Karabakh residents return to homes destroyed by war

AFP , Sunday 29 Nov 2020

Close to 20,000 have returned after hostilities were halted by a Moscow-brokered peace deal signed by Armenia and Azerbaijan on November 9

Russian soldiers of the peacekeeping force check a car at a checkpoint on the road to Lachin outside the town of Stepanakert on November 29, 2020, after six weeks of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region AFP

Housing, livestock, crops: they had to give up everything.

In Stepanakert, the main city of disputed Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenians displaced by the conflict with Azerbaijan return to destroyed homes and an uncertain future.

Between 75,000 and 90,000 of the region's 150,000 residents fled their homes after fresh clashes erupted late September between the ex-Soviet rivals over Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave that broke from Baku's control in a war in the 1990s.

Close to 20,000 have returned after hostilities were halted by a Moscow-brokered peace deal signed by Armenia and Azerbaijan on November 9.

But many of the Armenians who have lived for three decades in territories controlled by separatists have lost everything in the six weeks of fighting.

In Stepanakert, several hotels have been made available to the displaced, and every day hundreds of people queue up to receive aid distributed by the Red Cross.

- 'Giving up everything' -
Elmira Grigoryan, 70, has just received a small plastic bag with pasta, sugar and tins. She struggles to hold back tears as she leaves the queue.

Grigoryan used to live to the east of Karabakh, in a village between Martuni and Aghdam district -- the latter was handed over to Azerbaijan on November 20.

Under the terms of the peace deal, Baku reclaimed swathes of territory that had been under the separatists' control and inhabited by ethnic Armenians.

She says that on the day of the handover soldiers from Baku "immediately arrived" and told them to leave.

"So we left, giving up everything," Grigoryan says.

She added that they returned to collect their belongings accompanied by Armenian soldiers and Russian peacekeepers that have been deployed to the region under the peace deal.

"We went with the soldiers, we stayed there all day but nothing."

Marine Sargsyan, 55, returns to her modest hotel room with three beds and no windows after collecting an aid package.

She is staying with her daughter-in-law Anzhelika Astribabayan who has a three-year-old son and a newborn daughter just six months old.

The family used to live in Shusha, a historic town some eight kilometres (five miles) from Stepanakert that was captured by Azerbaijani forces in a turning point of the war.

When fighting broke out they took refuge in the Armenian capital Yerevan.

"We came back but we couldn't find a house to rent here. The authorities gave us this hotel," says Sargsyan, whose son is serving in the military police.

In Shusha they had a three-room apartment and cattle: "We have nothing left now."

"It is horrible to be refugees especially when you have small children," says 23-year-old Astribabayan.

"Currently I have 5,000 drams (around 10 dollars) for the next few days. But after that I don't know what I'll do," she adds.

- 'Abandoned' -
Eric Mangasaryan is angry.

The 35-year-old man with scars on his face sometimes sleeps in his friends' homes, sometimes in his car.

He shows AFP journalists a video on his phone of him and other men capturing two Azerbaijani soldiers.

"I am not a soldier but I fought throughout the war to defend my land, our land," he says adding that he had to leave his home and his village.

"We feel abandoned," says the man with bloodshot eyes.

In a small covered market in Stepanakert, Nelson Ariyan mans a meat stall.

"Don't ask me how I had to leave my village," which has now come under Azerbaijani control, the 47-year-old butcher says.

He was recently hired here and is staying with his son and daughter in an apartment owned by a wealthier resident of his village.

"The state helps us, but we ourselves have to find work, not just depend on the state," Ariyan says. "If you have strong arms and legs, then you have to work."

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