Another war over
Father Hovhannes, the priest at the ancient monastery of Dadivank, is determined to stay put ‘whatever happens’.
He spoke to New Internationalist as Kalbajar, the area surrounding the 9th-century monastery, was about to pass into Azerbaijan’s control. This handover was decided by the peace agreement of 10 November 2020, which ended a bloody 44-day conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh in the South Caucasus.
Thousands of Armenians gathered to pay their respects at Dadivank, which stands above the road between Yerevan, the Armenian capital, and Stepanakert, the main city in the disputed area.
The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh can be traced to the breakup of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, when the majority ethnic Armenian area ended up as part of Azerbaijan. Tensions first grew to a full-scale war in 1992 and have rumbled on ever since.
The latest eruption of conflict in September claimed the lives of an estimated 4,000 people, including civilians from both sides. Armenia saw greater losses as shelling and drone attacks from Azerbaijan, backed by Turkey, bombarded its soldiers in trenches. In the ensuing peace deal, which includes the deployment of Russian peacekeepers, Armenia has lost much of the territory that it captured in the 1990s war.
In the days that followed the peace agreement, the road leading from Stepanakert to Armenia was in chaos. Armenians piled into cars and trucks full of belongings and headed out of Nagorno-Karabakh; some set fire to their own houses, determined not to leave them to Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, some of the Azerbaijanis who were expelled from their lands in the 1990s were preparing to return.
The reality of what the ceasefire means for many Armenians is still emerging. The Human Rights Ombudsman in Stepanakert estimates that around 100,000 Armenians have lost their homes.
In the outskirts of Yerevan, I met Stella Vardanyan, a 68-year-old piano teacher who fled the fighting with nothing but her official papers and a bag of clothes. ‘In the first war our house was damaged. This time it was totally destroyed,’ she said. With her village of Hadrut now in Azeri territory, Stella is one of thousands needing to be rehoused but her husband disappeared during the evacuation and shelter is the last thing on her mind. ‘We only worry for our loved ones,’ she says.
Even inhabitants of Stepanakert, which remains under Armenian control, are uncertain about the future. Sushi, the town whose fall to Azerbaijan precipitated the peace deal, sits in clear view in the hills above the city. It was from there that Azerbaijan flattened huge parts of Stepanakert in the last war.
‘We are scared that we will not be safe, that we will be surrounded,’ says Diana, a physiotherapist who works at a rehabilitation centre in Stepanakert. The fighting is over for now, but Nagorno-Karabakh’s long and painful process of rehabilitation continues.