In early September, Blankspot's Rasmus Canbäck traveled to Armenia to cover the impending catastrophe. In this unique report, he documents the atmosphere in the days before Azerbaijan attacked Nagorno-Karabakh. The report is based on information from two trips to Armenia in September.
Av Rasmus Canbäck 27 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.
It’s Friday, September 8th.
Below the hill, a truck is rolling through a newly built tunnel. A bulldozer is in the process of transporting large rocks, and some Azerbaijani soldiers are sitting by the roadside, smoking.
The Armenian military officer who accompanied us to the Lachin Corridor is more relaxed this time. When we came here in March, we were among the first journalists to be granted permission by Armenia to observe the newly established blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh, and the atmosphere was tense. No pictures or videos were allowed at that time.
This time, we are just a few of many outsiders who have visited the place over the past few months. For the military officer, it has become routine to occasionally show the way to journalists and foreign decision-makers.
Below, there is an Azerbaijani border station with a green roof. Just behind, maybe ten meters away, is a Russian military base. Next to it, a large Azerbaijani flag is waving, indicating who actually has control over the road.
Reports of Azerbaijani military buildup along the border with Nagorno-Karabakh are circulating on social media. Images of trucks with the upside-down letter “A” have just started to be published, and no one knows what it means.
It looks worrying.
Critics say the symbol is reminiscent of the Russian “Z” that was written on trucks before the invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
Eleven days later, it turned out that the concern was justified. On September 19, Azerbaijani military vehicles rolled into Nagorno-Karabach.
But at the border in early September, I called my Armenian journalist colleague Marut Vanyan, who was stuck in Nagorno-Karabach. We had talked for a long time about doing a joint report from both sides of the blockade of Nagorno-Karabach, which had been ongoing for nine months.
For the past three months, no food, medicine, or fuel had been able to enter the region.
“It’s terrible”, Marut Vanyan tells me. “There is no bread, and all we eat is grapes. It’s really terrible. A man I met today said that I am lucky: at least I have no children to take care of”.
In addition to me, there were only two or three other foreign journalists on the ground in Armenia this weekend. Apart from local media, we were the only ones covering the impending famine crisis and military buildup at the border.
The disaster was just around the corner.
The decision to go to Armenia came after I heard – from several sources with insight – that negotiations in the United Nations Security Council for a condemning resolution against Azerbaijan had failed.
On August 25, the French newspaper Le Figaro reported that France was well on its way to preparing a resolution condemning Azerbaijan for the blockade of the Lachin Corridor.
The United States, a veto-holding country, told Armenian media a few days before that they had not seen any draft resolution. To Caucasian media, the French Ambassador in Armenia was unclear about whether France had presented a concrete draft, which may indicate that the negotiations failed at an early stage.
Here’s how the Armenian analyst and former diplomat Sossi Tatikyan describes the scenario for EVN Media Report:
“It is expected that Russia would veto any Security Council resolution related to Nagorno-Karabakh, especially if it would seek to replace its peacekeeping presence. At the same time, the U.S has shown little enthusiasm about a UN Security Council resolution in August 2023, which is why discussions over a resolution did not reach a stage when Russia could veto it.”
When Blankspot asked the U.S. UN delegation in October why the U.S. had not pursued a resolution, they replied briefly that we were “misinformed.” Despite repeated attempts to get an answer on how the U.S. views a condemning resolution, the question is never answered.
Instead, the spokesperson refers to an expert in the U.S. Department of State’s Eurasia Bureau. The expert outlined the U.S. position on Nagorno-Karabakh based on discussions in the Security Council on August 16.
At that time, the U.S. demanded the opening of the Lachin Corridor. However, the expert does not comment on the U.S. stance on a resolution.
As Sossi Tatikyan notes, Russia likely would have blocked a resolution since they don’t want outside interference in the South Caucasus conflict. But support for Armenia from the Western world’s veto powers in the Security Council could have been seen as sufficient to send a clear signal to Azerbaijan.
When formal support wasn’t presented through a resolution, despite condemnations of Azerbaijan from the international community, there was disappointment over the world’s lack of willingness to act.
This led to my question in early September: How prepared is Armenian society for an exodus of Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh?
It’s difficult to say whether the lack of a resolution in the UN Security Council had any actual impact on the outcome and if it was the real cause of the situation “reaching a breaking point.”
What is certain is that the initial reports of a military buildup at the Azerbaijani-Armenian border and towards Nagorno-Karabakh emerged in the days following the alleged failed negotiations on the resolution. The connection is, therefore, not confirmed, but the timeline is clear.
In Azerbaijani social media, at the end of August, videos and images showing troop movements toward the eastern border of Nagorno-Karabakh started to appear.
