YEREVAN, Armenia — They fled their homes with few belongings.
After a brutal military operation restored Azerbaijan’s sovereign control of the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh in September, tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians from the enclave have left, many afraid they would lose their freedom under Azerbaijani rule. Azerbaijani officials insisted that no one was being forced to leave, but they could offer few guarantees of safety.
For decades, since Soviet times, Armenia and Azerbaijan have clashed over the mountainous region, which is in Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territory but whose population, following wars and expulsions, was 95 percent ethnic Armenian.
Azerbaijan took back much of its territory in a brief war in 2020 that ended in a fragile Russian-brokered truce but left uncertain the fate of more than 120,000 residents, including those in the capital, Stepanakert.
In the 1920′s, as part of a divide-and-rule tactic, the Soviet government first established the autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh, where at least 95 percent of the population is ethnically Armenian, in Azerbaijan.
In 1988 authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh sought to unite with the then-Soviet republic of Armenia and declared independence from Azerbaijan, another Soviet republic.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, a full-scale war broke out in 1992 between the two new countries over control of the region. Nagorno-Karabakh is located within the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan but is mostly controlled by political factions linked to Armenia.
Between 20,000 and 30,000 people were killed in that conflict and hundreds of thousands were displaced before a cease-fire was declared in 1994. Armenia ended up controlling the region, and occupying 20 percent of total Azerbaijani territory.
In 2020, a full-scale war broke out after Azerbaijan launched an offensive across the line of contact held by Armenian forces and local fighters. As part of the Russian-mediated cease-fire, Armenia had to cede swaths of territory it had controlled for decades.
More than 7,000 combatants were killed, according to the International Crisis Group, and Russian peacekeepers were deployed to patrol the region.
In September of this year, Azerbaijan took over the region after a 24 hour military operation, leading to thousands of Armenians to flee.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought two wars over the territory in the past 30 years. More than 1 million people were displaced in the late-1990s, including more than 700,000 ethnic Azeris.
On Sept. 19, Azerbaijani forces stormed deeper into Nagorno-Karabakh, toppling the regional Armenia-aligned government and setting off a mass exodus of ethnic Armenian residents.
For many, a new life in Armenia is an unsettling reality. The shock of leaving their homes remains all-consuming; the memories of the moment everything changed are constantly present.
“I cannot accept that this is the end.”
Ani Balayan, 18
A student, photographer and videographer from the city of Stepanakert, Balayan relocated to work at a news outlet, Civilnet, and to study in Yerevan this summer.
I have been displaced twice. Once in 2020, and now. This summer, when I was about to travel to Armenia for my studies I was afraid that I might not be able to go back. I still cannot believe I won’t be able to go back.
I just try to go to my classes, come to work and not think of it all. I cannot accept that this is the end and that we have lost what was ours. I feel half myself, rather than the complete Ani I used to be.
Your home is different from any other home, no matter how well you are accepted and welcomed. I have friends here, but I cannot communicate with them.
One day we were having lunch with Civilnet colleagues. When we were done I looked at my phone and read that Stepanakert was being attacked. I called my mother to ask what was going on and right there in the middle of the street I fell and began to cry, because all of it was absurd.
We were hoping that one day it would be better, with no war. We were hoping we would return to our village. But Sept. 19 changed everything, and now there is no hope of going home. All of that has turned into a dream.
“We are in a zombie state.”
Armine Avanesyan, 39
Armine and her daughter Anjelika are from Stepanakert. They settled in a relative’s home in the village of Noramarg, an hour away from Yerevan.
Single mother Armine Avanesyan, 39, and her daughter Anjelika, 8, stand outside their temporary home in Noramarg Village, Armenia, on Oct. 3. (Anush Babajanyan for The Washington Post)
It was all unexpected. We felt horrible when we were told we had to leave everything — our jobs, our home. My daughter had just learned to go to school on her own. She attended dancing and chess classes.
Anjelika says every day that she wants to go back. She wants to go to our house. We understand that it is unfortunately impossible. She was returning home when the bombing began. I made a quick video call. She stood there crying, and I didn’t even know what to tell her.
We didn’t have a basement in our building. I told her to run toward our house and find some people who could protect her until I came. Two girls took her to a basement. I came to her under the sounds of bombing.
We are in a zombie state. We wish all of this was a dream.
“They were shooting directly at houses, at people.”
Gegham Babayan, 50
A veteran of the first Nagorno-Karabakh war and father of 10 children, Babayan fled Stepanakert and lives in an apartment in Yerevan.
A veteran of the first Nagorno-Karabakh war, Gegham Babayan, 50, poses for a photo at his newly rented home in Yerevan, Armenia, on Oct. 4. (Anush Babajanyan for The Washington Post)
As my first-grader Mosi came from school, the bombing began. They were shooting directly at houses, at people. Another son, Tigo, was missing. It was 5 p.m. I was looking and couldn’t find him. There was no connection. Around 11 p.m., the neighbor called us and said Tigo was alive. My neighbor had hidden him in a basement to protect him from the bombings.
I grew up with Azerbaijanis. During the Soviet Union, we all lived in peace together. Now, there is no Soviet Union, and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is weak. Those [Azerbaijani] soldiers killed Russians, too.
I was at home when I saw around 10 [Azerbaijanis] approach my house. They were young boys. They told me they were protecting us. I asked them what they wanted, and they asked for potatoes. They were hungry. I told them we did not have any — we were in a blockade. They were not bad boys.
The people of Armenia have accepted us. But when we recover, we have to unite and take Karabakh back.
“I looked at my father, and he said, ‘I will come back, it is okay.’”
Hasmik Aghababyan, 10
Hasmik was at school when the attacks began. She and her family fled to a hotel in southern Armenia.
Hasmik Aghababyan, 10, is outside Hotel Goris, in Goris, Armenia, on Oct. 2. (Anush Babajanyan for The Washington Post)
We were at school and class was over. My mother was there, too, at a parent-teacher meeting. Then everything started. My mother and I ran into the basement. When it was calmer, my father came and took us to another basement.
Then we went to the [Stepanakert] airport [which was not operational but was a staging ground for evacuations]. We stayed at the airport for three or four days. Buses were provided for us to leave.
On the way to Armenia, we saw the [Azerbaijanis]. They asked my father to get out of the car. My mother was scared that they would take him away.
I looked at my father, and he said: “I will come back. It is okay.” Then they let him go.
My mother has not told me when we are going back to school. I want to go, but my brother does not. I have one friend here, her name is Mariam. I will play with her a bit, until my friends come.
“I want to go to a place where there is no shooting, where there is peace.”
Natasha Petrosyan, 66
Petrosyan fled from the Martakert province of Nagorno-Karabakh to Goris, Armenia. She has nowhere to live and plans to travel to Yerevan.
Natasha Petrosyan, 66, waits in central Goris, Armenia, for transportation to the capital Yerevan on Oct. 1. (Anush Babajanyan for The Washington Post)
It was sudden. They started bombing at 1 p.m. on Sept 19. Around 2 p.m., our window burst open. A bomb fell into our backyard.
In the Stepanakert airport, kids were crying. Some had two kids, others had six. I stayed at the airport around four days, and then in someone’s backyard for six days. The road [to Armenia] took three days.
I could not imagine before that we would willingly leave our homes. And I cannot imagine that now. I want to go to a place where there is no shooting, where there is peace.
Mellen reported from Washington.
Testimonies were edited for clarity.