Fears and Chaos Grow in Nagorno-Karabakh After Takeover

Along the serpentine highway linking Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh, a breakaway Armenian enclave, Norik Grigoryan strained to catch a glimpse of his village just a few miles away. His wife and son are stuck there, he said, after Azerbaijan reclaimed the region this week in a swift military operation.

But the passage was blocked, and communications were intermittent at best.

“We’ve been waiting for three days,” said Mr. Grigoryan, 55, standing with a group of sullen men, also anxiously waiting to join relatives and friends.

“Yesterday, I was standing here, my pressure went high, I almost died,” he said. “Vodka saved me.”

Two days after the Azerbaijani military brushed aside Russian peacekeepers and routed a vastly outgunned group of fighters defending the Armenians in the enclave, concerns mounted about the tens of thousands of Armenians who were now stranded there under their new Azerbaijani rulers.

On Friday, people in Armenia were frantically trying to reach their relatives and friends on the other side of the border, calling them over and over again but receiving little or no response.

Artak Beglaryan, a former high-ranking official in the pro-Armenian government, described a dire humanitarian situation, with different parts of the region cut off from one another and the Azerbaijani military blockading internal roads. Electricity supply has been erratic, he said, making it impossible for many residents to charge their phones.

Russian soldiers at a market in Goris, Armenia, on Friday. Russian peacekeepers were overwhelmed by the Azerbaijani military two days ago.Credit…Nanna Heitmann for The New York Times

“Another urgent problem is hunger; there is a serious shortage of food,” he said, adding that thousands of people had been displaced and relocated in various communities and Russian peacekeepers’ bases. Russia has acknowledged taking thousands of people into its bases.

The Armenian government has stated firmly that it will not intervene. Nor is help forthcoming from the international community or from Armenia’s traditional protector, Russia, with its 1,960 peacekeeping troops stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh.

“No one understands what will happen next,” said Artur Marudian, 35, who had been trying to reach his relatives for hours. “No one trusts Aliyev,” he said, referring to President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan.

In the absence of hard information, rumors abounded among the Armenian population, most reflecting historical grievances and claims of mistreatment by the Azerbaijani authorities since they won effective control of the region in a 2020 war. Prisons were being built for the Armenians who took part in the recent fighting, people said, and lists were being compiled of people to arrest.

The Azerbaijani government has tried to calm the fears, promising to recognize the rights, security and freedom of Armenians in the region.

Hikmet Hajiyev, Mr. Aliyev’s assistant on international affairs, said that the Azerbaijani armed forces had received strict orders to be respectful of the Armenians. In a phone interview, he called allegations that Azerbaijan was planning to open prisons for Armenians and prosecute them en masse “obviously ridiculous and unacceptable.”

He noted, however, that while most combatants were free to go if they put down their guns, the Azerbaijani government would still want to bring to justice Armenians who “used inhuman treatment, elements of war crimes and crimes against humanity against civilians.”

A military cemetery in Goris for some of those killed in the 2020 war, when Azerbaijan won effective control of the region.Credit…Nanna Heitmann for The New York Times

Mr. Hajiyev also denied accusations that Azerbaijan was preventing Armenians from fleeing the region.“ If someone decided to go to Armenia, I think they can do it,” Mr. Hajiyev said.

The fears are lodged in a long and difficult history between the predominantly Orthodox Christian Armenians and the Muslim Azerbaijanis. While Nagorno-Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized borders, the two nations have been intertwined for centuries, with Armenian and Azerbaijani villages scattered around the region.

After the Soviet collapse in 1991, Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence, and the two sides fought a long, bloody war. When the Armenians triumphed, they drove the Azerbaijanis out of the territory, taking up residence in many cases in their vacated homes. Many Armenians also had to flee. Now, Armenians fear that the Azerbaijanis will return the treatment, as they already have in a few towns and villages reclaimed since the 2020 war.

“A real Armenian could never live with the Azerbaijanis,” said Vachik Karapetyan, 33, sitting on the side of the highway to Nagorno-Karabakh. “Can you live in a place where you can get killed at any moment?” he asked, adding that he would try to break through if Azerbaijanis didn’t let Armenians out. “It did happen before,” he said.

But the Azerbaijani checkpoint remained closed. Only convoys of Russian peacekeepers were let through, rushing past the waiting Armenians. And in Goris, the nearest Armenian town, nothing suggested preparations to receive thousands of refugees.

Speaking from Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, Mr. Beglaryan, the former official of the pro-Armenian government, said that “there is high demand” among people to leave the region.

“There’s been no progress in that regard,” he said. “Actually, in no other regards has there been progress yet.”

Armenian police and military officers at a checkpoint along the road connecting Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh on Friday. Only convoys of Russian peacekeepers were let through.Credit…Nanna Heitmann for The New York Times

Mr. Hajiyev, the Azerbaijani official, said that humanitarian aid was about to be delivered. On Saturday morning, Mr. Beglaryan said that Russian peacekeepers had brought in several trucks’ worth of aid, and that two trucks from Azerbaijan had arrived, as well.

Like other Armenians, Mr. Beglaryan pleaded for the international community to intervene. But the high-stakes war in Ukraine has pushed Nagorno-Karabakh further into the periphery of interests for Moscow, Brussels and Washington.

In years past, Armenia’s stake in the dispute has been guarded by Russia, as was the case in 2020 when it sent peacekeeping troops to protect the Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh. But with its vital trade links with two other Muslim nations, Iran and Turkey, the Kremlin has not wanted to antagonize Azerbaijan, analysts said.

For many Armenians, Moscow’s reluctance to step in more assertively to defend their countrymen was a betrayal. But even the European Union was reluctant to act against Azerbaijan, having signed a deal last year to double gas deliveries from the country to Europe by 2027.

Questions of geopolitics were far from the minds of the Armenians standing on the highway, eager to see their relatives.

“My whole family is there — mother father, sister,” said Grigory Zakharyan, unable to hold back tears. He said his two brothers had died during the Azerbaijani attack this week and that he could not reach his relatives in the remote Martuni region, which is cut off from the regional capital, Stepanakert.

“I look at this road and I feel like a miracle has to happen,” said Mr. Zakharyan, 44. “If I had wings, I would fly there.”

An Armenian flag at the guard post along the road connecting Armenia to Nagorno-Karabak on Friday.Credit…Nanna Heitmann for The New York Times

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