STEPANAKERT: Lodging, animals, crops: what they had to do was give up. Armenians displaced by the war with Azerbaijan are returning to devastated homes and an unknown future in Stepanakert, the capital city of the contested Nagorno-Karabakh.
After fresh clashes erupted in late September between former Soviet rivals over Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave that broke out of Baku’s control in a war in the 1990s, between 75,000 and 90,000 of the 150,000 inhabitants of the area fled their homes.
After hostilities were ended by a Moscow-brokered peace treaty signed by Armenia and Azerbaijan on November 9, nearly 20,000 returned.
But in the six weeks of battle, many Armenians who have lived for three decades in separatist-controlled territory have lost everything.
Many hotels have been made available to the displaced in Stepanakert, and hundreds of people line up every day to collect assistance distributed by the Red Cross.
‘Giving up everything’
Elmira Grigoryan, 70, just got a tiny plastic bag containing noodles, sugar and tins. When she exits the queue, she tries to hold back tears.
In a village between Martuni and Aghdam District, Grigoryan used to live east of Karabakh, which was handed over to Azerbaijan on November 20.
Baku regained swaths of land that had been under the rule of the rebels and inhabited by ethnic Armenians under the terms of the peace treaty.
She says that soldiers from Baku “arrived immediately” on the day of the handover and ordered them to leave. ‘So we quit, gave up everything,’ says Grigoryan.
She said that, joined by Armenian soldiers and Russian peacekeepers who were sent to the area under the peace agreement, they returned to retrieve their belongings Karabakh.
“We’ve been with the soldiers, we’ve stayed there all day, but nothing.” Marine Sargsyan, 55, returns to her humble hotel room after collecting an assistance kit with three beds and no curtains.
She’s living with her daughter-in-law, Anzhelika Astribabayan, who’s just six months old and has a three-year-old son and a baby daughter.
The family used to live in Shusha, a historic town about eight kilometres (five miles) from Stepanakert, which was taken at the turning point of the war by Azerbaijani troops.
They took shelter in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, when war broke out.
We have returned, but we have not been able to find a house to rent here. This hotel was given to us by the authorities,’ says Sargsyan, whose son is working with the military police.
They had a three-room flat and cattle in Shusha: “We have nothing left now It is awful to be horrible.”
“Refugees, particularly when you have small children,” says Astribabayan, 23 years old.
At present, for the next few days, I have 5,000 drams (about 10 dollars).
“But I don’t know what I’ll do after that,” she says.
Eric Mangasaryan is furious. Often a 35-year-old man with cuts on his face sleeps in the homes of his parents, often in his car.
On his tablet, he gives journalists a video of him and other men capturing two soldiers from Azerbaijan.
“I’m not a soldier, but I struggled to defend my land, our land, throughout the war,” he says, adding that he had to flee his home and village.
“We’re feeling abandoned,” the guy with bloodshot eyes says.
Nelson Ariyan runs a meat stall in a tiny covered market in Stepanakert.
Don’t ask me how I had to leave my village,” says the 47-year-old butcher, who has now come under Azerbaijani control.”
He was recently employed here and is living in an apartment owned by a wealthy resident of his village with his son and daughter.