Ethnic Armenians displaced from Nagorno Karabakh are living in uncertainty

Astghik Gaudyan

“We still hope that we will come back to our home, our village...”, tells me Artashes Arakelyan from Askeran region, Nagorno Karabakh. Artashes and his wife Narine with their five underaged daughters now live in the small village Lenughi, not far from Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. It will be hard to call a house the place they live. The small room which serves as a corridor, kitchen, living room, was given to the family by one of their relatives.

The latest war, broken on the 27th of September, 2020, in Nagorno Karabakh region labelled thousands ethnic Armenians as refugees. Before the war the population of Nagorno Karabakh was 150.932, out of which 100.000 were considered to flee to Armenia during the war. After the trilateral agreement on the 10th of November that the heads Armenia, Russia and Azerbaijan signed, Azerbaijan held on to areas of Nagorno Karabakh that it had taken during the conflict including Shushi and Hadrut and nearby villages. Thus, the majority of the population have no possibility to go back to their homes.

Arakelyan family is one of those families. They fled from Nagorno Karabakh when bombs were raining down on their village.  “It was impossible to stay there anymore. There were cars, but no drivers. All the men from the villagers were in the front. I found a car with difficulty which took my wife and girls to Stepanakert.” says Artashes. He stayed in the village until he got the news that Azerbaijanis were about to enter the village. Some villagers couldn't leave the village. According to Artashes 12 people from his village remained to be hostages. “As I know two of them are given back. But the others are still being kept” adds Artashes.

Narine almost took nothing from their house but children’s documents and some clothes. She didn't even think that they would not be able to come back home again. “Before us, the village was almost deserted. Somehow, we reached Stepanakert and stayed in the basement for a few days.  We got out of the basement twice to get to Armenia by taxi, but we couldn't as the drones were in the air all the time and the city was bombarded nonstop, and we were running inside all the time.” remembers Narine. 

Artashes Arakelyan, 56 years-old,  was born and grew up in the Askeran region. He was young when participated in  the first Karabakh war and got wounded his leg.  Since then he has been wearing a prosthesis. He had a farm with 50 cows in Karabakh and was making a living. Now, when the family lost everything, Artashes has no idea how he can provide for the family. “Here is no job. We have no house, no money, no work. Villagers give us food and clothes.  We want to come back to our village. It was always Armenian village for decades and was part of NKAO. My grand-grandfather’s grave is there.” tells me Artashes. 

The only hope that they have now is that with some miracle it will be possible to take back their village. “We don’t want war,” says Narine and looking at her children she continues, “I don't want them to experience another war as we did. I hope something will be possible by negotiations.”

Unlike the Arakelyan family, thousands of others got shelters in hotels, schools, and kindergartens that opened their doors to refugees.

Gyulnara Stepanyan is from Hadrut. She  is living  with her family  in the kindergarten since October  in the village Arshaluys, Armenia. They were forced to flee their home in the  village Tumi, when Azerbaijanis entered Hadrut. “This is the second time I’m losing my home. First time was during the first war in 1992 when we lost our home and  fled from Martakert. My parents were from Hadrut, so we settled in Hadrut. Now we lost our home in Hadrut as well.” tells me Gyulnara Stepanyan. 

Gyulnara lives in the kindergarten with her son, daughter-in-law and five grandchildren.

The government and some foundations give to the families their food and essentials. “How long we are going to live in this way,” said Anush, Gyulnara’s daughter in law. Her two girls were born (August) a month before the war started. With the irony of the life Anush found parallels between her childhood and her daughter’s childhood.  “I was one month old in the 90's when my mom took me and we fled from Martakert. Now the history repeated for me as well: my daughters were one month old and I took them and ran from Hadrut,” remembers Anush. 

The family had a field and cows in Hadrut. That was their source of income, but now they  don't imagine how their life is going to be. There is no way they can go back to Hadrut again. “How we can live with Azerbaijanis after whatever they did to us. It’s impossible,” says Gyulnara, despite she lived with Azerbaijanis before the tensions started between two nations. She remembers that there was a time when they lived side by side and had an ordinary life. “After all of these killings it’s different now,” she notes. 

Gyumri boarding school No. 2 in the city Gyumri, Armenia,  also became another shelter for displaced families from Karabakh.  About 300 people have come to the school since October 2. Now only 48 people, about 12 families are left there. 67 years old Marlen Vardanyan and his wife, 63 years old Khachatryan Susanna are one of them from Shushi. They were born and lived all their lives in Shushi. Now they are hoping that there will be a possibility to get a shelter in Nagorno Karabakh. “We can't go back to Shushi, but still we want to go back to Karabakh. It's our home,” says Marlen Vardanyan. The old couple’s life was hard after their son died of cancer years ago. But they came to terms with the loss․ “We had a field and were working there. I even went out to the garden under those bombs, sowed a bag of garlic in a row. My husband was saying that who needs that garlic. But I was thinking the war will stop after some days, but we will need garlic for winter. How could I know the situation will change dramatically?” tells me Susanna Khachatryan. They thought that this war will be like an April war in 2016 and they will continue their life. “We were living the basements, cars and waiting until the situation will get better. We didn't think about leaving Shushi”.

 But at some point, they couldn't stay. The bomb fell down into their garden.  Marlen Vardanyan was thrown away from the explosion and was left unconscious for a long time. “Then I realized that we should leave our home. Also we had news already that Azerbaijanis are coming closer,” remembers Karlen. 

Many other families already went back to Nagorno Karabakh.  The officials there are trying to deal with the housing issues and accommodate people in Stepanakert and other regions that are not under Azerbaijani control. The numbers of returned families are provided by the Ministry of Defense of Russian Federation. According to the latest news, in total, 52,278 people have returned to their places of residence in Nagorno-Karabakh since November 14, 2020.