A humanitarian crisis is unfolding in the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave following the launch of Azerbaijan’s so-called anti-terrorist operation on September 19. Hundreds of people have already been killed. Thousands more than have been made homeless. And there is a steady stream of reports of atrocities that have cannot be verified as the region has been closed off to journalists and outside observers.
The 24-hour offensive left at least 200 people confirmed dead, including five children, and 400 wounded, according to the de facto authorities, with tens of thousands displaced. However, the true death toll, especially in the hard to reach rural areas, is thought to be much higher.
“This brief war has led to a humanitarian catastrophe on the ground. The scarcity of essential supplies in hospitals has led to the loss of many wounded patients,” reports the Regional Centre for Democracy and Security (RCDS), an independent think-tank based in Yerevan that is trying to collate and objectively verify all the reports coming out of the enclave.
“[The regional capital] Stepanakert is presently inundated with thousands of displaced individuals, a significant portion of whom have no access to shelter, compelling them to sleep in the open streets. The absence of electricity and gas has pushed residents to build fires in public areas for warmth and cooking. Furthermore, Azerbaijani forces are positioned on the city’s outskirts, posing a direct threat to the civilians and intensifying panic among the population,” the RCDS reports.
Baku has already called a ceasefire, but there are multiple reports of ongoing fighting. As some sort of calm emerges, civilians are flocking to the regional capital Stepanakert from villages, arriving with their documents and a few clothes but little else. The city’s facilities have already been swamped, leaving many to sleep on the streets. Others went to the airport, where they were told Armenia would lay on flights out of the enclave, but when those failed to materialise, the refugees resorted to camping in the open fields, burning fires to keep warm.
Siranush Sargsyan: refugees were told planes would fly them to Yerevan, but when none showed up they were left to camp in open fields.
In all of Stepanakert there are only two to three outlets with electric power due to the widespread power cuts imposed by Azerbaijan in April. People have been queuing for hours and asking even the Red Cross to charge their phones as they try to find their relatives. Internet or phone connection is also sporadic.
Siranush Sargsyan: with no power, people queue up for hours to charge their phones in the few places that still have electricity.
Residential areas shelled, civilians killed
While the Azerbaijani authorities said from the outset that they were only targeting military positions, numerous verified reports and video from the region have already confirmed shooting in residential areas and the shelling of towns and villages.
“The situation in the regions is even more dire. Entire towns and villages find themselves encircled by Azerbaijani forces, effectively cutting off access to vital necessities such as food, medicine and electricity. There is a growing number of individuals who are wounded, missing or deceased. This includes both fallen soldiers and civilian casualties,” RCDS reports.
Anna, a 38-year-old mother of three from Chapar village, managed to flee her house minutes before it was hit by a shell during the start of Azerbaijan's military attack on September 19, narrowly escaping with her life.
“Five minutes after we fled, our house was hit,” she told Siranush Sargsyan, a freelance journalist in the region, who appears to be the only reporter inside the enclave at the moment. “If I were still there with my kids, I can’t imagine what would have happened,” she related in tears. “My kids would be dead now.”
Obscuring the information coming out of Nagorno-Karabakh, known as Artsakh by the locals, is the visceral hatred of the two peoples that have been in conflict for almost three decades. All the reporting by either side tends to be biased, emphasising the respective narratives, and so all reporting by nationals on either side must be treated with caution.
Anna told Sargsyan that she has lost two houses and appealed to the international community to set up a humanitarian corridor so she and her family could leave Nagorno-Karabakh in safety.
Sargsyan posted several videos from the shelters under the city showing children in near darkness drawing pictures with crayons in the bunkers sheltering from the rockets.
“Some glimpses into what’s happening in the shelters of Stepanakert. Thousands of people who fled from neighbouring towns/villages because of Azerbaijan’s bombardment are now in crowded shelters, with no basic accommodations, no lights, no food, no medicine… and no homes,” Sargsyan said in a tweet.
Another mother interviewed by Sargsyan in Stepanakert told a very similar story. However, she was still in her house with her four children when it was struck by a shell. She managed to get out with three of her children, but the fourth one is still missing.
