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Armenia Struggles to Aid 100,000 Artsakh Refugees After War

Evangelical, Orthodox, and secular aid workers care for traumatized Nagorno-Karabakh kin they say were ethnically cleansed from their homeland. Azerbaijani Christians reply.
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Armenia Struggles to Aid 100,000 Artsakh Refugees After War
Image: Diego Herrera Carcedo / Stringer / Getty
Two displaced women from Nagorno Karabakh talk at a temporary shelter in Armenia.

Karolin is one of 30,000 Armenian children without a home—again.

Fleeing the mountainous enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in the face of Azerbaijan’s assault last month, the 12-year-old girl had an unexpected encounter. After crossing the Lachin corridor westward to Goris in Armenia proper, she found her beloved social worker waiting.

Arpe Asaturyan, founder of Frontline Therapists (FLT), was astounded as well. Amid the 100,000 refugees from what Armenians call their homeland of Artsakh, she had found the very same child displaced three years earlier. A special bond formed with then-9-year-old Karolin, who had gripped her tightly before returning home.

Located within internationally recognized Azerbaijani territory, the Armenian enclave suffered a bloody 44-day war in 2020. Over 6,000 soldiers died before a Russian-backed ceasefire left local Armenian authorities in control of only a portion of formerly held Artsakh land.

Karolin and her family went back anyway, vowing to continue their multigenerational presence. But after suffering malnutrition during an Azerbaijani-imposed nine-month blockade, they trudged three days in the slow-moving convoy of cars and buses across Lachin—the only road connecting the enclave with Armenia.

Over the week-and-a-half exodus, Artsakh residents crossed at a rate of 15,000 per day.

But the bittersweet reunion with Karolin is far from the worst of Asaturyan’s ordeal. Suffering in the chaos of relocation and the fog of war, several mothers told their children they would find their daddy in Armenia.

As counselor, Asaturyan was asked to tell them that their fathers had died.

“It is heartbreaking, and you know this will be the worst day of the rest of their lives,” Asaturyan said. “With all that has happened, it is hard to find faith.”

When the 2020 war broke out, the California native left behind a successful practice in trauma counseling to join her ethnic kin in ministering to returning soldiers and new widows. Funded by the Armenian diaspora, she oversees a small staff of paid and volunteer therapists providing free mental health services.

But in the weeks following last month’s conflict, her office turned into a humanitarian hub. Already, 20 truckloads of aid have been sent to Goris and the summer camp refuge in central Armenia where she first met Karolin.

“They know their life there was tenuous—they even laminate their documents,” Asaturyan said. “This is still the shock phase, but grief is set aside as bereft mothers must struggle now to find a job.”

The Armenian government initially prepared to receive 40,000 displaced from Artsakh; that was the single-day inflow on September 27 alone. The total number represents 3.4 percent of Armenia’s population, added to an existing refugee population of about 35,000. This does not include at least 65,000 Russians who fled to Armenia due to the Ukraine war, driving up real estate prices by 20 percent with skyrocketing rents.

The Armenian government is providing a relocation payment of $260 per person, with a promised monthly support of $100 to assist with rent and utilities. The UN High Commission for Refugees has called for $97 million in international assistance, and the United States has led the way with a pledge of more than $11.5 million.

“Peanuts,” said Marina Mkhitaryan, executive director of the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU), a 180-year-old organization with institutional links to the Armenian Apostolic Church. “The level of support only adds insult to injury.”

Partnering with World Central Kitchen, AGBU has helped provide 80,000 nutritious hot-food boxes to those in greatest need. Soon AGBU will shift to dry-food packages so families can cook their own meals for up to four days. But a strong focus is on integration, equipping the displaced to live on their own.

A logistics center assists with mundane matters like official documentation, establishing bank accounts, and understanding taxes. And AGBU has partnered with a local employment agency to help the displaced find jobs and to provide training in entrepreneurship and the skills necessary for entry-level positions in Armenia’s strong IT sector.

But, being careful with terminology, Mkhitaryan wants more for Artsakh’s former residents than current stability.

“These are displaced persons who will eventually return to our historic homeland,” she said. “Refugee implies a state of no return, and that is not our stance.”

Pastor Vazgen Zohrabyan believes this will only be possible as Azerbaijani citizens.

“But there is no hope they will go back now,” he said. “My number one concern is where they will live.”

