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No Turning Back

Ethnic Armenians flee Nagorno-Karabakh with no hope of return

At the first light of dawn on 20 September, Boris Simonyan received word that he and his family would have to evacuate their home in Kochoghot, a small village in the Martakert region of Nagorno-Karabakh, a historically ethnic Armenian community in a long-contested region now occupied by Azerbaijan.

The shelling by Azerbaijani forces had been relentless since 1 p.m. local time the day before. At 17, with his military father serving on the front line, it was up to Boris to guide his mother and siblings to safety.

The blockade imposed by Azerbaijan several months earlier had made it impossible for Boris to continue his studies at the technical school in Stepanakert, the region’s capital. He was working at a construction site in the village when the bombing began. He left the worksite and went quickly to pick up his 11-year-old brother from school and take him home, where his mother and sister were waiting. He escorted them to a nearby basement for cover before assisting others in the village.

A family flees Nagorno-Karabakh for Armenia. More than 100,000 ethnic Armenians evacuated the region after it fell to Azerbaijan in a cease-fire agreement on 20 September․ (photo: Nazik Armenakyan)

The next morning, Boris, his mother and siblings crammed into a friend’s truck and were among the first to leave Kochoghot at 8:30 a.m.

“Little did we know that moments after our departure, the enemy had already occupied our village,” he says. “I tremble to think about what might have transpired had we delayed even a few minutes.”

“In an instant, people lost what their forefathers had painstakingly built over centuries.”

Boris, his mother, siblings and maternal grandparents have found refuge at a camp in the northwestern Armenian province of Shirak. The camp, located in Torosgyugh, belongs to the Armenian Catholic Ordinariate and normally runs summer activities for children. It now hosts refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh in collaboration with Caritas Armenia. It is about 11 miles from Armenia’s second-largest city, Gyumri, but 208 miles away from the place Boris once called home.

Boris and his family are members of the historic Armenian community that was forcibly evacuated this fall from the long-disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. International law recognizes this region as part of Azerbaijan, which the local Armenian community rejected in the 1990s, setting off decades of war.

“We left with only the clothes on our backs,” he says, laying the keys to the house and car they left behind on a tabletop in their small cabin. “There was no time to fetch fuel for my father’s car, but it scarcely mattered. On our way out, everyone except our family already knew about my father’s fate, yet they chose to spare us that information.”

Kochoghot, a village of 560 residents, as per the 2010 census, has a history of military involvement. Its residents had served for three years (1941-1945) on various positions of the Eastern Front of World War II in the war between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany; 78 of 113 fighters never returned. In the early 1990s, Kochoghot formed two volunteer units to fight in the First Nagorno-Karabakh War. Among them was Boris’s grandfather.

“My grandfather lost his life in the first war, and now my father in this one,” says Boris.

The family traveled from Kochoghot to the long-closed airport in Stepanakert, where Russian peacekeeping troops were stationed.

“We spent about three days there, exposed to the elements, hungry and in the cold,” says Boris. “It was there that we buried our father in the fraternal cemetery.”

“We left with only the clothes on our backs. There was no time to fetch fuel for my father’s car, but it scarcely mattered.”

Nestled in the heart of the South Caucasus mountains, Nagorno-Karabakh — rich in history spanning millennia — is often omitted from world maps. The Russian tsars annexed the once largely ethnic Armenian region in 1805, but control of its resources and people only became a source of discord when Armenia and Azerbaijan sought their independence with the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917.

The Soviets suppressed the dispute when both countries were absorbed as socialist republics in the 1920s. In 1923, Nagorno-Karabakh was integrated into the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic as an “autonomous region” — a “gift,” it is said, of Stalin, who despised the proud Armenian Christian culture.

With the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 — and after Azerbaijan rejected a proposal three years prior to unite the region to Armenia — the ethnic Armenians declared an independent Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, also called the Republic of Artsakh, which they defended in the First Nagorno-Karabakh War (1991-1994).

Armenian forces pushed the Azerbaijani military out of the region, seizing an additional seven Azerbaijani districts that bordered the now independent Republic of Armenia and established their own government, supported by Armenia. The war killed at least 30,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands on both sides. Despite the 1994 cease-fire, occasional armed conflicts continued to erupt within Nagorno-Karabakh and along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, including a larger Azerbaijani four-day offensive in 2016.