On September 7, we met with Sergei Ghazaryan, the Foreign Minister of Nagorno-Karabakh (the Republic of Artsakh), in the Armenian capital, Yerevan. During the blockade, he was in Yerevan. During the meeting, he described to us the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh as catastrophic.
“It is close to a catastrophe. The situation worsened especially since June when the full blockade started. There is no bread and the lack of medicine is urgent. The Artsakh authorities have confirmed that every third death in the country is because of multrition. Besides this there is no gas and a huge lack of electricity. The self-grown goods are not enough and there is a risk it won’t last the winter”, said Sergey Ghazaryan.
With an ethnically cleansed population, the mentioned quote is no longer applicable and should be viewed as a testimonial from the days before the offensive began. The food shortage meant that Nagorno-Karabakh had little means to resist an impending Azerbaijani offensive.
It also confirms that Azerbaijan used starvation as a tool to wear down the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan, of course, denies this, claiming both that their actions are in accordance with international law and that they offered humanitarian alternatives.
During the weeks that followed in early September, there was a battle over humanitarian aid, with Azerbaijan arguing that the Armenians should accept humanitarian assistance from the Azerbaijani Red Crescent.
In the same way that the Syrian Red Crescent has been criticized for acting as an extension of the Syrian regime during the war in Syria, the Azerbaijani Red Crescent was criticized for the same. Among other things, Aslanov Novruz, the Chairman of the Azerbaijani Red Crescent, repeatedly supported the Azerbaijani government’s view on the war and is a member of the ruling party.
When Sergey Ghazaryan was asked about the scenarios he saw for the future, he already responded in early September that the famine disaster was on the way to becoming a genocide.
“As for what is happening now it is on the course of genocide. It’s not only us or Armenians saying this, it is the position of well-known international experts and organizations”.
He continued to argue that there were ways to stop the unfolding events.
“What can stop it are the practical actions from the international community, which, if they refrain from such actions, will share the responibility of the genocide. The international community can put pressure on Azerbaijan to prevent what is happening in Artsakh, to open the Lachin Corridor and return to the negotiation table”.
At the hill overlooking the Lachin Corridor, the Armenian government parked 23 trucks filled with humanitarian aid at the end of July. However, by early September, they were still parked there. Occasionally, the refrigeration units were started to keep the goods cold.
These trucks arrived after the International Red Cross Federation announced on July 25 that they were prevented from working in Nagorno-Karabakh. The 23 trucks were essentially a PR stunt to physically demonstrate that humanitarian aid was not getting into Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenian vehicles had not been allowed into Nagorno-Karabakh since December of the previous year, and the hope that they would be allowed in during July was hardly realistic.
Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Vahan Kostanian told reporters and foreign politicians in late July who had traveled to the blockade that there were no signs of a “positive development.” He noted that the trucks would be allowed to stay “as long as necessary.”
On September 6, two weeks before the offensive, we met Vahan Kostanian at the Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Yerevan.
During the interview, I asked a question about voices at that time suggesting that Armenians in Nagorno-Karabach might need to be evacuated if the situation did not change. Vahan Kostanian responded that those who make such claims are aware that ethnic cleansing could occur and that they would be complicit in it.
“If there are people in certain contexts and in certain capitals who think it will happen, they know that ethnic cleansing can take place, and if they have mechanisms to prevent it but do not use them, they are complicit in ethnic cleansing,” said Vahan Kostanian.
If the situation continues as it is, it might lead to people wanting to leave Nagorno-Karabach. How is Armenia preparing for that?
“Our efforts are concentrated on implementing the ICJ order to open the Lachin Corridor as soon as possible,” said Vahan Kostanian.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague instructed Azerbaijan in February 2023 to guarantee unimpeded movement through the Lachin Corridor, a directive that has not been followed.
The question was left unanswered.
It’s September 26th.
A little over two weeks have passed since I was at the Lachin Corridor. The hotels in the border town of Goris are filling up with Armenians fleeing. The endless lines of cars leaving Nagorno-Karabakh show no sign of abating as this region, which has been inhabited by Armenians for thousands of years, is ethnically cleansed.
It took just one day for the local Armenian authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh to declare themselves defeated in the face of a state that not only denies the Armenian Genocide, but also allows armenophobic conspiracy theories to dominate nationalist narratives, which among others the Caucasus researcher Alexander Thatcher has written thoroughly about.
Almost none of the over 100,000 Armenians saw any way out other than to flee.
Nune’s eyes well up with tears as she recounts how the decision to leave her home was made. Last year, she was stranded in Armenia – on the wrong side – when Azerbaijan began blockading Nagorno-Karabakh. After several months, she fought to return. It took four months for her turn to come, and the Russian peacekeeping troops found space to drive her home.
Now she’s away from home again.
“We (the family) worked all summer, every day, tending to the garden so we would have crops to survive the winter. Not everyone had it as good as we did, and we shared with our neighbors,” says Nune, who has just arrived in the Armenian border town of Goris.
