A year after the Nagorno-Karabakh war erupted on September 27, 2020 the Armenians of the enclave are trying to restore their lives even if challenges persist.
At first glance, everything seems normal in the Nagorno-Karabakh capital of Stepanakert. Food stores have raised their blinds again, as have clothing stores, beauty salons, cafes and restaurants. The market in the region’s main city, bombed during the war, is brimming with life again and buses are waiting for passengers from the central station: to take them wherever they are going. However, not everywhere is accessible to them anymore. Over 100 villages are now under Azerbaijani control..
On the morning of 27 September, 2020, Azerbaijan launched a large-scale offensive against Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian populated unrecognized state in the Caucasus. The war that lasted for 44 days ended with the defeat of Armenians and territorial losses.
One year later, absences weigh heavily in this little-known corner of the Caucasus. The trilateral agreement to end hostilities signed by Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia on November 9 redrew the map of the region, displacing thousands in the process. For Gegham Stepanyan, Human Rights Ombudsman of Nagorno-Karabakh, housing is the number one problem in Nagorno-Karabakh today.
“Of the 40,000 displaced by the war here in Artsakh and in Armenia, more than half live in inhumane conditions,” said the 30-year-old defender, using the Armenian name of the self-proclaimed republic. “The government, is struggling to cope, a fact made worse by the failure of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to live up to its commitment of addressing the problems of the internally displaced under the November declaration.”
Instead, local authorities have had to rely on the Red Cross and the Russian peacekeeping contingent, deployed in the region just hours after the war, to provide humanitarian aid to local populations. Armenia and its diaspora have also extended a helping hand.
“Our letters to international organizations remain unanswered,” explained Stepanyan. In addition to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, he has also alerted UNESCO about the destruction of Armenian cultural heritage by Azerbaijan in the territories today under its control. So far there has been no reaction.
The humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh is compounded by frequent water and electricity shortages after most of the water resources and hydroelectric power plants came under Azerbaijani control after the war. As for the telephone and internet connections, they are also elusive. There is huge damage done to infrastructure, but also interference in the audio frequencies from Baku to sabotage Armenian services in Karabakh.
Colleges and universities have just resumed the start of the new academic year without water or electricity, but also without measures to contain the outbreak of COVID-19. The incidence of the virus remains low, something that is attributed to the isolation of the enclave.
A single road connects Nagorno-Karabakh to the rest of the world through Armenia, an “umbilical cord” that the Azerbaijanis managed to cut during the war, but which today remains guarded by Russian peacekeepers in the area. This ensures the distribution of supplies, but also makes entry difficult for non-Armenians. International journalists are today another of the absences in Artsakh. Local authorities use “security reasons.”
Yana Avanesyan, lecturer of international law at Artsakh State University, said that she finds it difficult to explain to her students that international law can be a protection mechanism against attacks like last year. “What credibility do I have after everyone turned their backs on us?” said the 27-year-old lawyer.
She also recognizes that she still does not assimilate everything that has happened last year. “I can’t get used to the idea that I can’t visit Shushi, less than fifteen minutes from here, or the Tigranakert fortress.”
The borders have moved during the last twelve months, and sometimes even crossing towns through the middle. This is the case of Taghavard: today there are Azerbaijani forces deployed in its church and cemetery. On the other side of the fence, the locals watch the scene from their windows.
Mayor Oleg Harutyunyan is one of those who lost his old house next to the cemetery. He said that of the 1,325 registered in Taghavard before the war, only 600 remain. After firing from the Azerbaijani side became as common as the lack of water or electricity, the Russian peacekeepers deployed between both sides. The mayor said that this has brought “a certain tranquility” to the people.
“At the beginning of the academic year we had only five students in our school, but today there are more than thirty,” said Gohar Shakaryan. She teaches history in a class overlooking the Azeri troops, a privileged vantage point from which to observe the course of events in real time.
Many have returned to the village, but uncertainty is today the most difficult challenge they face. And it is that, beyond the material and territorial losses, the psychological impact of war on society. “We think a lot about what will happen next, and what awaits us, and still know nothing,” the teacher said, expressing the concern of the villagers.
Adding to the pain are the videos circulating on the internet that record the inhuman treatment inflicted on Armenian soldiers still in prison by the Azerbaijanis. Yerevan assures that Baku has returned 69 and, although the number of those still being held is unknown, international organizations such as Human Rights Watch have accused Azerbaijan of “war crimes” after verifying these videos.
There are also those that show the looting of the houses in lost towns, the vandalization of their cemeteries and their churches.
In recent days, a video circulated online, showing an Armenian van with a children’s soccer team held at a makeshift Azerbaijani roadside post. After scrapping Nagorno-Karabakh’s flag from the bus door with a hunting knife, an armed soldier intimidated boys between the ages of fourteen and fifteen.
They belong to a generation that began adolescence with a war, the same as many of their parents during the 90’s.
Although there are no longer any big celebrations or fireworks, people still get married in Nagorno-Karabakh. From the notary of the Ministry of Justice, Liana Mirzoyan speaks of “record numbers” so far this year.
“In the period from November 1, 2020 to August 31, 2021, we have registered 1,072 compared to 282 same time last year. It is the highest figure to date,” said Mirzoyan.
A new generation is on its way.