The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War erupted in September 2020. Over 44 days, about 7,000 troops were killed and more than 100,000 people were displaced on both sides. In the cease-fire brokered by the Russian Federation, Azerbaijan regained the seven districts it lost in the first war, as well as one-third of Nagorno-Karabakh’s territory, isolating the region from Armenia.

Two years later in December 2022, Azerbaijan blocked the Lachin corridor, the only strip of land left connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, thereby cutting off access to essential goods and health care.

Then, on 19 September 2023, Azerbaijani Armed Forces launched a wide-scale attack on Nagorno-Karabakh. As per the cease-fire agreement reached the next day, the Artsakh Defense Army was disarmed and the process of integrating the region into Azerbaijan would begin. On 28 September, the leaders of the self-declared Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh agreed to dissolve by 1 January 2024.

The one-day military operation killed more than 220 ethnic Armenians and caused more than 100,000 to flee, seeking refuge in Armenia. By 30 September, Nagorno-Karabakh, which once had a population of 120,000, had been largely emptied.

Crossing into Armenia along the Lachin corridor was the first encounter with Azerbaijani forces for Boris’s sister, Arpine, 19.

“I tried to convince myself that they are just like us, ordinary people following orders, but I couldn’t stop shaking, not knowing what would happen at that moment,” she says.

The usual two-hour journey from Stepanakert to the Armenian border at Kornidzor took nearly two days. Then they continued on to the refugee camp, which they had learned about from their neighbor, Rima Poghosyan, and arrived on 10 October.

Forcibly displaced people from Nagorno-Karabakh arrive in Goris and get registered to leave for locations of temporary shelters provided by the government. (photo: Nazik Armenakyan)

The camp has several cabins, a charming promenade, a chapel and a dining area. Each cabin has about five rooms with private bathrooms. Freshly laundered clothes hang neatly outside. The aroma of a warm meal wafts from the camp kitchen. Come evening, the playground reverberates with the joyful sounds of children.

In a spacious room in a cabin, Boris’s mother weeps in a corner. Near a table beneath a window, his grandmother plays a game of lotto with his brother, a distraction from their circumstances. The boy has been attending the local school. His classmates are supportive even though he struggles to understand the local dialect. Boris, instead, has been forced to mature beyond his years.

“I’m in search of a job because our future hinges on it,” he says. “I must work to provide for my family’s needs.”

When the family fled to Armenia during the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, they believed they would return to Kochoghot, he says. But not this time.

“I thought they would have given us at least a few hours to collect our belongings, but we couldn’t even take a picture of my 7-year-old brother who passed away in a car accident. Everything happened so fast, and we panicked,” he says.

“If only I could have had a few hours in the village to retrieve my father’s car and my brother’s picture. And I would move my father’s grave. I don’t need anything else.”

Rima Poghosyan, her daughter-in-law and six grandchildren fled Kochoghot on 20 September as well, also seeking refuge with the Russian peacekeeping troops at the Stepanakert airport.

However, left exposed to the elements, they decided to take refuge in a hotel and later in a school basement. Her three sons, who were fighting at the border, reunited with the family on 24 September. They left Stepanakert three days later.

“An elderly sick person died in our car, which led to our swift passage through the checkpoint. Unlike many others, our exit was brief,” she recounts.

This is her second time at the camp in Torosgyugh, where she and her family had sought refuge for seven months due to the war in 2020.

“We were awaited here, as if we’d returned home, which meant a lot in our situation,” she says. “We lost everything, left everything behind, witnessed everything. At the very least, we’ve received a warm reception here.”

Rima Poghosyan and her grandchildren are living at a camp of the Armenian Catholic Ordinariate since fleeing their homeland. (photo: Nazik Armenakyan)

The 11 members of her family live in one cabin. Her eldest son, his wife and six children, occupy one room, while she and two other sons occupy another. An elderly neighbor lives in the third room.

Caritas workers conducted an initial needs assessment and medical exams, providing the essentials. The family also received visits from the camp’s social worker.