The last time we met her was in March 2023 when she was still waiting for her turn to return to Nagorno-Karabakh. She is sitting in the same hotel as before, this time with her entire family, but without her friends who were also stuck on the wrong side.
“I wanted my family to meet the hotel staff here. They have been amazing. But I never wanted them to be forced to meet the people they’re meeting now,” Nune says.
[READ MORE: Part 4: Armenia’s new reality: When nobody is watching the borders slowly move closer]
She shares that when she received the news that she would be allowed to return to Nagorno-Karabakh in April, she screamed with joy.
“I rushed to the kitchen and danced in front of everyone. I yelled to them that ‘I’m going home,’ and we celebrated together.”
If you had known it would turn out like this, would you still have gone home?
“Absolutely. I wouldn’t hesitate for a second. Returning home to my house, my roots, and my homeland is worth everything! I would go back any day, if it were possible,” says Nune.
A challenging question is whether the ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh could have been worse. Genocide scholars warned that the situation met the criteria for a genocide.
In advance, there were concerns about more civilian casualties. There were few, if any, who in early September wrote about an impending ethnic cleansing, although it became increasingly evident that it could become a real scenario. However, the question was raised as a risk by several analysts I spoke to.
Would it be possible to evacuate the entire population of over 100,000 people?
The challenge identified was that if Azerbaijan attacked Nagorno-Karabakh from the east while blocking the escape route to Armenia in the west, the civilian population would have nowhere to go.
This is precisely what happened on September 19 and 20. It was not until Nagorno-Karabakh’s civilian population had gathered in the capital, Stepanakert, that the blockade of the Lachin Corridor was opened for one-way trips on September 23.
The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh was then unsustainable, and fears of an even greater humanitarian catastrophe were being realized, where Armenian men would not be given the opportunity to flee.
These fears were based on the lessons of the past few months.
A man who was supposed to have been evacuated by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) at the end of July to undergo emergency heart surgery in Armenia was taken from ICRC’s car by Azerbaijani soldiers. In Azerbaijan, he is facing a highly criticized prosecution where he is accused of committing war crimes in the 1990s.
A couple of weeks later, when Armenian students were allowed to leave Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan arrested three 20-year-olds who had insulted the Azerbaijani flag during a football match.
According to Azerbaijani media, Azerbaijan has also compiled a list of 300 people it considers to have committed war crimes during the 1990s war. However, unverified rumors, born out of fear, said it could involve tens of thousands of men.
But when over 100,000 Armenians were forced to flee Nagorno-Karabakh, “only” eight people were arrested. All of them are representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto government, which announced on September 28 that it would cease to exist and be finally dismantled on January 1, 2024.
In a previous report from October, Blankspot has written about the lack of transparency regarding what happened and is happening in Nagorno-Karabakh in connection with the ethnic cleansing. It is not known what abuses may have occurred, especially in villages in Nagorno-Karabakh between September 19 and 25.
[READ MORE: Part 5: The Invisible War Crimes]
Additionally, there are still reports that relatives are unable to contact people who have either died or have not been evacuated. On October 9, the ICRC announced that they had managed to reunite three people with their relatives.
Representatives from Nagorno-Karabakh’s exiled government claim that 200 Armenian soldiers died during the offensive, along with more than 20 civilians. At least as many civilians are said to have died from the large explosion at a fuel depot in Nagorno-Karabakh. However, the lack of transparency makes it difficult to determine the exact numbers.
The Azerbaijani side reported 192 military casualties at the end of September.
As for the 23 trucks at the blockade, they were swiftly moved and placed on the outskirts of Goris. A couple of days later, we visited them. Someone working with the trucks opened some of them for us to show what was inside. They were still filled with flour, olive oil, and baby formula – in a kind of sad anticipation.
Nune spends a couple of days in Goris with her family before they continue their journey in Armenia. Like the 100,000 others who have been ethnically cleansed from Nagorno-Karabakh, their fate is uncertain.
“We will be here for a couple of days, just to have some food and catch our breath. Today, I don’t want to think about what’s going to happen,” says Nune.
Suddenly, there’s a glimmer of joy in Nune’s eyes. Another resident at the hotel steps out of her room, holding a three-month-old baby. Nune rushes over to them.
The woman hands the baby to Nune.
“Yes, everything we need to endure, we do it for the children. We can’t afford to transfer our pain to them. They are our future and our joy,” says Nune.
It has been a month since we met Nune. They are currently staying with a relative in Yerevan but are looking for a more permanent home for their family. They share their fate with tens of thousands of others.
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
Part 5: The Invisible War Crimes
Top Picture: Nune was stuck on the wrong side of the blockade for four months before returning home. Now, she is on the run again.