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The human cost of the Karabakh war

Thousands of people have been displaced by the recent war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Five displaced Armenians tell their stories to Tom Mutch and Avetis Harutyunyan.

Avetis Harutyunyan Tom Mutch
10 December 2020
Image: Tom Mutch

On 27 September, one of the world’s most bitter conflicts erupted into a full-scale war. Armenia and Azerbaijan fought for six brutal weeks over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabkah, which is internationally recognised as Azerbaijani territory but traditionally populated by a majority of ethnic Armenians.

The war ended on 10 November, after Russia brokered a ceasefire. Under this deal, Armenia has handed over seven areas in a buffer zone that surround Karabakh, and Azerbaijan has kept the territories it recaptured. Russian peacekeepers now protect the road that connects Nagorno-Karabkah to Armenia.

For nearly a century, the two communities lived in relative peace. But as the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, the dispute descended into ethnic conflict. Armenia eventually won the war. 250,000 ethnic Armenians fled reprisals in Azerbaijan and up to 700,000 Azerbaijanis fled, or were forcibly expelled from territories in and around Nagorno-Karabakh.

A ceasefire was signed in 1994. It was punctuated by sporadic escalation. But in 2020, Azerbaijan attacked seriously and won the war, in part due to backing by Turkey. Up to 90,000 ethnic Armenians were forced to flee their homes. Many are now housed in refugee camps in Armenian cities such as Yerevan, Gyumri and Goris. Local authorities say that up to 25,000 have returned since the end of the fighting.

The following are five stories of Armenian refugees, told in their own words but edited for clarity.


Aida Avanesyan, 58

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Aida Avanesyan | Image: Tom Mutch

I was born in the Martuni region of Artsakh [the Armenian name for Karabakh] and lived in Shushi for twelve years before the current war. We were still in bed when the shelling began. The explosions were loud and clear all around us. One moment I was visiting my sister in Martuni, and the next we were in the middle of a war.

All the men in our village immediately prepared to take their wives and children to safety. Then they headed straight to the frontline. My son took us to Shushi and then went to war. We fled to Yerevan as Shushi came under artillery and rocket fire and Azerbaijani forces were getting closer. Our house remains under control of the Azeris, and I do not think we can ever go back.

My son, who is 35, fought bravely in the war. Now he has no house, no job, he has nothing left. He was planning to get married, now that cannot happen. He is living in his car instead. Before the war he was leaving for Russia every year, working there for several months and then returning to Artsakh. I do not know whether my son would like to live in Artsakh or in Armenia, or leave for Russia or Europe, but that’s his business and I'll support him by all means.

The only thing we want is to work, earn money, and take care of our families. I work as a cook, my favourite dish is the traditional Armenian Khashlama. It is a delicious stew of lamb meat and vegetables. I am also qualified to work as a teacher or an administrator, but for now we are stuck here. I don’t want to take handouts, I do not want anything from anyone. My husband died nine years ago so we are looking after a large family.

It is not the first time I have been a refugee, sadly. My husband’s parents lived in Martuni, and every summer he would come to visit them. He had been born in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, but we moved to Tajikistan in 1981. There were pogroms against our Armenians in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, in 1990 because they thought ethnic Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan were coming to take their homes. We had to flee to Armenia. We went back to Dushanbe quite soon, but then a civil war broke out a few years later and we decided to leave for Arstakh permanently. Now we have been forced to flee again.

Valentina Qamalyan, 57

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Valentina Qamalyan | Image: Tom Mutch

I am also used to being a refugee. I was born in Sumgait, in Azerbaijan when it was all still the Soviet Union. In 1988, the violence started here. Azerbaijan started killing Armenians and we were some of the first refugees to flee to Armenia. It was my first time leaving for Artsakh. During all the other wars, I wanted to stay in our native lands. This time my grandchildren were so frightened, and I decided we must go to Yerevan to protect them.

The first shells that landed could have killed me. We were visiting family in Shushi when the UAVs started flying in the air. We took shelter in our homes because it was not safe to be outside. A volunteer soldier came to our house and yelled at us to evacuate. I did not listen to him. I told him this was the third war I was facing. My family called and I told my younger grandchildren who called and told them that the shelling they could hear was just a “thunderstorm” and not to worry. They did not believe me. I thought I could do something here to help with the war effort.

