Exodus And Explosion: Karabakh Armenian Families On Their Dual Loss


By Arpine Hovhannisyan 

(Eurasianet) — On September 25, Elina Jamalyan and her family were packing their belongings in preparation to flee Nagorno-Karabakh and resettle in the Republic of Armenia. 

Days earlier Azerbaijan launched a lightning offensive to retake the region, which it had kept under blockade for the previous nine months. The local army had no help from Armenia and was badly outmatched. It capitulated within 24 hours. 

It was clear that the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh Republic’s (NKR) three-decade history was coming to an end and that there would be no place for Armenians in the region as Azerbaijan established its rule. 

In the fighting of 19-20 September, Elina’s parents had been evacuated to Stepanakert, the NKR’s de facto capital, from their village of Gishi, in Martuni region. 

After the family gathered for one last meal in their home, Elina’s husband, Artur Sargsyan, stepped out to get fuel for the long journey ahead. 

His family would never see him again. 

Artur was among the hundreds of people gathered at a fuel depot near the Haykazov military unit on Stepanakert-Askeran highway, just outside of town. According to Elina, the freshly disbanded NKR Defense Army was distributing fuel for free from its reserve funds to help the local population make the trek to Armenia. 

At about 4pm, a gasoline tank exploded at the depot, killing at least 212 people, according to the NK Investigative Committee, and wounding hundreds more. 

The precise cause is unknown and will likely stay that way given the already chaotic circumstances in which it took place and the fact that the wounded and the remains of most of the dead were hurriedly taken to Armenia. 

Azerbaijan, which now fully controls the area, has not commented on the blast other than to say that it offered to treat the wounded in nearby Shusha (a claim denied by the Armenian side).

“I think it was simply the negligence of the people who were in a state of shock and didn’t observe safety precautions,” Elina said.

When she spoke to Eurasianet last week, her husband’s remains had yet to be identified. His ID, phone, and badly damaged wallet had been discovered at the blast site and his family submitted DNA samples for comparison to victims’ remains.

On 25th October, exactly one month after the explosion, Artur’s body was identified.

Elina’s family delayed their escape to Armenia. After desperately searching for Artur at all the medical facilities in town, they joined the last waves of displaced persons to leave Stepanakert on September 29.  

“Elina entered the hospital and saw all the terribly wounded people, she could even lose her sanity after that,” Elina’s mother Anjela recalled.

Now, thanks to aid provided by diasporan Armenian philanthropists, Elina, Anjela, and the rest of the family are renting a flat in Yerevan. Elina is trying to scrape together a living as a nail technician. 

“It’s hard to get clients as most people don’t know me here, I have a couple of appointments per week but that’s obviously not enough to provide for the family,” she said. 

Anjela remains in disbelief over the sudden Armenian exodus from Karabakh. “We could never have imagined that we’d have to leave Karabakh while the Russians were there. After the blockade, we were ready for almost anything, but a war while the Russian peacekeepers were in the territory – that we didn’t expect” she said in reference to the 2,000-strong Russian peacekeeping contingent posted in the region after Azerbaijan’s victory in the 2020 Second Karabakh War. 

In that war, Baku regained most of the territory it lost to Armenian forces in the first war in the early 1990s.

Just over 100,000 ethnic Armenians were forced to flee their homes in Nagorno Karabakh. Elina’s family is among the many who have settled in the Armenian capital. 

According to the former NK state minister Artak Beglaryan, about 10,000 displaced Karabakh Armenians have left Armenia so far and are settling abroad. 

Still others are trying to make a home in other parts of the country, largely because of the prohibitively high rents in Yerevan triggered by the influx of Russians seeking to avoid the consequences of the Ukraine war.

Motherless and doubly displaced

The Vardanyan family is among those who settled elsewhere. I met them at the house they are renting in the village of Nor Geghi in Kotayk region, half an hour’s drive from the capital. 

They are originally from the village of Sghnakh, in Nagorno-Karabakh’s Askeran region, which Azerbaijan seized in the 2020 war. They then lived in Stepanakert for three years and found themselves doubly displaced after Azerbaijan’s offensive last month. 

During our visit, Artak Vardanyan was in the nearby town of Abovyan searching for a new house for the family. Artak’s father and son, both named Vardan, meet me at the entrance. The family tells me the house they’re currently inhabiting is “too big, expensive and in poor condition – and especially unsuitable for winter.”

“We always lived in Karabakh, all my family members, dating back to the 1600s,” says Vardan Sr. as he begins to list his ancestors. “I could never have imagined we would have to leave our ancestral land. It seemed impossible.”  

“The explosion only hastened the exodus. People were scared of everything after that, no place was safe anymore. Even the government members were leaving, trying to take their families as far away as possible,” Vardan the elder recalled.

His daughter-in-law, Artak’s wife Narine, was among those killed in the September 25 blast. 

She had gone together with some neighbors to the Haykazov military base to get fuel. “I told her to not worry about fuel as my son would bring it eventually, but she was in a rush to flee,” Vardan said. Her body ended up in a mortuary in the southern Armenian town of Kapan. Her remains were badly burnt, and she was identified on October 5th based on the photos of her four children found in her pockets. 

The funeral was held four days later. 

The eldest of the children, 11-year-old Zoya, helps her father and grandfather by taking care of her younger brothers. 

She says she doesn’t like her new school, and misses her village and old friends. “Our house was really big, with two floors, and so beautiful, not like this one,” she recalls. 

At night, the youngest child, Tigran, 2 and half years old, regularly calls out for his mother and cries himself to sleep. 

“He doesn’t understand that mom died even though he was present at her funeral,” Zoya says.

The family plans to start a new life in Abovyan soon, and hopes that this time it will be the final destination.


Originally published at Eurasianet. Eurasianet is an independent news organization that covers news from and about the South Caucasus and Central Asia, providing on-the-ground reporting and critical perspectives on the most important developments in the region. A tax-exempt [501(c)3] organization, Eurasianet is based at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, one of the leading centers in North America of scholarship on Eurasia. Read more at eurasianet.org.

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