Since Azerbaijan's offensive against Nagorno-Karabakh, the region has been emptied of its Armenian population. But there are few opportunities to find out what happened before the exodus. Rasmus Canbäck reports from Armenia.
Av Rasmus Canbäck 4 oktober, 2023
The reporting work, including translation and arranging contacts on site, was done in collaboration with Nvard Melkonyan. Without her, the reporting would not have been possible. This is the fifth part in the series on Armenia’s new reality. Text and photos: Rasmus Canbäck.
The child in the crib is gasping for breath and then coughing weakly. It’s faint and raspy. David, who is only two years old, turns over and reaches for his pacifier again. For a brief moment, he looks at us with watery eyes before falling back into the feverish sleep.
“The whole family got sick from the stress and dampness when we hid in the basement shelter in Stepanakert last week”, says his mother Anoush Alakhverdian as she looks at her son. “David got the sickest of all of us. When we were about to leave…”
Tears well up in her eyes as she looks away for a moment before continuing.
“When we were about to leave Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh in Armenian)… I can’t believe it… but yes, when we were leaving our home, we were all sick. Our little boy, David, had a fever of forty degrees, and we didn’t know if he would make the journey. But what choice did we have”, asks Anoush.
The images of the car convoys streaming out of Nagorno-Karabakh after Azerbaijan’s offensive on September 19-20 bear witness to a long journey. Ten months earlier, the trip took only two hours from the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, Stepanakert, to Goris. During the past week, it has taken thirty, maybe even longer.
At the hospital in Goris, tired, malnourished, and sick people have gathered to recover from their escape from Nagorno-Karabakh. In reality, they are not just recovering from the escape – they are also recovering from surviving an almost ten-month-long blockade of the humanitarian corridor into Nagorno-Karabakh and a war.
“The worst wasn’t physically surviving, Anoush tells us. It was holding together and appearing strong in front of the children. We all thought that the 2020 war would be the worst thing that ever happened, but the past three years have been hell… and… it’s over for Artsakh, but the war is not over. I promise you. It will come back.”
Anoush shares the view, as do most of the people we meet in Goris, which has become the first refuge for many of the over a hundred thousand Armenians forced to leave Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict may have come to a bitter end, reflecting the international institutions’ inability to act when disaster is looming. Despite the UN assigning Armenia and Azerbaijan the task of finding a peaceful solution based on the principles of the UN Charter regarding territorial integrity and a people’s right to self-determination in the early 1990s, this hasn’t happened.
The lack of repercussions from the international community, rather than condemnations, shows that Azerbaijan’s strategy of resolving the conflict militarily is highly effective.
The peace proposal presented in 2009, the Madrid Principles, would after a complicated implementation, in all likelihood, have meant that Nagorno-Karabakh not only had de facto self-governance but also that, under international guarantees, the population would get to vote on their own self-determination.
This was a solution that Azerbaijan, which had been building a stronger army with the help of oil and gas exports to Europe since the 1990s, never truly believed in. The country, ranked by the American human rights organization Freedom House as more authoritarian than both neighboring countries Iran and Russia, has also been accused by several genocide scholars, human rights organizations, and even the European Parliament of spreading “systematic hatred against Armenians”.
Azerbaijani political scientist Bahruz Samadov has pointed out in several articles that the country’s President Ilham Aliyev has used the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh as an external enemy to strengthen his own power. After the 2020 war, in which Azerbaijan de facto abandoned the UN-backed peace negotiations, this escalated even further.
The final Azerbaijani offensive in September 2023 was preceded by an almost ten-month-long blockade of the humanitarian corridor leading between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Formally, Russian peacekeeping troops, present since after the 2020 war, are supposed to guarantee passage for Armenians, but they haven’t done much as Azerbaijan has gradually escalated the blockade.
This is despite the International Court of Justice in The Hague ordering Azerbaijan twice to guarantee free movement between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Instead of easing the blockade, it was reinforced to the extent that the International Committee of the of Red Cross (ICRC) announced in July that they were unable to enter or leave Nagorno-Karabakh.