Another video, shot by Sargsyan on the streets of Stepanakert, known as Khankendi by Azerbaijan, showed residential buildings and cars in front of them destroyed by shell fire, despite the claims by the Azerbaijani authorities they were not targeting residential areas.
“Residential areas were targeted from the first shot, not just military [objectives] and not only in Stepanakert but also villagers,” Sargsyan wrote for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) “After nine months of blockade [by Azerbaijan], people are prostrated…. Yesterday [September 18] we were struggling to find bread, a single piece of bread…today we are struggling just to live, to survive…”
One confirmed victim of the onslaught has been Aznavour Saghyan, the mayor of Martuni, in Nagorno-Karabakh. Aznavour’s name was chosen in honour of French singer Charles Aznavour, who was born in Armenia. Saghyan was killed during the September 19 attack by Azerbaijani forces, the Aznavour foundation reported.
“The shootings have ceased in the city, but people's anxiety persists. Lack of electricity and limited communication. Many remain in limbo, anxiously awaiting news from their relatives. Stepanakert, Siege, War,” tweeted Sargsyan.
There are more extreme reports of rapes, executions and beheadings that cannot be verified. However, during the 2020 44-day war, which Armenia lost, there were numerous verified reports of killings, summer executions, beheadings and worse. In one shocking video, seen by bne IntelliNews, Azeri soldiers filmed a dead female Armenian soldier who had been stripped naked, dismembered and her corpse mutilated. Reports of atrocities in 2020 were later corroborated by Amnesty International.
In one disturbing, but unverified, report, a group of Russian peacekeepers were killed by Azeri forces after they came across a village where the locals had been killed and tortured by the invading forces.
The Foreign Minister of Azerbaijan, Jeyhun Bayramov, met his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on September 22 and started with an apology for the death of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh, who were killed by Azeri soldiers two days earlier, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on her Telegram channel.
However, since then reports have emerged that Russia's deputy peacekeeping chief Ivan Kovgan and his convoy were liquidated after they had witnessed a massacre in the villages of Chankatakh. The peacekeepers reached the scene and photographed the raped and mutilated bodies, including those of children, reports on Telegram claimed.
“Several sources report that the Russian peacekeepers were shot not by mistake, but deliberately in order to conceal the war crimes that the peacekeepers witnessed,” Telegram reports, in claims that cannot be verified. Chankatakh is one of several villages that were captured by Azeri troops on the first day of fighting on September 19. According to the reports, the Azeri soldiers began to move house to house, shooting civilians, raping women and abusing the corpses.
After reaching the village, the Russian peacekeepers began documenting the scene on phones, until confronted by Azeri forces that demanded the Russians give up their phones and leave. Refusing to do so, the Russians were eventually allowed to leave with their phones after the Azeris reportedly talked to their commanders in Baku. However, the Russian peacekeeper’s UAZ cars were then ambushed by a second Azeri unit on the road and were shot at close range. According to the Telegram reports, the orders came from Baku and were intended to ensure no evidence of atrocities reached the Russian authorities or the outside world.
Many of the refugees fleeing the enclave have made for the Russian peacekeeper’s camps for refuge. According to some reports, at least 5,000 refugees are already in the camps, with more arriving every hour.
However, they are not safe even there. The Russian base in Nagorno-Karabakh was hit by forces of Azerbaijan on September 22, according to reports and video posted online – the second incident of its kind, according to reports. A few days earlier a car carrying Russian soldiers was hit, killing several of them.
"A total of 810 civilians, including 436 children, still remain at the positions of the Russian peacekeeping contingent," the ministry said in a daily bulletin on September 22. "They are provided with lodging, food and medical aid," the document says.
Flight from Nagorno-Karabakh
Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh are highly likely to flee their homes, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said in an address to the nation at the weekend.
"The Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh continue to face the danger of ethnic cleansing. In recent days humanitarian supplies have arrived in Nagorno-Karabakh, but this does not change the situation. Unless genuine conditions are created for Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians to live in their homes, along with effective protection mechanisms against ethnic cleansing, the likelihood is growing that Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians will see exile from their homeland as the only way out," Pashinyan said, reported Tass on September 24.
Azerbaijan has said that the operation was aimed at terrorist units in the enclave but there is little evidence to support the claim there are any terrorists operating in Nagorno-Karabakh, even if the population is overwhelmingly Muslim.
