By Fin DePencier and Katia Galati
“Everyone thought the road would be closed and rushed to the border. People were passing 300-400 meters in a day, no one had food, people had to make fireplaces near the road to cook something and get warm. 3 days of being sober, broken, and disgusted,” formerly Karabakh-based journalist Hayk Harutynuan said in an Instagram post.
“You gas the car, then it stops. You gas it again, and then it stops. It took us 100 hours to get through!” a young child in Goris told us.
Finally they make it through, but there is still more waiting on the Armenian side, as people get out of their vehicles to register, receive first aid, and get some food. At a medical tent in the village of Kornidzor, local doctor Zhaklin Avetisyan is treating patients. “The situation is very bad, especially for the children, they mostly have a cold,” she told Eurasianet. “For example one group came in an open-body car, they were under the rain for two days. Imagine how cold and drenched they were.”
She said that most people who were seriously injured in last week’s fighting have already made it across the border. But people are still falling through the cracks. Avetisyan said she tended to a man who almost lost his leg, and had spent 10 hours in the caravan with everyone else. Every few hours or so, a row of ambulances pushes everyone off the road and speeds through the checkpoints.
In the nearby city of Goris, their sorrow turns to relief, as dozens of NGO staff and volunteers are ready to help. For many Karabakhis, it is their first normal meal in a long time after living under Azerbaijani blockade for over nine months.
“I was amazed with the hospitality from the people of Armenia. There were lots of volunteers giving out food, fuel, water, everything,” Hayk Harutyunyan, the journalist, told Eurasianet.
But what next? Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said last week that his government was ready to provide housing for 40,000 displaced families, which in theory should be enough for the entire population of Karabakh that Armenian sources estimate at 120,000. But details are slim. Most refugees we spoke with either had a temporary host family arrangement, or nowhere to go at all.
In the center of Goris, a Danish NGO named Mission10forty is giving out meals. “I’ve spoken to so many people and everyone says, ‘we don’t know where we are going to spend the night,'” the organization’s director Kim Hartzner told Eurasianet.
On September 28th, the Armenian government announced it would be allocating 360 million drams, or just under a million dollars to Armenia’s regional governors to purchase food and non-food essential goods for Armenians who’ve fled Karabakh. It also announced a one-time handout of 100,000 drams (about $256) to each person who fled.
But absorbing this many people in such a short period of time would be a difficult challenge for any government, let alone Armenia, with its meager population of less than three million. “The Armenian government needs huge international support to deal with the needs of up to 120,000 refugees, especially in the long term,” Benyamin Poghosyan, a senior research fellow at APRI Armenia, told Eurasianet.
A patchwork of international support is forming.
The Canadian government will be spending $2.5 million dollars on humanitarian aid. USAID administrator Samantha Power visited the border this week and told reporters her organization would be pledging $11.5 million. The EU is pledging €5 million, Spain is offering an unspecified commitment.
Armenian society, at home and in the diaspora, is mobilizing to do the same. Karas foods, an Armenian restaurant chain, announced that it would be providing free food to 1,000 people from Karabakh every day. In Goris, volunteers with the diasporan NGO All For Armenia were helping with food and basic supplies. The Tovmasyan foundation and Dvin hotel in Yerevan are partnering to collect donated goods. Everyone is playing a part.
Donated goods are one thing, but housing is a much taller order. Since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, more than 100,000 Russians have fled to Armenia, stretching the country’s housing availability and leaving little space for Karabakh Armenians.
“Right now we are in the summer villa of our relatives. But it doesn’t have running water, so we can’t stay here in the winter,” said Harutyunyan.
“We are looking for a house, but prices are very high. And I am the only one working in my family, so I must support everyone.” He’s 21 years old. Because of the shortage of housing, many are looking to find a new home in Russia, Harutyunyan said.
Sisters Greta and Marieta survived the anti-Armenian pogrom in Sumgait, Azerbaijan in 1988 and fled for Karabakh. Now, they’ve been kicked out of their homes again. Sitting on the curb in Goris, they told us Russia was their final destination. Greta was a non-commissioned officer with the Artsakh Defence Force, the now-disbanded local army, and was stationed between Stepanakert and Shusha during last week’s fighting.
“They started bombing the area close to us because they knew we had a base there. I would say that almost everyone there was killed. We hardly escaped and ran to Stepanakert… we were running through the forest for hours.”
Forty-eight hours later, the war was over and she started packing. “I locked my door and took the keys with me. I took a picture of my home for the last time, and I miss it now. I took only my documents and photos, I knew that Azeris would take the photos and make fun of them, so I took them all with me.”
For those who plan on settling somewhere in Armenia, there is now a question of how their presence will affect domestic politics. “Whatever [Azerbaijani President Ilham] Aliyev says, Pashinyan then repeats it,” a man with all his worldly possessions strapped to a car roof told Eurasianet
Many Armenians, especially those from Karabakh have a bitter contempt for Pashinyan after Karabakh was lost under his watch.
While they are passionately opposed to Pashinyan, Poghosyan, the researcher, believes that Armenians from Karabakh will need some time to settle in Armenia before substantially affecting local politics.
“I don’t see any real domestic threat to Pashinyan at least until Spring 2024,” he said.
About the authors:
- Katia Galati is a Canadian freelance journalist and photographer based in Yerevan.
- Fin DePencier is a Canadian freelance journalist and photographer based in Yerevan.