With all of this in mind, there are few Armenians who trust Azerbaijani authorities when the country’s leadership claims that “security guarantees” and “rights” will be ensured in Azerbaijan.
Now, Armenia is working to have the refugees registered as such even legally, which Azerbaijan is doing everything to thwart. Already, a few days after the ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan was accused by Armenians of spreading forged videos showing Armenians in the region registering as Azerbaijani citizens. Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh claim not to recognize the people in the videos and react to their pronunciation of the places they claim to come from.
The blockade has taken its toll on the hospital in Goris. There are many stories from those who lie in the beds waiting to get well enough to register as newcomers in Armenia.
One person tells of his wife giving birth to their child on the escape route. They didn’t have time to wait for the birth before Azerbaijani troops took Stepanakert. When they arrived at the hospital in Goris, the baby had 600 grams of underweight, which was explained by the lack of care that a newborn baby needs.
One of the doctors also mentions that there have been reports of several deaths, and they have received the bodies at the hospital. It has not yet been confirmed how many have died on the tough journey where the lack of food and water has been added to the already acute malnutrition from the blockade. The youngest reported death is a 16-year-old, but most have been older. A woman who was heavily pregnant, with only weeks left until delivery, also had a miscarriage.
A woman we speak to tells us that her husband, who is lying in the bed next to her, had three strokes in a row. On top of that, he also had a heart attack but miraculously survived.
The suffering documented by the world’s media at the border should be seen as the tip of the iceberg. A few days earlier, just as the refugee flows began, a fuel depot in Nagorno-Karabakh exploded. Hundreds of men were at the site to collect fuel for their cars to escape.
The explosion resulted in the deaths of about a hundred people, with several hundred injured, and many are still missing. There is little hope of investigating the cause of the catastrophe, which witnesses describe as “an inferno worse than anything else”. People are said to have been thrown tens of meters into the air by the force of the explosion, and the burn injuries survivors sustained were impossible to treat, according to local doctors, during the chaotic final days in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The lack of transparency in Nagorno-Karabakh means not only that relatives are kept in the dark about what is happening, but also that Azerbaijan can control information flows.
When Azerbaijan invaded Armenia in September 2022, several alleged war crimes were committed. A video showed Azerbaijani troops massacring Armenian prisoners of war, and another showed a dead woman. She was seen naked and mutilated in the video. Azerbaijani soldiers had written a derogatory message on her body, and her severed finger was placed in her mouth.
During the 2020 war, there were extensive videos of beheadings, humiliations, and torture, with soldiers being killed brutally in front of the camera. The vast majority of these videos came from Azerbaijani social media channels, as reported by investigative sites like Bellingcat.
Human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were on the ground during the 2020 war to document some of the abuses.
When I was on the ground, probably as the last foreign journalist to enter Nagorno-Karabakh in March 2021, it quickly became apparent that the stories of alleged war crimes far exceeded the documentation by independent organizations. Since then, Reporters Without Borders reports that Russia is blocking passage.
This time, there is no transparency at all, and only a few videos are leaking into Azerbaijani social media.
However, Azerbaijan has not allowed UN-supported investigators to enter Nagorno-Karabakh since the 1990s, until now. On September 30, the UN announced that they are sending a ten-person team to Nagorno-Karabakh to investigate the possibilities of Armenians being guaranteed a safe presence in the region. They arrived on October 1, and by then almost all Armenians had already left, and this comes 12 days after Azerbaijan took control of areas where rumors of alleged war crimes against civilians had already occurred.
After the UN report was published on October 2, there was widespread criticism of it on social media for appearing to be based on evidence provided by the Azerbaijani state and for not taking into account the reasons for the exodus.