Long-time observers fear the goal of the operation is for Azerbaijan to retake sovereign control of the enclave, which has been internationally recognised as belonging to Azerbaijan, as it was part of the Soviet-era Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic at the time of the fall of the Soviet Union.
Given the long history of violence perpetrated by Azerbaijan on Armenian civilians, many residents will be afraid to stay if Azerbaijan takes over, fearing the very real possibility of ethnic cleansing.
"Our people do not want to live as part of Azerbaijan. 99.9% prefer to leave our historic lands," David Babayan, an adviser to Samvel Shahramanyan, the president of the self-styled Republic of Artsakh, told Reuters on September 24. But Babayan said it was unclear when the population would move down the Lachin corridor which links the territory to Armenia.
The Armenian leaders of Karabakh said in a statement that all those made homeless by the Azerbaijani military operation and wanting to leave would be escorted to Armenia by Russian peacekeepers.
In an attempt to calm fears, and also playing to the international community in the new sanction-happy world, as Baku is also concerned about keeping its international reputation intact, the Azeri foreign ministry said in a statement: "Azerbaijan’s relevant agencies fully control the situation in the region, Armenian citizens are being provided with humanitarian assistance, requests are not ignored.”
Armenia is ready to accommodate Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh if that becomes necessary, Pashinyan said in an address to the nation. "If these efforts don’t bring any concrete results, our government will with love host our brothers and sisters from Nagorno-Karabakh," he said adding space for 40,000 people from Karabakh had been prepared in Armenia.
The NK conundrum was originally created by Stalin. After the USSR took control of the region, Stalin made a point of including ethnic enclaves in each of the southern republics in order to prevent them ever building up any sort of national identity within the Soviet Union. It was a policy that has had severe consequences to this day and has been the source of regular inter-ethnic clashes and of inter-ethnical killings.
While Nagorno-Karabakh has remained technically Azeri, it has sought autonomy since it split off from Azerbaijan in the first war in the 1990s and has never recognised Baku’s authority. Some of the local forces fighting the Azeri troops are the local self-defence force. Yerevan claims it has no troops in Nagorno-Karabakh at all.
While Baku says the estimated 125,000 Armenians that live in the region are welcome to stay, observers expect that all those that can leave will do so, afraid of ethnic cleansing that might follow Azerbaijan full takeover of the region.
Currently the residents are trapped in the enclave. The RCDS reports that tens of thousands of civilians have unsuccessfully attempted to evacuate to neighbouring Armenia and access to the only humanitarian corridor has been blocked. According to the most recent reports, some relief trucks from the Red Cross have managed to enter the region in the last day, but the bulk of the people remain trapped. Currently, the bulk of humanitarian aid arriving in the region is being provided by Russian peacekeepers, according to Felix Light, a Reuters reporter on the border.
The Armenian authorities in the region said late on September 23 that about 150 tonnes of humanitarian cargo from Russia and another 65 tonnes of flour shipped by the International Committee of the Red Cross had arrived in the region. Around 20 ambulances are due to evacuate some of the wounded from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, a humanitarian source who spoke on condition of anonymity told Reuters.
"Given the scale of humanitarian needs, we are increasing our presence there with specialised personnel in health, forensics, protection, and weapons contamination," the ICRC said in a statement.
Azerbaijani armed forces have shelled and advanced into almost every civilian-populated village and town in Nagorno-Karabakh, including the capital Stepanakert, Martuni, Askeran, Martakert and Taghard, RCDS reports.
The Amaras Monastery, the culturally significant 4th-century monastery that was home to the first school for the teaching of the Armenian alphabet, where the grandson of the founder of the Armenian Apostolic Church is buried, has also been occupied by the Azerbaijani forces, RCDS reports.
As bne IntelliNews has reported, the clash has drawn little support from the international community. Several countries have condemned the anti-terrorist operation, but no action has been taken. The EU in particular has been compromised by a large gas deal signed with Azerbaijan last year between President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who called Azerbaijan a “reliable partner” during her trip to Baku to sign the deal, completely ignoring Baku’s well documented abuse of human rights and the dictatorial nature of Aliyev’s rule.