Here in Shushi we worked at the bakery, making bread. Before we left, I made sure I prepared dough for bread in the shelter. Then my daughter Alina rushed to the bakery under artillery fire and put it in the oven then again rushed back to the shelter. She could have been hit, but her job is very important as our soldiers need lots of bread and we could not let it get burned!

I was not ready for how intense the war became. We stayed in the shelter until the situation became completely out of control. I got a call from my daughter who was crying and begging me to leave. At one am we gathered in the Ghazanchetsots cathedral of Shushi and decided to drive to the Armenian region of Syunik. We took the road through the Lachin corridor, which was extremely dangerous at night. We had to drive slowly with our phones off and all the lights out so that Azeri drones or spotters could not see us. It took many hours. The previous wars were not like this. The thing I will remember most from this war is the burned bodies. Last time there were only shootings, now they use terrifying explosives and when you see the injured soldiers, their whole bodies are burned. Even the doctors look shocked when they see the injured.

There are still some good things that happen here. Thirty six days ago, my daughter gave birth to a baby girl here, the youngest refugee. Her name is also Valentina, after me. We hope she will be able to grow up safe and happy!

Mary Javadyan, 27

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Mary Javadyan | Image: Tom Mutch

I was visiting family in the village of Mets Tagher in Hadrud, near the front line when the fighting started. When the war started we were just planning to slaughter a pig, and our children were playing in the yard when shells started falling around us. I took my children and left for my mother’s house. I have four young kids, they are 8, 6, 5 and 3. Our village is close to Fizuli. Everyone fled from this region and my village fled Artsakh to Armenia.

We came to Yerevan on 29 October. My husband drove us here and left for the frontline. We stayed in a relative’s house for 15 days. We never lived in fear before this war. In April 2016, the short war lasted only four days and we thought that this time again it will last a few days and we will get back to our normal lives. Nobody could have imagined that the war would move from the frontline and reach the capital of Stepanakert. The war has always been around us. But it was normal for us, we were not frightened, we did not think about it, we just went on with our lives. I even met my husband at a goodbye event for a friend who was going to his military service. Now he lives in different places, usually in various relatives’ houses because we lost our homes in the war.

We grew up hearing many terrible stories of the first war from the 1990s. I was too young to remember but this time it is my own children who are suffering. My youngest are three and five and didn’t understand what was happening. But my eldest two could understand what was going on and were so scared.

We returned to our homes after the victory of 1994, until this war pushed us out again. But we want so much to go back. My oldest son is already learning to fight, he is taking karate lessons here at the school!


Edmon Saryan, 16

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Edmon Saryan | Image: Tom Mutch

I am Edmon Saryan from Hadrud. Hadrud was one of the first places captured by Azerbaijan. I am only 16 years old. I had just started to study culinary arts at college in Stepanakert. But I was a student only for two weeks. On Monday I did not manage to go to college, because on Sunday morning the brutal battles started. I already understood from the sound of the shelling that it could only be war, and could be nobody but Azerbaijan. I was at home with my mother and brother. We stayed in Hadrud till 11 October. Then we came to Yerevan where we were hosted at this school.

Gurgen, my eldest brother, was in Stepanakert when the war broke out. He was working in the Armenia Hotel and he was also studying at the Institute of Applied Arts in Shushi. He stayed in Artsakh as a volunteer in the army and served on the front lines. He carried supplies for the soldiers and did many other jobs that he cannot tell us about. My family arrived in Yerevan after my father and brother returned from the front, but we want to go back. I am ready to go back any time I will be useful. We will always be ready to serve our native land.

Elmira Hambardzumyan, 17

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Elmira Hambardzumyan, 17 | Image: Tom Mutch

I am from Qarin Tak, a village near Shushi. I studied at the local public school and finished the ninth grade. Then I entered the handicraft college in Shushi, to study at the department of catering. This year has seriously damaged the education of young people in Artaskh. At the start of this year, I was in my second term of study but then the COVID-19 pandemic almost stopped our school completely. Then after we reopened, I had just started my third term when this war broke out.

My education is incomplete, I do not have a certificate or qualifications. I have nothing except my passport. My brother is in the front. My father has just come back from Artsakh. My sister chose to leave to go back to Stepanakert two days ago with her husband. I would also like to return to Artsakh but when I imagine that my college was left behind in Shushi, which is now captured, it breaks my heart to hear that. If I had an opportunity to continue studying in Artsakh I would go there with great pleasure.

With thanks to Haykuhi Hovhannisyan who assisted with translation.

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