Mrs. Poghosyan points out the stark contrast between the care they receive at the camp and what they endured during the blockade, when “food was nearly non-existent, and the little that was available came at exorbitant prices, rendering it unattainable for many.” She recalls grinding barley, chickpeas and lentils to create a coffee substitute.

“For the children, we even ground pig feed to ensure they had something to eat. There were nights when we went to bed hungry, but we accepted our predicament. We held firm on our land,” she says.

“As if enduring those nine months of deprivation wasn’t enough, maybe [the Azerbaijanis] weren’t certain that we’d leave, which is why they resorted to war, making sure we had no choice.”

“There were nights when we went to bed hungry, but we accepted our predicament. We held firm on our land.”

During her toughest moments, she says, she finds solace in prayer and in her fervent appeals to God for the safety of her children.

“God answered my prayers; my children made it safely, and now we’re in this wonderful camp where we receive constant support,” she says. “After enduring so much pain, we genuinely need this kind of support.”

The Reverend Grigor Mkrtchyan, rector at Holy Martyrs Cathedral in Gyumri, ministers mostly to those displaced by war.

“While we had casualties, a significantly larger number of people were forcibly uprooted from their homes, stripped of their cultural and spiritual heritage,” he says. “These individuals need our compassion; they are in a fragile psychological state.

“In the initial days, we brought in psychologists to work with them. Medical teams regularly visit, ensuring they receive the care they require.”

In mid-October, the camp had 90 people, almost half under age 14. There were 150 people only a few days prior. During that time, Father Mkrtchyan baptized 36 refugees in the camp chapel and organized the Rite of Holy Crowning for couples who had not yet wed in the church. Children at the camp were enrolled at the local school.

Initially, the refugees were expected to stay at the camp for six months.

A boy from Nagorno-Karabakh plays with a Caritas Armenia staff member at a refugee coordination center in Vayk, Armenia. (photo: Caritas Armenia)

“However, it’s evident that no one will leave them without shelter if they can’t find a place of their own, even though we face serious financial constraints,” says Father Mkrtchyan.

The church is fundraising to support the camp and to build a nursing home for the elderly refugees, as the two nursing homes in Shirak province are full.

“These individuals have overcome enormous hardships to reach Armenia,” says Mkrtich Babayan, who leads Caritas Armenia’s program for displaced people from Nagorno-Karabakh.

Mr. Babayan outlines the type of care the Catholic community charity has been able to provide at the camp, including three meals a day, laundry facilities and heating devices.

“The climate is cold, and we’re continuously working to improve the conditions,” he says. “These people were in a state of shock, and being able to receive them and not leave anyone out in the open was a tremendous effort.”

Caritas Armenia also operated a refugee registration center in Goris, close to the Armenia-Azerbaijan border in the first days of the evacuation from Nagorno-Karabakh. There, it distributed food and hygiene packages to 100 families, as well as 50 mattresses. It provided hot meals to 3,000 people at a registration center in the Vayots Dzor province, about 500 sets of bed linens in the Ararat province and warm clothing to hundreds.

“This is a tragedy and a catastrophe for our people,” says Mr. Babayan. “In an instant, people lost what their forefathers had painstakingly built over centuries.

“It’s our moral duty to offer support and integrate them. This is an urgent issue that calls for a long-term solution.”

The CNEWA Connection

More than 100,000 ethnic Armenians fled Nagorno-Karabakh after Azerbaijan gained control of the region in September. CNEWA partners, including the Armenian Catholic Ordinariate and Caritas Armenia, are among those welcoming the refugees into Armenia and providing them with basic necessities. However, long-term services and programming are needed to integrate this new refugee population into Armenian society.

CNEWA already works closely with these partners to provide basic care for the most vulnerable — children, the elderly, the poor and the displaced — and to support child care programs; health care and assistance to those with special needs.

To support CNEWA in this work, call: 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or 1-866-322-4441 (Canada) or visit cnewa.org/what-we-do/crisis-armenia.

Read this article in our digital print format here.

A communications specialist, Gohar Abrahamyan covers issues of justice and peace in the Caucasus for local and international media.

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