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‘They Taunted our Children with Knives’: Armenia’s Exodus from Nagorno-Karabakh

Joseph Draper talks to some of the hundred thousand refugees fleeing the blockade and then invasion by Azerbaijan

An Armenian child from Karabakh cries after a group of refugees reach safety in Goris. Photo: Anoush Baghdassarian, Rerooted Archive.

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When the drumbeat of artillery began on 19 September, six-year-old Robert Khosrovyan was ambling home from school. Instead of taking the usual path, he fled down a rocky embankment to reach his house in Chartar, a town in the self-declared Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. 

His parents, mad with worry, went in search of him when his classmates returned without him. Unbeknown to them, Robert had crept into an outhouse on their property and crawled into a fridge to hide from the Azeri soldiers he had learned to fear, refusing to show himself even when his loved ones screamed his name. He stayed there for hours before they found him.

Days later, when Azeri soldiers swarmed their settlement, Robert’s mother, Arevik Grigoryan, a caretaker at a local school, watched them laugh as they brandished their knives at the children who cowered at the edge of the town square. Then they went door to door, Arevik said, looking through the bundles that families had hastily packed and tearing open the women’s handbags, helping themselves to whatever they wished. This encounter, while terrifying, might have been far worse if not for a curt bark from a unit commander telling the soldiers to sheave their weapons.

An abandoned municipal schoolbus was a blessing for Arevik and her family. Ernest (left) with Robert, grandmother and siblings. Photo: Joseph Draper

Arevik and her husband Ernest Khosrovyan, a construction worker, found an abandoned school bus which they filled with their nine children and 24 other locals before collecting relatives at the Karabakh capital of Stepanekurt and fleeing for the Armenian border, stopped along the way by Azeri soldiers who searched their vehicle and took photos of the men. They had survived a nine-month blockade, when Azerbaijan closed the only road to Armenia from Karabakh, choking those inside of food and supplies from the outside world. Now they were leaving their homeland forever, along with over 100,000 others, almost the entire population of Artsakh – the Armenian name for Karabakh. 

Peace developments and bright days are close in Karabakh”

When Azerbaijan launched its brutal blitzkrieg to reclaim the mountainous enclave, killing over 200 people, including at least 10 civilians, according to estimates by Karabakh officials, stories of atrocities followed the tide of refugees. While these claims have not yet been verified, they have a precedent; In 2020, when Azeri forces captured land around Karabakh, they were known to mutilate Armenian soldiers and behead elderly civilians who had not fled.

An exhausted Karabakh refugee sleeps in Goris. Photo: Anoush Baghdassarian, Rerooted Archive

Anoush Bagdassarian, an American human rights lawyer collecting evidence of Azeri war crimes, spent days interviewing refugees flooding into the Armenian border town of Goris. She told me of Maria, a middle-aged woman from Martakert whose relative, an elderly grandmother in the town, died with her nine-year-old grandson in her arms when a bomb struck their home.

“People feel scared, incredibly vulnerable and traumatised,” Anoush said.

A Karabakh refugee with her belongings in Goris. Photo: Anoush Baghdassarian, Rerooted Archive

“The majority of people I asked answered ‘how can we live together when they have beheaded us, killed our children, and made very clear their intentions about ridding the world of Armenians?’” 

Then there were the deaths caused by months of deliberate deprivation. As one man who spoke to Anoush described it, “they choked the very air to breathe.” Parkev Aghababyan, a father of two from Askeran and his wife, Anush, witnessed one child die of an epileptic fit after he ran out of medication and another boy, just 10 years old, perish after being shoved to the ground where he struck his head on the concrete pavement when a fight broke out over bread in the final days of the Azeri blockade. “He died right there, within minutes,” Anush said in her testimony. 

Such stories imbue the seemingly harmless text messages, sent by Azeri authorities to Kharabakh Armenians during their offensive, with a cruel and sinister irony. These texts, which supported Azerbaijan’s claims that they wanted the local populace to stay, added to the fog of confusion after they hijacked the communications infrastructure, preventing locals from connecting with the outside world or with each other. “Peace developments and bright days are close in Karabakh,” read one, while another read: “Azerbaijani government guarantees your safety.”

