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Nagorno-Karabakh: Armenians rush to help ‘brothers and sisters’

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Image source, Reuters

Every hour, the number of people fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh climbs even further. The official count of refugees is now more than half the population of the enclave. The scenes at the border suggest the region is being emptied of ethnic Armenians.

As they come, the aid effort in the town of Goris is intensifying.

On Tuesday night, exhausted families slept in cars as they waited to register their arrival.

There has been a renewed scramble to help on Wednesday. Local hotels are full, offering rooms for free, and Armenians are posting on social media, offering housing all over the country to refugees.

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There’s talk of turning a school in Goris into a dormitory until something more permanent can be found.

But the authorities are adamant they can cope. One senior official told me it was a matter of principle to help Armenia’s “brothers and sisters” from Karabakh.

Until this week, Tamara was a nurse in a small town hospital just outside Stepanakert, which Azerbaijanis call Khankendi.

When Azerbaijan launched its lightning offensive on Nagorno-Karabakh on 19 September, Tamara treated wounded Karabakh fighters and dealt with the dead.

“It was scary, there were many injured,” she tells me.

“Burns. People were hunting for their missing, they couldn’t find their children. It was so hard and such a shock for us.”

Even though Azerbaijan is insisting Armenians can stay in the region they have reclaimed, Tamara didn’t dare test that promise.

As soon as the route to Armenia reopened after a blockade imposed by Azerbaijan for the past ten months, she and her family packed their lives into a small Soviet-era jeep and began the slow journey across the border.

That’s when Tamara remembered a young man she had treated in hospital in the previous war, three years ago, and called him.

Now she’s staying in Goris with his family, who are happy to repay a debt.

“It was really hard to get here, it was scary,” Tamara says. “But we prayed, we really prayed… Then God helped us.”

The soldier she helped, then a conscript, now lives in Yerevan. His mother tells me he’s recovered physically, although some of the shrapnel that hit him lodged in his head.

But he struggles psychologically to cope with what he saw. She mentions the death of many of her son’s friends, also young soldiers.

That’s the context to this refugee crisis. Years of fighting, spilled blood and deep enmity.

Ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh stop for a rest during their way to Goris, Armenia, on 27 September 2023.

Image source, EPA

It’s a similar story in Azerbaijan: hundreds of thousands of Azeris were once displaced from the same disputed strip of land. Many soldiers were killed. There’s a lot of history.

I tried to talk to ethnic Armenians, now refugees, who fought to defend Nagorno-Karabakh – this month or in wars past. No one wanted to comment in public. One man told me that’s because he is ashamed at this defeat, after so many years fighting for the right to live on that land.

Everyone I’ve met thinks they’ve abandoned the enclave for good.

“It feels like everyone is leaving Karabakh now,” says Sveta, a woman in her late 60s who has left with two generations of her family. A child’s bike is perched on their roof rack, next to big blankets they were given in an aid pack.

“I can’t stop crying. We’ve left everything behind. Not only one house – four. Everything.”

Someone has found the family a room, another four hours’ drive away, but they’ve already spent almost two days on the road and are exhausted.

There are minibuses on standby, ready to take people on to temporary housing in other towns and villages.

One is full of frail looking pensioners, evacuated from their care home. Many have to be carried by volunteers as they are transferred between buses.

There are now food tents and aid handouts in the main square, not far from the stone town church. Some of the produce comes from the local authorities, a lot is donated.

“We didn’t know what to do and we wanted to help,” Maria tells me. She is one of a group of teenage school girls chopping fruit and handing out coffee. “And the arrivals just don’t stop,” she says.

So many people have arrived in Goris now, the authorities are opening a second hub two hours down the road in Vayk.

Vehicles full of people are still streaming in, through the mountains of Karabakh.

One man had driven all the way in a bright yellow big digger, the scoop filled with his belongings tied down with rope.

As the refugees approach, men standing by the roadside wave free sandwiches and drinks, which they then thrust through the car windows.

Some take it, hungry and grateful, and drive on.

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