Panic in Karabakh as fears turn to ethnic cleansing

It took just 24 hours for Azerbaijan’s military to force the surrender of an enclave that is home to 120,000 ethnic Armenians.

What happens next to the men, women and children in this corner of the South Caucasus is a source of increasing anxiety.

For all of Azerbaijan’s promises, Armenians there fear for their future and whether they will be forced to leave – or worse.

Siranush Sargsyan has just visited several shelters in the regional capital when she fires off a series of voice messages and declares there is “literally nothing to eat”.

“I don’t know anyone who wants to stay here. I have very close elderly relatives who lost their sons in previous wars and they prefer to die here,” she said.

“But for most people, for my generation, it’s already their fourth war.”

Oil-rich Azerbaijan is doing its best to reassure the civilian population, promising food, fuel and “re-integration”.

They may not be forced to leave, but there is little desire to stay.

Thousands of refugees in Karabakh have fled to the regional capital awaiting the Azerbaijani takeover of the area
Civilians wait in uncertainty for Azerbaijan’s takeover of Karabakh’s main city [SIRANUSH SARGSYAN]

Many civilians fled outlying villages this week as the Azerbaijani army pushed towards her city, which ethnic Armenians call Stepanakert but Azerbaijan knows as Khankendi. “They know nothing about their relatives. It’s a real horror,” she said.

Tens of thousands of people have lost their lives in wars here since the fall of the Soviet Union – the first in 1992-94, when Armenia occupied the region.

At least 200 more died this week as the military swept further into an enclave that is viewed internationally as part of Azerbaijan.

Its president, Ilham Aliyev, says the Karabakh Armenians can now “finally breathe a sigh of relief”. But that seems a long way off for now.

There is very little trust in Karabakh towards a government in Baku run tightly for 30 years by one family, and when the president calls the region’s leaders “bloodsucking leeches”.

The images for now are of ethnic Armenians searching for relatives, looking for shelter and using makeshift stoves to cook what little food they can find.

At the end of last year, Azerbaijan imposed an effective blockade on the only route into Armenia.

Until this week’s offensive Sargsyan, a journalist, devoted her time to documenting the months of shortages of food, medicines and toiletries.

That route out, known as the Lachin Corridor, will become key in the coming days or weeks if Karabakh’s ethnic Armenians decide to leave in big numbers.

What was for decades a separatist enclave with its own TV stations, university and language will now be subsumed into the state surrounding it.

Azerbaijan argues that only 50,000 people are affected, but Ms Sargsyan estimates that the true number is currently 110,000.

Some 5,000 have sought refuge at a Russian peacekeepers’ base at the local airport.

Caucasus specialist Thomas de Waal of Carnegie Europe has become increasingly worried about their fate and believes there is a real and credible threat of ethnic cleansing, whether it happens more or less peacefully or with bloodshed.

“There will be no issues for women and children,” he said. “But the big question is about men who are under arms or who have fought against Azerbaijan – which is probably the majority of the Karabakh population.”

Several thousand refugees have sought protection from the Russian peacekeeping contingent
Several thousand refugees have sought protection from the Russian peacekeepers [RUSSIAN DEFENCE MINISTRY]

Armenia’s prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, has already made plans to accommodate 40,000 families. He has accused his neighbour of ethnic cleansing in Nagorno-Karabakh, although his assessment for now is that the civilian population is not facing “direct danger”.

Azerbaijani officials are considering some kind of amnesty, with a promise not to prosecute fighters who lay down their weapons.

But presidential aide Hikmet Hajiyev told the BBC’s Azerbaijani service “this will not cover those who committed crimes in the First Karabakh war”.

Azerbaijan is thought to have lists of men it regards as responsible for war crimes in 2020 and earlier.

A 68-year-old man heading to Armenia for surgery was arrested in July during a Red Cross evacuation, on suspicion of war crimes in 1992. His family says they are untrue.

Images shared on social media on Friday showed Karabakhis removing portraits from an outdoor display of those who had died in the 2020 war.

Mr de Waal believes two key deterrents can prevent an exodus of ethnic Armenians from turning deadly.

One is the possible involvement of two international groups – the Red Cross and the contingent of 2,000 Russian peacekeepers, who were deployed in Karabakh after the 2002 war.

Siranush Sargsyan has little faith in the peacekeepers: “I know the Russians will do nothing. They will pretend they’re saving the lives of children but they will do nothing to protect us.”

Then there is the fact that Azerbaijan cares deeply about its image in the West.

A handout picture made available by the Ministry of Emergency Situations of Azerbaijan shows vehicles deployed by the Ministry of Emergency Situations of Azerbaijan, on their way to deliver humanitarian aid to Armenian civilians in the Karabakh region
Azerbaijan said a convoy carrying food and hygiene products was sent into Nagorno-Karabakh on Friday [AZERBAIJAN GOVERNMENT]

Azerbaijan is adamant there are no such plans to force the local population to leave, highlighting the focus it placed in initial talks with local leaders on Thursday on “re-integration” of ethnic Armenians in society.

“We have never wanted ethnic cleansing,” says Zaur Ahmadov, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Sweden, who remembers his compatriots being expelled from their homes in the early 1990s.

Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azerbaijanis were thrown out of Armenia as the Soviet Union collapsed and there were massacres on both sides.

The ambassador believes incorporating Karabakh’s people into the wider population is perfectly possible, and that their cultural, educational and religious rights can all be ensured.

He says 30,000 Armenians are already living in his country outside Karabakh, in mixed marriages.

“Full normalisation will require some time,” he told the BBC. “But trucks full of food have already been transported to Khankendi; there will be fuel supplies and restoration of infrastructure such as kindergartens in the coming days.”

It is an optimistic view, when Azerbaijani forces are positioned on the outskirts of the regional capital and the disarmament of the Karabakh army is not yet done.

As soon as it is, the Azerbaijanis will move in.

It is at that point the local population will be entirely dependent on Azerbaijani promises, says Richard Giragosian, the head of the Regional Studies Center think tank in Armenia.

“The immediate problem for Karabakh Armenians is the lack of security guarantees, not just from Azerbaijan but from Russia’s peacekeepers,” he says.

Ultimately he believes that Karabakh’s male population will be allowed to leave because there is too much international attention.

But he too is highly sceptical anyone will be persuaded to join Azerbaijani society.

“They pretend they want to integrate us,” says Siranush Sargsyan. “But they want to erase us from this place.”

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