‘This Is Ethnic Cleansing… They Want to Finish What They Started’: Inside the Siege of Nagorno-Karabakh

Decades of war and the memory of genocide add to the threat of starvation in the blockaded Armenian enclave

“It will be impossible to talk of peace in the South Caucasus” – Tigran Grigoryan, founder of the Regional Centre of Democracy and Security

In his office in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, Tigran Grigoryan, an analyst on the conflict with Azerbaijan who grew up in Karabakh before leaving in 2020, struggled to articulate the grief felt by his people. “Psychologically, emotionally, Artsakh is like an Armenian Jerusalem,” he said. 

“There won’t be any homes left for these people to return to – they will be settled by Azerbaijanis.

“This is a catastrophe which will stay with us until our final days. There is no forgiving, there is no forgetting.”

The international community had planted the seeds of another conflict with their timid response to the crisis, Tigran said, emboldening Azerbaijan’s authoritarian president, IIham Aliyev, and increasing the odds that he will strike Armenia proper. This would not be the first time. Since 2020, Azeri soldiers have made several incursions into the province of Syunik.

“The international order isn’t working anymore,” Tigran said.

“We are living in a very dangerous time. There is a significant risk of an attack and there are no deterrents on the ground. Aliyev sees this as a weakness. He sees a unique window of opportunity.

“This is a jungle – whoever is strong can take what they want. It will be impossible to talk about peace in the South Caucasus.”

“We need to be like Sparta, ready to fight at any time” – Serena Hajjar, an aid worker at All For Armenia

In the immediate term, Armenia must grapple with a humanitarian crisis as its population of less than three million absorbs thousands of traumatised refugees. Already, the country’s housing prices are inflated, Tigran told me, after a wave of Russians left their country following the invasion of Ukraine.

In Yerevan, one school had been turned into a makeshift refuge, while an army of volunteers at the Armenian General Benevolent Union delivered around 2,000 meals a day to refugees throughout the region. Arevik and her family, meanwhile, have found shelter at a farmhouse outside the city, packed six to a room with dozens of people from Karabakh including two other families.

I sat with them in their smoky living room as they crowded around a roaring iron stove. We were joined by Arevik’s sister, Nune Hovsepyan, and her three children, including her 22-month-old daughter. They had buried their father Artur just a day before. A soldier in the Karabakh military, he was shot defending his comrades on September 19, just a week before his 41st birthday. Among the small number of items they grabbed before fleeing was his military cap which they laid at the foot of his grave in Yerablur, a hilltop military cemetery overlooking Yerevan.

“He was told to go and get his other weapons”, Nune told me as her mother-in-law quietly wept beside her. “But he said, ‘no, I’m staying with my friends – I go wherever they go.’ If he’d listened he wouldn’t have been shot.” 

Outside, Ernest showed me the yellow bus which saved their lives. Arthur played with his siblings, stopping occasionally to consider me before bursting into flight again and skirting by with a roguish grin.

Ernest, far right, and Arevik, left-centre, in purple. Nune, far left with 22-month-old daughter. Photo: Joseph Draper

In the liquid haze of late evening the snowy peak of Mount Ararat, floating above it all, caught the pink gaze of the setting sun. The Armenians who look longingly at the biblical resting place of Noah’s Ark, now on the farside of the Turkish border, have a phrase for it: “Ours but not ours.” It is a reference to another mass tragedy: the genocide of 1915 to 1916 when over a million Armenians were killed and thousands more expelled from their homes in the ailing days of the Ottoman Empire. 

“When I heard about Artsakh, I suddenly felt I didn’t live in Armenia anymore,” I was told by Serena Hajjar, an American aid worker of Armenian descent. Serena, 26, relocated to the country after the 2020 war where she met her Karabakh husband and started a family.

“It doesn’t feel like the same place. We are a peaceful people but we became complacent,” she said.

“We need to be like Sparta, ready to fight at any time. 

“Aliyev will come for Syunik next. If he does, that will be the end for Armenia.”

Before I left Arevik and her family, they insisted I stay to break bread and drink homemade vodka, made with the mulberries they shook from the bushes around their Karabakh home. Toasting to better times, they had found a measure of happiness. For how long, I wondered, will it last?

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