- War in Nagorno-Karabakh, a self-declared republic between Armenia and Azerbaijan, broke out again in September and lasted six weeks.
- Arevik Sargsyan and her three children hid in their home shelter long after others had left. They moved on to Armenia just days before the house was bombed.
- ‘I thought it was the last days of our lives. I thought we would die if we continued to stay underground or if a bomb fell directly on us.’
“I don’t know if I should renovate my house. If the war comes back again, my efforts would be in vain,” said Arevik Sargsyan, a 33-year-old teacher from the village of Sos in Nagorno-Karabakh back in 2016.
Sargsyan eventually made a decision. Two years later, she had a beautifully finished kitchen and, underscoring her optimism, she shared pictures of her creation on social media. That beautiful new kitchen did not last long. It was bombed to smithereens along with the rest of her house a couple of months ago.
War in Nagorno-Karabakh broke out again this year, punctuating decades of on-again-off-again war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
This time around the war forced Sargsyan and her three children to move away from her kitchen and her home. On October 2, she packed up her three young children and fled to Armenia. That was just six days after her husband volunteered to fight on the frontlines in an often-overlooked war.
Nagorno-Karabakh is a self-declared republic between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Ethnic Armenians call it the Republic of Artsakh.
Sargsyan is ethnic Armenian. She has lived in Nagorno-Karabakh her entire life.
When asked in 2016 if she would ever consider moving to Armenia, she answered with certainty: “This is our land and my home. People have died for it.”
They died again this year and the war has forced many like Sargsyan out of their home.
Hundreds of ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh are now displaced. The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which has also brought in Turkey and Russia, ended with Armenia handing parts of the Nagorno enclave to Azerbaijan under a Moscow-brokered ceasefire agreement on November 10.
War in Nagorno-Karabakh: History of violence
This is the third war Sargsyan has lived through. The first took place between 1988 and 1994. The second in 2016.
For years, the bombed-out houses in Sos reminded villagers of the first war, when ethnic Armenians sought independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
This is a complicated region, full of ethnic and religious strife, a disputed area in the South Caucasus about three times the size of the city of London.
Nagorno-Karabakh itself is a complicated name that explains its multi-ethnic origin. “Nagorno” means “mountainous” in Russian, “Kara” is “black” in Turkish and “bakh” is garden in Persian.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have been fighting over control of the area for decades. Technically, the area falls within Azerbaijan’s boundaries but it has been controlled by Armenian forces since 1994. The Republic of Artsakh or the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic declared independence in 1991, but it has not really gained international recognition.
On November 25, the French Senate called on the government to recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent republic. They have not had a lot of support.
The latest armed conflict broke out on September 27. That morning, Sargsyan and her family woke up to the sounds of bombing at 7:15 am.
“At first, we thought our neighbor was carrying an iron barrel,” said Sargsyan. “My husband Suren went out to the yard to take a look, then he shouted ‘the war has started’.”
“He came in a panic to help me take the children to the shelter of our house.”
He then left for the frontline, voluntarily.
In the five days that followed, drones bombed the village constantly. The walls of the shelter shook and the ground trembled. Phone signals were cut off. The only communication that remained in the almost deserted village was a weak internet connection.
Virtually all the husbands in Sos had left to fight and most villagers had moved their families to safer places in Yerevan. Sargsyan and her children remained in the shelter.
“I thought it was the last days of our lives. I thought we would die if we continued to stay underground or if a bomb fell directly on us,” she said. “I took a photo of the children and posted it on Suren’s Facebook, thinking of him as our last memory.”
After a month and a half of bloody fighting Armenian forces ceded part of the territory to Azerbaijan.
On October 2, volunteers from nearby Yerevan came to the village and evacuated the villagers that had stayed behind. Sargsyan and her children were sent to Sion Resort in Tsaghkadzor, a town north of Yerevan. The hotel took in more than 100 refugees like her.
Four days after the evacuation, Sargsyan learned that her house had been bombed.
A month after that, Sargsyan and the other refugees learnt of Armenia’s defeat and the ceasefire. Parts of Nagorno-Karabakh were handed over to Azerbaijan. About a fifth of the ethnic Armenians living there left.
Following the peace deal, Russia said it would deploy peacekeepers to the region for five years. Turkey planned to follow suit.
Reunited and rebuilding
The more fortunate among the men that had left to fight the war in Nagorno-Karabakh returned to their families.
Fifty days after Suren Harutyunyan had left his family, he called his wife from an unknown phone number to tell her that he was alive and that they would reunite soon.
Many were not so lucky. Nagorno-Karabakh’s authorities reported more than 1,200 military deaths in the six-week conflict. It is unclear how many more civilians were killed or injured.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan vowed to help restore people’s homes and provide financial assistance to families of soldiers killed in the fighting.
Like many of her ethnic Armenian friends and neighbors who have lost their homes, Sargsyan and her family are now trying to start a new life in Armenia. That’s where their roots are, but the country is unfamiliar to them.
There has been no offer yet from the Armenian government to settle refugees in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh.
“To be honest, I’m very afraid to go back to Sos. Now the Turks are one and a half kilometers away from Sos. I don’t know where we should live,” Sargsyan said. “In Artsakh, our security guarantee was given for five years through Russian peacekeepers. I want to stay in Armenia for my children’s safety in the future.”