His 400-family Abovyan City Church (ACC) opened its doors, provided hot showers, and laid mattresses on the floors for as many as could fit. In all, they have helped 300 people find temporary shelter onsite and elsewhere, with ongoing food supply for 150 families.

Many had fled for their lives, leaving behind family pictures, shoes, and paperwork.

During the 2020 war and aftermath, Samaritan’s Purse and other organizations helped him offer aid to 12,000 families. While the US-based charity has since returned to Armenia, ACC’s current funding has been provided by a Pentecostal pastor in Argentina of Armenian descent.

But Zohrabyan has been approaching the end of his resources and nearly the end of his faith.

“We prayed for victory, and thought God would give it,” he said. “It was a very painful lesson: Jesus did not die for land, but for the souls of these precious people.”

Last Sunday, 40 refugees from Artsakh proclaimed their faith in Christ. Zohrabyan’s earlier outreach resulted in 70 new believers, who returned to the enclave to plant a sister church. He visited them once a month until the blockade severed their physical connection.

He says many Armenians put much of the blame on Russia.

Not absolving Azerbaijan, typical analysis says the northern neighbor plays one side against another to cement its regional power. And concerned about Armenia’s emerging democracy, the Kremlin is allegedly fomenting unrest through opposition parties, who claim the historic Christian nation can only survive if tied to Moscow.

Many Armenians are frustrated that Russia stood aside as Azerbaijan breached the ceasefire. Five Russian peacekeepers were even killed during the operation, with no protest issued.

Meanwhile, prime minister Nikol Pashinyan recently invited American forces for joint military exercises and joined Armenia to the International Criminal Court (ICC)—where Russian president Vladimir Putin faces war crime charges. Having seen evangelical colleagues cowed to silence in Russia, Zohrabyan fears that a proposed political union with Moscow will similarly harm believers at home. But he also does not trust the West as a consistent replacement ally for Armenia.

All is determined by interests, he said, not shared values.

“We are under huge pressure,” he said. “Pray for us—we want to see light at the end of this tunnel.”

There may be some, domestically.

“We say we want back our lands in Turkey, but we haven’t yet filled Armenia,” said Aren Deyirmenjian, Armenia director for the Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA), of genocidal displacement following World War I. “This is a golden opportunity.”

AMAA has joined in the early relief efforts, initially opening its small church in Goris to refugees and eventually providing short-term housing for 500 people at a summer camp and ten other centers throughout Armenia. Another 1,000 people have benefitted from food, clothing, and medical aid.

But Deyirmenjian has begun the medium-term planning. With the capital of Yerevan already overcrowded, refugees should be resettled in the rural hinterlands, he said. AMAA is planning an asset replacement project—to provide five cows, for example, to an Artsakh farmer who left five cows behind.

Armenia has many under- and depopulated villages ready to receive them. These are “strategic areas,” he said, because Azerbaijan has laid rhetorical claim on the nation’s southern region of Syunik, which stands in great need of development.

We are hard pressed on every side, Deyirmenjian quoted from 2 Corinthians 4, but not crushed... Therefore, we do not lose hope.

The 2020 ceasefire called for opening a corridor parallel to Armenia’s border with Iran, connecting Azerbaijan with its noncontiguous enclave of Nakhchivan, which narrowly borders Turkey. The initial proposal called for Russian peacekeepers to guard the corridor. But however it is negotiated, Armenia fears a threat to its territorial sovereignty.

Azerbaijan has threatened force, and marshaled troops on the southern border. For this reason, Deyirmenjian said many Artsakh refugees are understandably reluctant to resettle there, lest they be displaced again. Yerevan is much preferred, but many are talking of possible asylum in Canada, Russia, or Cyprus.

The AMAA has had meetings with Armenia’s ministry of social affairs and sees congruence with government strategy. If Artsakh residents can become self-sufficient in Syunik, Armenia as a nation will benefit from the additional 100,000 residents.

Even though their presence in Armenia is a historic injustice.

“First starve them, then scare them, so that they flee,” Deyirmenjian said. “Azerbaijan’s strategy was executed perfectly, but whatever means you use, it is ethnic cleansing.”

ICC statutes say that “forcible” displacement is not restricted to physical force but includes the threat or other abuses of power. Melanie O’Brien, president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, stated the blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh created such a “coercive environment.”

Azerbaijan, however, has consistently stated that Armenians in the enclave would be welcomed as full citizens. Soldiers were pictured offering chocolate to children, while the new authorities opened a shelter for vulnerable residents who stayed behind.

