Vachagan Melkumyan’s apartment no longer has a window. Only a few shards of glass remain. He uses a knife to remove them, working diligently, before carefully gluing plastic sheets to the white frames. The 65-year-old wants the apartment in Stepanakert, the largest city in Nagorno-Karabakh, to be safe when his family returns home.
Vachagan leans out the window and gazes at a mountain range in the distance. He says this is where the bombs came from in recent fighting. He explains that he and his neighbors lived in the basement of the building for about 25 days, safe from explosions.
For six weeks, Armenia and Azerbaijan waged a fierce war on its doorstep against disputed territories in and around the separatist enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is mostly inhabited by ethnic Armenians. On November 10, a peace deal brokered by Russia ceded several regions to Azerbaijan: part of Nagorno-Karabakh itself and three surrounding territories. The region was already considered part of Azerbaijan under international law, but it has been de facto under Armenian control since the fighting of the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“The last time we had machine gun fire in both directions,” Vachagan says. “This time it was really scary weapons.” On the outside, the metal fins of the back of a rocket rest on the ground between pieces of glittering glass.
“My wife, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will live here. We’ll take it as it comes, ”he said with a small shrug, gesturing to his house. “We have to start over now. But we’ll do our best to live well.”
A drifting homeland
But as the lines of demarcation change in the area, not everyone knows where their home is. Every day now, hundreds of people arrive in the center of Stepanakert by bus. Many of them fled the territories which are now ceded to Azerbaijan. The mayor of Stepanakert, David Sarkisyan, tells us he expects up to 25,000 people to arrive in the days and weeks to come. Stepanakert currently has a population of just over 50,000.
“I have prepared several large hotels – so people can live in them for now, while we start building more houses.” Sarkisyan believes the city will also have to send people to surrounding villages to cope with the influx.
According to the Armenian government, around 90,000 ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh were displaced by the recent war and temporarily fled to Armenia. On the Azeri side, officials say the conflict has displaced around 40,000 people.
Russian peacekeepers have been deployed to the region
An ongoing dispute
In the main square of Stepanakert, Anahit Grigoryan and her elderly mother Arega have just gotten off one of the Yerevan buses. They lived in refugee accommodation for a month and a half. Now they stand between plastic bags of items, watched by Russian peacekeepers stationed in the city.
Anahit rubs her forehead in despair as she looks around. “We don’t know what we will do and where we will live,” she says, explaining that staying as guests with local relatives is not a long-term solution.
Previously, the two women lived in Shushi, a nearby town, called Shusha in Azeri. The city is located on a hill, which made it a decisive military prize in the recent war and in the previous one 30 years ago. The last time, it was the Azeris who had to flee the city. Now the fates have been turned.
With Dadivank Monastery now in Azeri-controlled territory, it’s unclear how worshipers will reach it from Armenia
A heavy peace to bear
“I left everything behind at Shushi, a two bedroom apartment with everything in it, all set up,” Arega Grigoryan says as her daughter watches. She says she has been wearing the same clothes for over a month. After a pause, his outrage suddenly sparks an outburst of wider political anger. “I hope Pashinyan dies like a dog!” she said of the Armenian Prime Minister.
Many people in the region and in Armenia share this anger against Nikol Pashinyan. For days, there were protests for him to resign. In the capital, Yerevan, demonstrators chant “Pashinyan – traitor!” and boo at the mention of his name. Many consider Nagorno-Karabakh to be a legitimate part of Armenia. And many in the breakaway region say Pashinyan sold part of their homeland by signing the recent peace agreement.
A lonely stronghold
Heavy fog can set in at any time in the Nagorno-Karabakh mountains. The contrast between the scenic natural beauty of the landscape and the traces of recent violence is heartbreaking. The roads in the area are littered with burnt cars and drivers bypass the potholes left by the bombardments. The huge handle of a rocket jaggedly protrudes the street north of the disputed territory.
And the uncertainty is as thick as the fog here. In many villages, people tell us that they are not quite sure where the lines of the Armenian-controlled areas will ultimately be drawn, and on which side of the conflict their homes will end.
In the district of Kalbajar, even the medieval stone walls of Dadivank Monastery do not seem to be a sure thing. The district will be under Azeri control from November 25. Although the monastery itself is now under the protection of peacekeepers and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has vowed to protect the Christian churches in the area, it is not known how the faithful will be able to reach the holy place of ‘Armenia. The fate of the road leading here is still being negotiated, a priest from the monastery tells us. For days, Armenians have been coming to say goodbye. People stand still, staring as they take photos outside the stone arches.
Leaving only ashes
Prior to the district transfer, the area surrounding Dadivank Monastery is now almost deserted. Many Armenians fleeing Kalbajar district set their own homes on fire as they left, claiming they did not want to leave anything behind. It is a dramatic act of willful destruction that perhaps allows people to feel a sense of control over their home.
But just beneath the veneer of this challenge, there is often not only heartache, but despair. In the neighboring village of Verin Khoratak, Sergei Arakelyan shows us his empty concrete house. His furniture is already in Yerevan. He decided to leave, even though his particular village will remain Armenian. A tattoo of a Christian cross flashes on his hand as he takes drops from his cigarette.
Numerous Armenians in Kalbajar district torched their homes as they went
“I was born in this village, my grandfathers and great-grandfathers were born here. I built a new house on the old foundations of my father’s house, ”he says, adding that he has built two more houses for his sons. “I was hoping this was our homeland, that we would live here. Then in one day they sold our land and the people with it. They gave everything away.”
The repeated conflicts in the region have not driven him out, Sergei says. Instead, it was the peace agreement. “That’s when we realized there was no life here. Until then, we hoped there were.