They came down the mountain any way they could, some in battered old Soviet cars, back seats stuffed with duvets and coats, others packing into buses, babies and belongings in tow. One man made the hours-long journey driving a construction-site digger.
The families, many looking exhausted and distressed, make up the more than 7,000 ethnic Armenians that have fled their homes in the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh region since an exodus of its 120,000 residents began on Sunday afternoon.
They travelled down the single, winding road that connects the region – a breakaway Armenian enclave in territory internationally recognised as Azerbaijan – to Armenia proper, arriving first to a tent camp and then to Goris, as a heavy, rainy mountain fog enveloped the southern Armenian town.
Their mass evacuation was triggered by a short but deadly military operation launched by Azerbaijan last week to bring the fiercely independent territory fully under its control. Within 24 hours, Karabakh’s breakaway leaders were defeated. As Azerbaijan’s forces began moving in, its Armenian residents began to flee.
Yerazik Sarkisyan, a 55-year-old nurse from the Karabakh village of Bertadzor, made the journey with her husband, after sheltering from the shelling at a peacekeeping base together with all of the village’s other residents.
“I arrived in just these clothes,” Sarkisyan said, sitting in Goris in a hotel converted into a shelter for the evacuees. “We couldn’t take anything, we didn’t have the chance to go home first and pack.
“I cried a lot ... We had everything in our house. Chickens. A cow, a pig.”
Most evacuees in Goris said they did not expect to ever be able to return to their homes, as the territory would now be absorbed completely by Azerbaijan.
“To me, my house no longer exists,” Sarkisyan said.
Baku has promised to offer equal rights to all who stay. “The Armenian population in Karabakh can now breathe easy. They are our citizens,” Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev said last week. Only “those at the top of the criminal regime” in Karabakh would be held accountable, he said.
But refugees arriving in Goris over the past day who spoke to the Financial Times said they preferred exile over accepting life under the rule of their historic enemy. Many also said they would not return out of fear for their lives.
At least 200 people were killed and 400 more injured, according to Karabakh officials, during the blitz assault last week. Nikol Pashinyan, Armenia’s prime minister, said Karabakh refugees were leaving to “save their lives and identity”, in the face of what he described as ethnic cleansing. Azerbaijan has previously rejected the claim.
“We really want to go home some day but never with Azerbaijan in charge,” said a middle-aged woman from the town of Martakert, who declined to give her name for safety reasons. “We are afraid.”
She had boarded a minibus in central Goris, destined for the Armenian capital Yerevan, where she expected to move in with her relatives. Other evacuees were far less clear about where they would go.
In the city’s central square, families huddled in groups, clutching plastic bags with food and belongings, trying to figure out where to spend the night as the rain grew heavier and night closed in. Volunteers distributed mattresses; some women stood in tears.
Last week’s blitz assault marks the latest chapter in a bitter, decades-long conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
A first war broke out during the collapse of the Soviet Union, of which both countries had been a part. By its end in 1994, Armenia had won control over Nagorno-Karabakh and a wide surrounding region. More than a million people were displaced, including hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis living in the disputed area.
Azerbaijan retook much of that territory during a 44-day war in 2020, but the heart of Nagorno-Karabakh remained de facto independent. In line with a peace deal brokered by Moscow, Russian soldiers were deployed along its borders to protect the status quo. A number of them were killed in Baku’s blitz assault last week.
For some coming out of Karabakh down the single narrow road called the Lachin corridor, Armenia’s decision not to defend them and instead recognise the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan – accepting Karabakh’s integration – was a bitter pill.
A 24-year-old woman who spent several days after the fighting began last week sheltering with thousands of others in the airport in Stepanakert, sleeping in the open air, said she felt the people of Karabakh were abandoned by Yerevan. “We were betrayed,” she said.
The many iterations of the conflict have meant that for some of the refugees arriving to Goris on Monday, this was not the first time they had been forced to flee their home.
Artur Petrosyan (47), was a child growing up in an Armenian family in Baku when the first war broke out. He fled the city in 1988, moving with his parents to a small village in Nagorno-Karabakh.
On Sunday, he fled with his parents once again, this time from Karabakh to Armenia. He said not knowing if he would ever see his house again was not his biggest concern.
“I’m not that worried about property. I have left my home,” Petrosyan said. “It’s the cemeteries that worry me. We leave our relatives in that ground. We fear their tombstones will be destroyed.”
Azerbaijani officials have said there would be no retribution against Karabakh residents who served in the military, except for those who had committed war crimes in previous conflicts.
In Goris, nurse Sarkisyan on Monday said she feared for her son, who had previously served in the military and was now attempting to make it through an Azerbaijani checkpoint set up on the Lachin corridor earlier this year.
Later, Sarkisyan’s husband came to tell her that their son had made it to Goris. She was overjoyed. Several refugees said they had no problems exiting through the checkpoint, but the spectre of possible filtration at the border loomed.
From the checkpoint onwards into Armenia, the road was packed with parked cars as people waited to meet relatives and friends leaving Karabakh.
One, 50-year-old Karlan Nazaryan from Yerevan, said he was waiting to meet friends. Nazaryan had no family ties to Karabakh, but had fought for the territory in both wars, in the 1990s and in 2020. He showed the shrapnel wounds that still scar his legs.
He said that for a veteran like him, last week’s war could not mark the end of the conflict. He wanted Armenia to fight again to take back Karabakh. “We need it, war,” he said.
– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023