A UN team visiting Nagorno-Karabakh stated it heard no reports of violence against civilians and saw no evidence of damage to hospitals, schools, or agricultural infrastructure. Though there were rumors circulating of atrocities in the villages, testimonies gathered by journalists revealed that most refugees did not encounter a single soldier.

Human Rights Watch interviewed over two dozen refugees and officials but did not report any abuses and stated that people fled “in fear and panic.” One woman stated that her local authorities told her to leave within 15 minutes. Another woman asked her village administrator if she could later return and was told that if she faced massacre, it would not be their responsibility.

“No one has pushed them to leave the territory,” said an Azerbaijani pastor, requesting anonymity to speak about political issues. “I hope they come back.”

Freedom House calls Azerbaijan “not free,” ranking the nation No. 13 from the bottom in its world freedom index.

The pastor recalled earlier days when Armenians and Azerbaijanis would live side-by-side in peace. Normal people do not hate each other, he said, but those who lost their homes or relatives in the conflict have grown bitter. He recalled that when Armenians took control of Nagorno-Karabakh in 1994, 500,000 Azerbaijani refugees fled the enclave, and another 186,000 left Armenia.

Around 30,000 people were killed on both sides, and 350,000 Armenians left Azerbaijan.

“I believe incidents [against Armenians] may have happened,” said another Azerbaijani Christian leader, requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. “But compared to the history of the conflict, this takeover has been very peaceful.”

The leader said Azerbaijani soldiers would be unlikely to look favorably on the Armenians, who would understandably distrust official promises of fair treatment. But having seen his Muslim country evolve into a secular regime that grants freedom to Christian converts from Islam, he believes that Armenians would be welcome and protected.

If they return, within five years the region will be prosperous, he said. And with Nagorno-Karabakh returned to Azerbaijani sovereignty, he expressed hope that the two nations could now conclude a peace treaty.

Pashinyan has indicated a readiness for negotiations, the success of which he puts at 70 percent. Economic benefits would flow through trade, the Azerbaijani source anticipated, and oil pipelines could connect the two nations with Turkey and Europe.

“They didn’t have to leave,” he said. “But I can envision a future where Armenians and Azerbaijanis travel freely between the two countries.”

A third Azerbaijani Christian leader was terse in assessing the displacement.

“There is official news from both sides,” he said. “I don’t know anything more than that.”

Eric Hacopian, an Armenian political analyst with The Civilitas Foundation, dismissed the official accounts absolving Azerbaijan of ethnic cleansing.

“The UN visit was a much-ridiculed joke,” he said. “No one takes their report seriously.”

Noting how it was conducted by the Azerbaijani branch office after the atrocities were committed and cleaned up, Hacopian said he watched videos of alleged abuses posted by the soldiers themselves. And while only a handful of Armenians remained in the territory to testify, the UN’s greatest omission was not visiting the countryside villages from which the residents fled.

The truth will come out, he said.

And this is Asaturyan’s next major project. Working with a team of international specialists, she will prepare an academic paper comparing the trauma from 2020 to the trauma experienced by refugees now. To be peer reviewed and professionally published in a reputable journal, it will evaluate and then establish eyewitness accounts as fact.

Many have told Asaturyan secondhand stories of rape, beheading, and death by burning. Anonymous text messages told them they had 24 hours before the Lachin corridor closed for good, followed by other messages encouraging them to integrate into Azerbaijan. But one grandmother, who with her husband had at first sat on their front porch with gun in hand to defend their land, related the experience of why they left.

They beat a pregnant woman, she said, who later died of internal bleeding.

Nagorno-Karabakh officials reported that ten civilians—including five children—died in the Azerbaijani offensive that killed at least 200 soldiers. At least 400 others were wounded.

For these and the other 100,000 displaced, the relief work continues.

AGBU is refitting part of its center in Yerevan to house 170 people displaced from Artsakh. AMAA will continue to pay the salaries of its 79 Artsakh staff workers for a full year. ACC is preparing new believers for baptism and discipleship. And alongside its regular counseling sessions, FTL has provided emergency aid for over 500 families.

But why are they there in the first place, and not in their historic homeland? Even the monks have departed their monasteries—said to be the first time in 1,700 years that there are no Armenian Christian prayers in Artsakh.

“There is a natural instinct to protect your life and family,” said Asaturyan. “But the way they left—something happened.”

[ This article is also available in Français. ]

March
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