. But to date, the humanitarian response in Armenia has largely been a grassroots operation — with ordinary citizens opening their doors to refugees and fundraising for essential supplies.
Zabelle Berberian, 64, used to welcome tourists from around the world in her hilltop hotel in Yerevan but now accommodates more than 40 refugees from across Nagorno-Karabakh free of charge with financial support from the U.S.-based Armenian diaspora. In the street outside the hotel, a fluttering black banner — a ubiquitous sight across the country — marks the home of a fallen soldier.
For the past month, Berberian has listened to guests recounting the loss of their loved ones. In the nation of 3 million, almost everyone knows someone who died; the death toll on the Armenian side stands at nearly 2,500. (Azerbaijan has not disclosed its losses.) The figure is certain to rise as bodies continue to be salvaged from the battlefield.
On an iPad, Berberian pulled up a photo taken weeks ago of a group of more than 20 young men from her hometown standing in formation. “They were volunteer soldiers. All of them except two or three died. Killed in the same drone strike,” she said.
Many of the women at Berberian’s hotel are from the de-facto capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, Stepanakert, which will remain under Armenian control but lies in the shadow of the captured mountaintop city of Shusha/Shushi, 5 kilometers away.
The new proximity to Azerbaijan is unnerving for many, despite the presence of some 2,000 Russian troops who will patrol the line of contact for at least the next five years.
Rozanna Arestamyan, 45, is unconvinced the Russians can protect them. “I stopped believing in anyone and I’m losing the desire to go back,” she said. “We need Armenians there to defend us, not Russians.”
“It’s impossible for us to live together, we’ve been enemies throughout history,” said another woman from Stepanakert who didn’t give her name. “Yes, the Russians are there but Azerbaijanis are in Shushi and they can fire at us whenever they want. We won’t be going back.”
A man who worked for the town’s local council joined in: “We would prefer Russians not to be there, but we trust them more than any of the European countries that did nothing for us other than talk. It’s a lesser evil.”
At Yerevan’s southern bus station on a gray Thursday morning, Aghavnik Balasaryan, 34, waited for a bus to return to Stepanakert with her three young children and a pile of plastic bags containing clothes. In the early days of the fighting, before evacuating, she worked as nurse in the local children’s hospital. She bit her lip at the memories.
“We saw terrible things. Soldiers came with injuries that I can’t forget,” she said. “Thank God our house is okay, but I pity the ones whose homes were crushed. Some are going back and some will stay, but many will leave for Armenia or Russia.”
The family spent most of the war in Echmiadzin, a city near Yerevan, accommodated in a primary school with more than 100 other refugees.
“They treated us very well, but it was near the airport and my youngest daughter panicked every time a plane passed overhead,” she recounted.
Her son was less timid. “He wants to be a soldier, like his father. We bought him a toy tank.”
“I want to get a gun!” the son shouted.
“Oh yes, you want to get a gun and kill the Turks?” Balasaryan asked, using a derogatory term many Armenians use for Azerbaijanis. (Turkey and Azerbaijan share many historical, cultural and linguistic ties, and Ankara has supported Baku in the fight over Nagorno-Karabakh.)
“I want to get a gun and kill the Turks!” the three-year-old boy cried.
A fleet of buses pulled up and dozens of families began piling in. A child poked a Nagorno-Karabakh flag out of the window. Balasaryan picked up a clutch of bags and smiled sadly.
“Before the war we felt free. Now we will find out if we still are.”