After Azerbaijan’s latest offensive, the self-proclaimed autonomous republic was canceled and one hundred thousand inhabitants fled en masse, mostly to Armenia. Where “the situation is critical”, says the president of Caritas
Since January 1st, Nagorno Karabakh no longer exists. This land nestled in the mountains of the southern Caucasus, cradle of an ancient people of Armenian ethnicity and Christian faith, has been officially erased from the maps. And its people, after the extremely violent attack by the Azerbaijani army on September 19th, quickly abandoned their homes and belongings. All of it, apart from a few dozen elderly people who – they say – want to die where they have always lived, just like their ancestors, for generations.
“In a few days, over one hundred thousand people poured across the border: we tried to welcome them with dignity, but the situation is critical”, says the director of the Armenian Caritas Gagik Tarasyan. “Today, twenty thousand have managed to reach Russia or some European country, but the others are still here and will most likely stay in the long term.”
What is underway is only the latest, tragic act in the tormented story of the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh – the ancient Armenian name of the area -, which has dragged on between conflicts and armed truces for decades. This region, which for centuries had managed to carve out an autonomy under the domination of Persians and Romans, Byzantines and Arabs, Turks, Tatars, Russians and Azerbaijanis, at the time of the Soviet Union became aoblast inserted into the socialist Republic of Azerbaijan, despite being 97% inhabited by Armenians. It was only with the perestrojka that its inhabitants asked for independence and annexation to Armenia. Serious tensions, pogroms and wars arose. The first (from 1992 to 1994) was won by the Armenians, but in the following years the conflict remained frozen and the negotiations inconclusive, until the Azeri offensive in autumn 2020 marked the defeat of the Karabakh forces and the loss of many districts, including the symbolic city of Sushi.
“That aggression caused, among serious violations of international law, more than 5,000 victims,” recalls Tarasyan. Which underlines: «The Trilateral Declaration on the ceasefire, signed on November 9, 2020 by the Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan, the Azerbaijani President Aliyev and Vladimir Putin, provided among other things for the safety of the movement of citizens and goods through the Lachin corridor , the only road that guarantees the connection of Nagorno Karabakh with Armenia and the rest of the world.”
But things have gone very differently in the last year. «From December 12, 2022 until the attack last September, the Goris-Stepanakert highway, which crosses the Lachin corridor, was closed by Azerbaijan: for almost ten months, due to the blockade, all inhabitants, including 30 thousand children have suffered from the serious shortage of food, medicines, basic necessities, but also fuel and electricity.” It is these same people, already exhausted from the long period of isolation, who have fled en masse following the latest large-scale Azeri offensive, which on the first day of the attack alone caused 200 deaths and more than 400 injuries. To avoid a tragedy on a scale never seen before, local Armenian leaders had to accept surrender: the pact, agreed with Azerbaijani representatives and Russia, includes the complete disarmament of the self-defense forces and the dissolution of the enclave’s authorities. When, on September 24, the road to the outside world was finally reopened, it took just a few days for the inhabitants of Artsakh to leave their homeland en masse, fearing that in that very land, where culture is so deeply imprinted, the art and faith of the Armenian people, there is no more room for this people.
“Our family had to face the third forced displacement in a few years,” says Razmela, who with her husband and six children found refuge in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, thanks to the support of Caritas. “Until the 2020 war we lived in Avetaranoc, a village in the Askeran region, where we had a beautiful house and worked as farmers,” recalls the woman. «Then, the area was occupied by Azerbaijan and we fled to Armenia. Months later, we returned home to settle in Dahrav, where we bought a small house and renovated it with our savings: there we started a new livestock and agriculture business. We didn’t imagine that we would have to relive the terrible experience of being displaced.”
Instead, Razmela and her family had no choice. Together with their father-in-law – and also bringing their dog with them – nine of them traveled for 26 hours in an old Soviet-era car, until they reached Armenia again. «But this time we lost everything we had built over a lifetime – she sighs. We currently live in a tiny 20m2 apartment and my eldest son earns some money working in the construction sector, but unfortunately my husband has health problems and it is very difficult for me to find a job, so we survive thanks to the help of some humanitarian organisations” .
Since the beginning of the emergency, Caritas has mobilized to meet the enormous needs of refugees, integrating its interventions with those of the government – supported by funding from the European Union and countries such as the United States and Canada – and NGOs local and foreign. The director says: «In the first weeks we had to respond to basic needs, providing hot meals to over five thousand people, water, blankets and sheets, but also medical and psychological assistance and immediate shelter. Then, with the arrival of winter, we had to organize ourselves to meet the most vulnerable groups in particular, such as the elderly, children and people with disabilities: among other things, we help pay electricity bills and distribute voucher for use in supermarkets. Thanks to a project supported by Caritas Internationalis we are assisting around six thousand displaced people between Yerevan and the provinces of Syunik – on the border with Azerbaijan – and Ararat, where many have settled because the climate is milder”.
But after the initial phase of emergency reception will come the even more complex phase of sustainable integration, given that “many of these refugees are destined to remain in the long term”. The imperative, therefore, shifts towards “the creation of a reliable source of income, with support for employment and entrepreneurship, and the finding of adequate housing”. This is not an easy prospect: today refugees make up almost 3% of the entire Armenian population. «And even the local people, particularly in the North of the country, live in very precarious social conditions, not to mention the twenty thousand refugees from the previous conflict, who often still live in the container», underlines Tarasyan. The current surge in requests for housing, which adds to the effects of the arrival of thousands of Russians following the war in Ukraine, has caused house prices to rise, to the obvious discontent of the people.
«The massive influx of these desperate people from Artsakh – reflects the director of Caritas – is destined to have a far-reaching impact on the socio-economic landscape of the country, which is already extremely vulnerable for various reasons, especially the dependence on global factors outside its control, including climate change, supply chain disruptions and exchange rate fluctuations.”
And while the crisis of the displaced people of Nagorno Karabakh has taken a back seat in the awareness of the international community – and that of donors -, focused on the Ukrainian tragedy and the Middle East in flames, public opinion in Yerevan does not hide the discontent for the President Pashinyan’s choice to renounce a land that is symbolic of the Armenian collective memory. There is fear of the destruction of ancient monasteries, churches, cemeteries with their Khachkar, the traditional crosses carved in stone. The Azerbaijani president promised a “peaceful reintegration” with “equal rights and freedoms for all, regardless of faith”. But Aliyev’s words could not erase the image of him trampling the flag of Artsakh and raising that of Azerbaijan in the deserted capital Stepanakert, after renaming its main street in honor of Enver Pasha, one of the triumvirs who organized the genocide Armenian of 1915.