Nearly 400 ethnic Armenians fleeing the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh began crossing the border into Armenia on Sunday, days after a military offensive brought the enclave firmly back under Azerbaijan’s control.
More refugees are expected to follow in the coming days, according to the refugees and their relatives waiting for them near the border. They took with them little but the most basic necessities, leaving behind their homes and possessions with little prospects of return.
“The past two days were the most horrific in my life,” said Meline Hakobyan, 23, a law student who left Yeghtsahogh, a village in Nagorno-Karabakh. “My wish is that the feeling we have now, nobody goes through it.”
Azerbaijan was emboldened to take military action last week because of the region’s shifting geopolitics as a result of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Russia, Armenia’s traditional security guarantor, appeared less inclined to intervene this time, given its increasing reliance on trade with Turkey, Azerbaijan’s principal ally.
Sheila Paylan, a human rights lawyer and an expert on the region, said that Azerbaijan “could not have done what it did without a green light from Russia.” Ms. Paylan added in a phone interview, “Russia really needs Azerbaijan.”
Armenian and Azerbaijani communities coexisted peacefully for decades around Nagorno-Karabakh, an area about the size of Rhode Island in the South Caucasus whose modest size never corresponded to its strategic importance. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh, recognized internationally as part of Azerbaijan, came under the control of ethnic Armenian forces, backed by the Armenian military, in fighting that ended in 1994.
Bolstered by its oil and gas wealth, Azerbaijan launched a 44-day war in 2020 and recovered most of the territory lost in the earlier conflict. In December, Azerbaijan imposed a blockade on the only road connecting the enclave with Armenia, effectively cutting off the region from food and fuel supplies and spurring a humanitarian crisis. Last week, Azerbaijan consolidated its control of the region, launching an attack that swiftly brushed aside a Russian peacekeeping force and routed a small group of ethnic Armenian fighters.
Many of the refugees, who were displaced by Azerbaijan’s offensive, had endured days at Russian military bases with little certainty of what was awaiting them. Despite widespread fears that the Azerbaijani government would detain any man who had taken up arms, many were allowed to cross the border.
Now at the mercy of the Azerbaijani government, many ethnic Armenians said they believed they had no choice but to flee.
“I am thinking of the home my father built,” said Ms. Hakobyan. “He dedicated his whole life to creating a home for us. Now it will be left for the Azerbaijanis.”
After spending several nights at Russian bases, the refugees were sheltered in hotels in the Armenian town of Goris near the border. But their long-term future remained unclear.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of Armenia said on Thursday that the country was prepared to welcome 40,000 families. But there is no clarity about where would they live.
Mr. Pashinyan also warned in a speech on Sunday that Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh were facing “the threat of ethnic cleansing” unless “effective mechanisms of protection” were created in the enclave under Azerbaijani rule.
Stella Nazerian, who stood in a hotel lobby in Armenia with her husband, Benik, and their 3-year-old daughter, said, “We don’t have anyone in Armenia.” Ms. Nazerian and her family had spent days at the Russian air base, sleeping outside. When they were ultimately allowed to evacuate, they had no chance to visit their home to pick up clothes and other possessions.
Others described similar deprivations, and many people said they felt lost and abandoned by the Armenian government, Russia, and the rest of the international community.
“The children who have lived through this will never recover,” said Boris Shirinyan, 81. “We from Artsakh are upset at the world,” he said, referring to the Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh. “No one came for us.”
While some Armenians were able to reunite with their relatives, many others at the border had to wait. But the arrival of the first group of refugees gave them hope.
“My heart is not pounding so much anymore,” said Grigory Zakharyan, 44, who was in Armenia but whose relatives remained in Nagorno-Karabakh.
While some arrived with their families in buses and cars, 23 Armenian refugees arrived in ambulances, a process facilitated by the International Committee of the Red Cross, after being wounded during the Azerbaijani attack last week. They were met by medics in Armenia.
Although the Azerbaijani government has vowed to protect the rights of ethnic Armenians, few residents of Nagorno-Karabakh, who experienced the nearly 10-month blockade, were convinced.
According to Artak Beglaryan, a former human rights ombudsman in Nagorno-Kabarakh, up to 80 percent of Armenians there want to leave their homes and move to Armenia. Up to 120,000 Armenians currently reside in the region.
Speaking from the breakaway republic’s capital, Stepanakert, known as Khankendi in Azerbaijani, Mr. Beglaryan said that the humanitarian situation there remained dire.
“People are cooking whatever they find and however it is possible,” he said.