Today
Fri 17 September 2021

Angelo Calianno talks to a few of the 65 thousand forgotten and abandoned refugees who fled Nagorno-Karabakh

More than six months have passed since the ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan.  But there are people for whom the war is never over – the refugees; thousands of people who have had to leave their homes, now in the territory of Azerbaijan; hundreds of families who, in addition to losing husbands, children and brothers in the last war, have lost their homes and jobs.

Unlike many other ‘refugees’ in the world, there are no reception centres for those fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh. Some were given a small amount of initial money, others a promise – never kept – of new housing. In fact, thousands of people have had to sort out their problems on their own: a new home, a new life, the luckiest have some relatives in Armenia who are able to put them up.

Some families took refuge here, on the outskirts of Hrazdan, about an hour from Yerevan, where they rented an apartment or occupied abandoned houses, in many cases old and run-down.

One of the houses occupied by refugees, in the province of Syun. Photo: Angelo Calianno

‘I Live in Hell’

Arleta. Photo: Angelo Calianno

Arleta now lives with her son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. She lost her husband in the first war in Nagorno-Karabakh in the 1990s and, in September 2020, her youngest son Hawk, 30. In tears she tells me:

“Hawk had returned home the day the bombing began. After a shower he was immediately called back to base, it was the last time I saw him. Days later I learned that, before he died, he had phoned a friend of his telling him that they were surrounded by Azerbaijani troops and therefore, they would surrender.  A few minutes later, his friend called back. An Azerbaijani soldier answered the phone saying it was useless to keep calling because they had killed him.”

When I ask Arleta what her life is like today and what sense she finds in it, her answer is dry and direct: 

“I live in hell. I keep on going for my grandchildren, but I’m in a house that’s not mine, with no chance of going back home. I go on because I have to, but I’ve lost almost everything.”

Arleta and Family. Photo: Angelo Calianno

‘Azerbaijani Soldiers Posted Videos on YouTube’

A few blocks from Arleta lives Valery, 27. Valery worked in the Army Hospital during the last conflict. 

Valery. Photo: Angelo Calianno

“After the bombings, in October we managed to escape to some mountain hideouts. I’ve lost a lot of friends and family. I brought my wife and children here because it’s safer for them, but this is not my home. You know, in our culture it’s very important to be close to where our loved ones are buried. All of my family rests in my village, and I can’t go back there.”

“Do you still have a house there?” I ask him.

“No, not even that. Azerbaijani soldiers posted several videos on YouTube. Videos where they showed how they enjoyed destroying everything after conquering it, tarnishing all of our memories. In one of those videos, I recognized my house burning down.”


‘We Pulled 20 of Them from the Rubble’

Grigory. Photo: Angelo Calianno

In the small town of Goris I meet Grigory, Milena and their children. They too had to leave their land.

Grigory is a firefighter who is part of the rescue teams, along with Milena who deals with telecommunications.  Grigory’s group was one of the first to move immediately after the bombings. I asked him whether he had expected the war to break out and whether it was a surprise.

“We knew something important was going to happen. There have always been tensions on our borders, Azerbaijan has always tried to take our lands and continues to provoke us. We didn’t expect to have to leave our house for months, maybe forever. We thought, as in 2016, it was a few days of emergency. We told our children not to take anything, that we would be back home straight away. That was last October, and it still hasn’t happened.”

Today Grigory continues to take part in rescue missions. Although months have passed, bodies continue to be extracted from the rubble and minefields are still cleared.

I ask him, what was the worst thing he has had to face in all these months.

“In my work, I am used to seeing dead people. But the thing that impressed me is the number of bodies altogether, hundreds. One day, after a bombing, we pulled 20 of them from the rubble, placed them next to each other. It’s a scene I’ll never forget.”

It’s not only those living in Nagorno-Karabakh who have lost their homes, but many other people have had to abandon their property because, after the ceasefire, Armenia has allowed Azerbaijan to move its border into Syunik province, which is now in danger of becoming a new line of fire. In these rural villages, many people have lost homes, pastures for their animals and land to cultivate.

Today, not counting Syunik province, there are 65 thousand refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh; people who could not vote in the June elections in Armenia (being citizens of Nagorno-Karabakh), people with temporary accommodation, makeshift.

People with no place to go, no home to go back to.

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