Analyst and journalist Tomas de Waal calls the emptying of Armenians a “de facto ethnic cleansing.” This refers to the fact that Azerbaijan formally does not force the civilian population to flee, but the country has done everything in its power to prevent conditions for staying.
In the coming time, a legal process is likely to begin to formally, de jure, grant refugee status to the Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh.
In addition to the targeted Armenophobia where Azerbaijan actively denies that an Armenian genocide occurred and fuels conspiracy theories about the existence of an “Armenian lobby”, mass arrests of Azerbaijani peace activists have occurred in recent months. Several of them are exposed in Azerbaijani regime media with accusations of being “Armenians” or “paid by Armenians”.
The American-Armenian lawyer Anoush Baghdassarian, field researcher in Armenia with the University Network for Human Rights, is on-site in Goris to document what is happening. She has been documenting alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity since the 2020 war.
Initially, she and her colleagues talk to as many people as possible to gather testimonies that they can later follow up on to write reports.
She describes that most of the testimonies she hears are consistent and it has been possible to verify important facts, despite obstacles Azerbaijan has created since 2020 to accessing information about the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.
“In our conversations over the past week, I have noted that most have similar stories. For example, many tell of harassment (by Azerbaijani border guards) at the border station, and practically everyone says it would be impossible for them to stay in Nagorno-Karabakh after Azerbaijan took over,” says Anoush Baghdassarian.
“Life under the ten-month blockade was reaching a breaking point, and people were terrified after the Nagorno-Karabakh government was forced to capitulate on September 20, when the escape route via the Lachin Corridor had not yet opened”, Anoush Baghdassarian continues.
She goes on to explain that before the mass exodus from Nagorno-Karabakh, it was challenging to verify information about abuses there.
“Of course, it is a problem that there was and still is no independent party on-site in Nagorno-Karabakh to collect information. This is largely because Armenians have been forced to leave the region, so we cannot collect forensic data on-site, and other non-testimonial evidence, which is crucial to collect as close to the crime as possible,” says Anoush Baghdassarian.
She explains that there is a challenge ahead to collect testimonies and document the autrocities.
“Now that virtually everyone has fled and victims and witnesses of abuses are safely in Armenia, there is a tremendous task ahead of collecting their testimonies and demanding accountability, not only from Azerbaijan, but from the international community, that allowed this to happen on their watch, despite the many, many warnings”, reasons Anoush Baghdassarian.
What makes it difficult to collect verified testimonies?
“Azerbaijan’s army forced Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto government to surrender under difficult conditions. Azerbaijan effectively forced the people of Nagorno-Karabakh to choose between leaving, or staying to be slaughtered or forced to assimilate into Azerbaijan, which is why so many are now fleeing. The hasty flight means that virtually no documentation of what happened on September 19-20 was done,” says Anoush Baghdassarian.
She argues that while the international community has failed to stop an ethnic cleansing from Nagorno-Karabakh, there are still things that can be done.
“First and foremost, academics and analysts must promptly expose and debunk Azerbaijan’s narrative that the flight was voluntary. The world also needs to underline that Azerbaijan’s actions are not legitimate and have no support in the peace negotiations, which also applies to the cessation of Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto government”, says Anoush Baghdassarian.
What can the international community do?
“The UN can act by appointing a UN-supported peacekeeping mission along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. Moreover, there are still dozens of Armenians held captive in Azerbaijan, even more who have been forcibly disappeared. We continue to demand their immediate and unconditional release”, says Anoush Baghdassarian.
Bellingcat has attempted to gather data from open sources about what is happening in Nagorno-Karabakh. Most of the videos come from Azerbaijani social media. They show Azerbaijani troops shooting at empty civilian homes, destroying abandoned houses, and taking over cities in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Among other videos, there are images of Azerbaijani soldiers making the ethnonationalist Turkish “Grey Wolf” sign and mocking remarks about Armenian cultural heritage or flags.
When Azerbaijan launched its offensive on September 19-20, several villages and cities were surrounded. Rumors spread that civilians were killed by Azerbaijani troops in horrific conditions. Access to the villages where these rumors were circulating was limited during the following days, as it is now.
