‘The world did nothing’: Exhausted refugees flee Azerbaijan’s takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh | CBC News

‘The world did nothing’: Exhausted refugees flee Azerbaijan’s takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh | CBC News

The people change, but the scene on Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan, along the road coming from Nagorno-Karabakh, remains the same.

For three straight days now, people have streamed out of the besieged enclave, fleeing from Azerbaijan’s newly imposed control. The border village of Kornidzor, the last Armenian settlement along the road, is a jumble of humanitarian aid points delivering food, water and other essentials to the refugees.

They arrive packed in cars holding entire families, often with only the clothes on their backs and a handful of their possessions. Their homes and livelihoods have remained behind.

“We decided to leave three days ago,” said Davit Azaryan, 45, from the Nagorno-Karabakh village of Haterk. He is here with his wife, son, and two daughters.

“We spent an entire day on the road, without food or water. We had no [humanitarian] aid at all,” he said.

Azaryan is one of nearly 30,000 ethnic Armenians who have fled Nagorno-Karabakh in the three days since the road out of the enclave was opened. The breakaway region’s precarious existence came to an effective end last Tuesday, Sept. 19. That day, Azerbaijan, whose internationally recognized borders Nagorno-Karabakh sits within, launched an all-out assault on the territory.

After reports of more than 200 dead and 400 wounded in just 24 hours, Nagorno-Karabakh’s authorities capitulated, agreeing to disband their army and allow the region to pass under Azerbaijani control.

WATCH | Armenians flee Nagorno-Karabakh:

30,000 Armenians — and counting — flee Nagorno-Karabakh

Roughly 30,000 ethnic Armenians who live in Nagorno-Karabakh have already decided to flee their homeland with many more potentially to follow. It appears many in the population of about 120,000 see leaving the long-disputed region in Azerbaijan as safer than the risk of living under Azerbaijani rule.

That has led to today’s exodus. Almost all of the region’s 120,000 ethnic Armenian inhabitants reportedly say they will now leave, becoming refugees in Armenia.

“[Azerbaijan] shoots us, starves us, kills us,” said Azaryan. “They kill our sons and brothers, brutally. I cannot live there,” he said.

Decades of conflict

The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh dates back over three decades, to the waning days of the Soviet Union. Despite its overwhelmingly ethnic Armenian population, Nagorno-Karabakh was an autonomous region within Soviet Azerbaijan.

As the Soviet Union collapsed, Nagorno-Karabakh declared its independence, opposed by the authorities in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital. A war ensued, ending in 1994 with Nagorno-Karabakh under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia.

That status quo endured until 2020, when a resurgent Azerbaijan launched a new assault to capture the region. The 44-day war saw only a small rump of Nagorno-Karabakh remaining. A ceasefire brokered by Russia saw Russian peacekeepers enter the region to maintain peace.

Last December, Azerbaijan blocked the territory’s only road to Armenia and the outside world. That blockade tightened in June, with even Red Cross vehicles bringing crucial humanitarian aid into Nagorno-Karabakh barred from the region.

The territory’s 120,000 inhabitants endured with little food, medicine or electricity in near-starvation conditions for three months.

A thin man in a yellow shirt sits at a table.
Marut Vanyan, a former Stepanakert resident, is one of the 30,000 inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh that have left the territory following Azerbaijan’s takeover. (Neil Hauer/CBC)

Marut Vanyan, a journalist from Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital, is one of the new arrivals. He is visibly skinny from what he says is a result of malnutrition under the blockade.

“You start to forget what different foods tasted like,” he said, as he eats his first proper meal in many months. “Seeing a table full of food here was like a memory from a different life.”

Vanyan also spent over 24 hours on the road from Stepanakert to Armenia, a journey that takes two hours in normal conditions. One of the main reasons for the delays is the Azerbaijani checkpoint at the bridge leading to Armenia, which Vanyan passed through a few hours ago.

“We arrived there in the middle of the night,” Vanyan said. “The [Azerbaijani] border guards came up to our car, and one of them told me to get out. I could see the other guard, in a mask, handling his rifle. I can see some other Azerbaijani soldiers. One of them looked at me and said, ‘Karabakh is Azerbaijan.’ The fear shot through me at that moment — I could only think, this is it, they are going to take me away,” he said.

But after a short passport check, he was let go.

“I have never been so relieved in my life,” Vanyan said.

Cars line up on a mountainous road.
A line of cars carrying the inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh in the Armenian border village of Kornidzor. (Neil Hauer/CBC)

Explosion in Stepanakert

On Monday evening, as people fueled their cars to leave to Armenia, a gas tank exploded in Stepanakert’s city centre, killing at least 68 people and wounding 290 more.

Vanyan had just begun to leave Stepanakert when he learned of the explosion.

“My friend’s father called me and said, ‘something horrible has happened,'” Vanyan said. “He said his two sons had been lost [in the explosion]and that there were over 100 bodies burned on the ground. The houses around [the explosion] were just ashes,” he said.

A fire is shown at an industrial area in a nighttime photo.
Rescue and medical personnel work following an explosion in the gasoline warehouse near the Stepanakert-Askera highway in Berkadzor, Nagorno-Karabakh, in this handout picture released Monday. (Ministry of Internal Affairs/Republic of Artsakh/Reuters)

While Azerbaijan agreed to allow the blast victims to be transferred to Armenia by helicopter, dozens of which were visible flying overhead throughout the day in Kornidzor, it has not granted any access for humanitarian organizations to the region.

Visiting Kornidzor on Tuesday, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) head Samantha Power noted that she had seen “severe malnutrition” in those arriving from Nagorno-Karabakh and called for international organizations to be granted “full and unimpeded access” to the territory.

“We have received very disturbing reports about violence against civilians [in Nagorno-Karabakh],” Power said. ” [U.S. President Joe] Biden has sent me here … to gather testimonies and facts to inform the [U.S.] administration’s response” to Azerbaijan’s recent actions, Power stated.

A woman stands in a field surrounded by reporters
USAID head Samantha Power gave a press conference in Kornidzor on Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan on Tuesday. (Neil Hauer/CBC)

For Azaryan and others, all this comes as too little, too late.

“Our whole life has been left behind,” said Azaryan. “For nine months, the world did nothing. Now the catastrophe is here.”

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