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Nagorno-Karabakh's Armenians fleeing in dramatic escape

Jennifer Pahlke
September 28, 2023

After Azerbaijan's recapture of the breakaway republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians have fled to Armenia. The Armenian prime minister expects even more to arrive in the coming days.

Cars and men against a mountainous backdrop
People are leaving Nagorno-Karabakh with as much as they can Image: Gilles Bader/PHOTOPQR/LA PROVENCE//MAXPPP/IMAGO

People are escaping however they can, in cars, on tractors or trucks, or by bus, and with as many belongings as they can, tied onto the roof if need be. They are squashed together, many crying, with drivers looking petrified.

The most important thing is to leave. Narine Shakaryan, a grandmother of four, told DW it had taken over 24 hours for her family to get to Goris, a small city in the south of Armenia. "The children were hungry and crying. None of us had eaten anything!"

The industrial hub in the mountainous province of Syunik is usually quiet, but now it has become the center of a mass exodus of Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh. Thousands have arrived in the past few days alone.

A family in a truck with tarpaulin
Over 65,000 ethnic Armenians have fled Nagorno-Karabakh this monthImage: ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images

The first port of call for refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh is Kornidzor just 30 kilometers away. There are currently four white tents where refugees are being welcomed and registered by volunteers. Those who have relatives in Armenia, in the capital Yerevan, for example, try to reach them. Others are taken to hotels in Goris and relocated if necessary.

However, before anyone can travel through Armenia, they must have a health check. Valeri Hayrapetryan was slumped over in the Red Cross tent with a walking stick in his left hand. He rubbed his face again and again, wiping tears from his eyes.

When Red Cross workers offered him water or something to eat, he waved them off and pointed at the families with children. He also refused all medical aid apart from some plasters for the wounds on his shins. He was eventually escorted to a bus heading in the direction of Goris.

'My children are traumatized'

Many of the refugees did not want to speak to reporters. "Take the camera out of my face! Stop taking pictures! We're already suffering enough, and you're feasting on our misfortune," said one man in a bus full of refugees as women and children sobbed. One woman shouted at Russian-speaking reporters: "Traitors! You've betrayed us! Putin is a murderer!"

Hayrapetryan was one of the refugees willing to talk. "The Azerbaijanis marched into my village in the morning," he told DW. "People only took what they could carry. Some could not take anything at all. Many did not eat for a long time. One person even fainted from hunger!"

"I am so grateful to the Russian peacekeepers," said one woman with three children. "They provided us with shelter at Stepanakert Airport. They gave us food and drink there. They didn't eat anything themselves but made sure we all got something. Then they brought us all the way here, to Kornidzor."

Another mother told DW that her children were severely traumatized. "We didn't escape to live, but to survive. Tonight, there were storms and thunder. My oldest daughter woke up crying hysterically. I could hardly calm her down. She kept saying that we had to leave here as well and that the Azerbaijanis were coming here too. She said there would be a war here, too!"

Valeri Hayrapetryan sits while a Red Cross worker kneels down beside him
Valeri Hayrapetryan refused medical aid but did not mind talking to reporters Image: Jennifer Pahlke/DW

Armenian PM expects more to arrive

Before Azerbaijan's military intervention on September 19, there were an estimated 120,000 ethnic Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh, which is recognized under international law as Azerbaijani territory. According to the Armenian government, 65,000 have fled so far.

After the announcement on September 28 that the republic of Nagorno-Karabakh would be dissolved by  January 1, 2024, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said there would be "no Armenians left in Nagorno-Karabakh" in the coming days.

Relatives of ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh are worried sick. One man told DW he had had no contact with his sister for over 24 hours. He said all he knew was that she and her family had been evacuated to Stepanakert by Russian peacekeepers.

"This is the second time she has had to leave her home. The last time was in 2020. I just don't have words for how I feel. I just want her to arrive here safely," he said.

One refugee, who did not want to give her name, talked about her plans for the future: "I don't want to stay in Armenia. I've had to leave everything I owned behind. Now, I want to start a new life for my children. And I don't want to do that in Armenia. We will emigrate to Russia! The Azerbaijanis won't be able to reach us there!"

This article was originally written in German.

Nagorno-Karabakh to dissolve self-proclaimed republic