One explanation is that electricity was cut off in Nagorno-Karabakh, as were communications with the outside world. The lack of fuel in Nagorno-Karabakh due to the blockade also made it difficult for many to be evacuated at short notice.
The only areas in almost all of Nagorno-Karabakh where there was electricity during this period were at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) office in Stepanakert and the hospital in the city, both of which had external generators.
Samvel Martisoryan, founder of Armenia Cyber Hub, which works on IT security and verification of video materials, told Blankspot that Azerbaijan’s strategy appears to have changed from the wars in 2022 and 2020.
“I am sure that the Azerbaijani army was instructed not to film and publish war crimes they committed. We see a change in strategy from previous years when Azerbaijan has published a large number of videos. The publication of videos from 2020 and 2022 was certainly sanctioned by specialists in psychological warfare. This modus operandi is inherited from the Turkish army. These videos of executions and mutilations that have often circulated are used by Azerbaijan as a psychological weapon”, Samvel Martisoryan argues.
He continues to argue that Azerbaijan planned a rapid war this time, thus avoiding the documentation of war crimes.
“Everything happened very quickly. This time, Azerbaijan planned a blitzkrieg, in part to avoid war crimes”, says Samvel Martisoryan.
Samvel Martisoryan’s thesis is strengthened by the fact that in the weeks leading up to the offensive, the Azerbaijani army prohibited films of its military buildup in the country – something they had not done before previous wars.
Over one night, pro-regime Azerbaijani Telegram channels stopped publishing images and videos of troop movements within the country. Several Telegram channels, which had happily published hundreds of videos of previous misconduct, fell almost silent, and so did the reports of military buildup.
One example is the Telegram channel Khacherubka (“Cross Destroyer”), which was among the first to leak the war crimes committed in September 2022. After the channel published an image on September 5th stating that it is forbidden to publish videos of troop movements, its media content publications decreased significantly.
This lasted until the offensive began, and images were published again, this time with multiple calls to ban filming of their own soldiers.
Not all social media channels have shown the same discipline. The Facebook channel Cənnət Kəlbəcər, with 45,000 followers, has continuously published videos of the Azerbaijani army.
The fact that control over information flows can occur in Azerbaijan is not surprising. Reporters Without Borders blacklists Azerbaijan in its press freedom index, and control over publications in state media is widely known.
The lack of independent investigations from Nagorno-Karabakh means that the truth about what happened before, during, and after the ethnic cleansing will probably never come to light.
Nevertheless, the lack of independent investigations is not what concerns Anoush Alakhverdian at the moment. For her, the future is uncertain as she ponders what will happen next.
“Now we are at the hospital, and I don’t know where we will go next. Where will we live? Will the Armenian government arrange this for us? I don’t know”, says Anoush.
She explains that her family has lived in Nagorno-Karabakh for so long that she doesn’t know when they first arrived.
“There are graves from my family several generations back. We have always been there, and I don’t know how to imagine being without Artsakh”, she says.
The child David turns around in bed again. He coughs a little and whimpers.
“But right now, the most important thing is that the whole family made it. We survived”, she says.
About the author: Rasmus Canbäck has covered the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh for Blankspot for three years. His book “Varje dag dör jag långsamt” (Every day I die slowly) is about being the last foreign journalist to enter the region in March 2021. Soon, it will be translated into English.
Read the previous parts of the report series about Armenia’s new reality here.
Part 1: Armenia’s new reality – report from the borderland between war and peace
Part 2: Meet the women who clear mines in Nagorno-Karabakh (by Siranush Sargsyan)
Part 3: Nu avgörs framtiden för Nagorno-Karabach (only in Swedish)
Part 4: When nobody is watching – the borders slowly move closer
Top image: A car stops at the humanitarian checkpoint in Armenia after leaving Nagorno-Karabakh.