Hanging in the air… those who left their homes in Artsakh as a result of the 2020 Artsakh War use this simple phrase to describe themselves. Many of their villages are now under the control of the other side; some of their houses have been destroyed, while others have chosen not to return to their homes, considering the prospect of living just a few meters away from the enemy to be an unacceptable threat. Their fate remains “hanging in the air” – without any specific status, or any vision for the future.
Considering that the offensive launched on September 27, 2020 included targeted strikes not just along the Line of Contact but also far behind it (civilian settlements 90-100 km from the frontline were also hit – at least 50 civilians, including a child, were killed during the war, and 163 were injured, including nine children), women, children and the elderly were evacuated from Artsakh in huge numbers. On October 24, the Office of the Human Rights Defender in Artsakh gave a preliminary estimate that around 90,000 residents of Artsakh (approximately 60 percent of the population) had left their homes as a result of the deliberate and indiscriminate attacks by Azerbaijan and the constant threat of their continuation, moving to other locations in Artsakh or the Republic of Armenia.
The day after the agreement to end military operations was signed, the President of the Republic of Artsakh, Arayik Harutyunyan, made a plea to the people of Artsakh to return to their homes. Over the period of a month, sources have cited the return of over 50,000 citizens of Artsakh.
However, according to that very same agreement, the Azerbaijani side would retain control not just of the 5+2 territories that had been the subject of negotiations so far—Akna (Agdam), Varanda (Fizuli), Mekhakavan (Jabrayil), Kovsakan (Zangelan), Sanasar (Qubatlu), Karvachar (Kelbajar), Berdzor (Lachin)—but even some parts of what used to be the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) – the Hadrut region, the city of Shushi and several dozen other communities that had been occupied by the other side during this war.
According to open-source data, these communities were home to more than 30,000 citizens.
Returning Home… But Still Homeless
Ayda Harutyunyan’s large family is from Shushi. This mother of 11 children aged 12-28 left the city with her younger children and two daughters-in-law on the very first day of the war.
“My eldest son is a contracted military serviceman. He called early in the morning and said that the situation is tense. The President [of Artsakh] then issued the order for military mobilization – my husband and two other sons signed up as volunteers. I took my younger children and daughters-in-law and we left Shushi for Armenia. We did not take anything with us; all we had were the clothes on our backs,” said Harutyunyan. The family first stayed in the village of Aygezard in the Ararat region, where they were provided with a home as well as supported with clothing and food. But when the President asked citizens to return, they left that home and headed for Artsakh.
“But it turned out that the President’s call was not for the residents of Shushi. We were unable to find a home in Stepanakert, so I was forced to return to Armenia, however, we had already lost the home that had been provided to us here. We’re staying at my sister’s place now, in the Verin Dvin community of the Ararat region,” said Harutyunyan, adding that her two sons and their wives were in Stepanakert now, continuing the search for a place to stay. “If we get Shushi back, I don’t doubt for a minute that I would go back. But even if it’s not Shushi, I’m willing to live somewhere else. My children have spent all their lives in Artsakh. But everything is so uncertain now. We don’t know whether to seek our fortune here or there – we don’t know what to do.”
Refugees… But Not “Refugees”
Armenia’s Law on Refugees and Asylum—based on the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, which Armenian adopted in 1993—provides a broad range of opportunities to refugees and protects their rights. However, the citizens of Artsakh are neither “refugees” in Armenia, nor “asylum seekers”: they have no legally-defined status.
According to Nelli Davtyan, the public relations officer for the Migration Service at the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Infrastructure, the process for seeking refugee status involves two different countries.
“This means that the citizens of one country must appeal to the authorities of another country to provide refugee status. This provision of refugee status is considered a type of international protection and the issue is exclusively within the domain of human rights,” said Davtyan, noting that the people of Artsakh are considered citizens of the Republic of Armenia and, in this case, a situation has occurred where citizens of a country were seeking some kind of status from the authorities of their own state. “The Convention states that individuals cannot seek asylum in a country that provides all its citizens with equal rights. So, in our case, the Republic of Armenia cannot provide the people of Artsakh with refugee status. We called them ‘spontaneous arrivals’ given the fact that these people had left their homes for the short term and were forced to move to the Republic of Armenia, with the subtext being that they would return once the war ended. However, the circumstances that unfolded showed us that this was a displacement and the way events developed allowed us also to fully use that term. ‘Displaced individuals’ constitute an internationally recognized concept, but Armenian legislation neither defines nor regulates it.”
Davtyan said that the concept of displacement was relevant to Armenia to the extent of its use by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, in the same way as, for example, the concept of a “refugee-like situation.” “Once again, we don’t have a legal basis for the concept of a ‘refugee-like situation,’ but we used that definition for our compatriots that moved from Syria to Armenia, thanks to which the UNHCR was able to implement several programs over the years in the country,” Davtyan explained. However, the status of a ‘refugee-like situation’ has also not been applied in the case of the people of Artsakh.
The situation is further complicated if anyone from Artsakh decides to seek their fate in a third country – that would also lead to a rejection.
“Asylum applications to third states will be rejected because they are considered citizens of the Republic of Armenia, and this particular situation has been defined in a way that suggests that there is no war in the Republic of Armenia and there has not been one. It seems paradoxical, and these people seem to be well within the concepts defined for refugees,” Davtyan said.
The first Human Rights Defender of the Republic of Armenia and now Chairperson of the NGO Against the Violation of Law, Larisa Alaverdyan, was of the conviction that these people had to be given a status of some kind. “People that have been forced to leave their places of permanent residence must definitely be provided with status,” Alaverdyan said. “Nothing innovative needs to be done here; there should simply be a clarifying statement that these people qualify for that status, and it should be provided to them.”
Alaverdyan noted that the issue required a delicate approach and could also be solved by granting them dual citizenship.
“We should clarify whether we consider the residents of Artsakh to be citizens of Artsakh and, if needed, we can grant them Armenian citizenship as a second one. There are no real dangers here about how their future will later be managed, that is a completely separate issue. It is wrong to mix up legislative regulation with human rights issues,” Alaverdyan stated.
Eleonora Asatryan, the coordinator of the Refugees and International Law civil society network, was concerned that this would be a repetition of the story of those who managed to escape the pogroms in Azerbaijan in 1988. While Azerbaijan kept using the issue of the right to return of refugees as a trump card and this key issue has now been resolved through one of the points of the agreement that ended this war, the question of Armenian refugees has remained unaddressed.
“‘Refugee’ is not just a word, it is a term in international law that has its own definition. With all the international obligations that Armenia has taken on, it must secure human rights and these people, based on international law, have the right to return to their places of previous residence or to receive the corresponding compensation for the loss of their homeland,” said Asatryan, adding that the Azerbaijani side was implementing a massive repatriation program that it had developed over the years with the involvement of all the international organizations present in the country, including the use of the diplomatic bodies registered there.
Point 7 of the agreement signed on November 9 states that “Internally displaced persons and refugees shall return to the territories of Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent areas under the control of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees.”
“But nobody is talking about the fact that there are more than 500,000 Armenian refugees. What happened to the Armenians of Azerbaijan is now, unfortunately, recurring and many of the people that left their homes are actually being subjected to this for a second time. And people now face uncertainty, they don’t know where they will end up living, or the country whose citizens they will end up being,” said Asatryan.
Uprooted Communities… Of Uprooted Communities
The Golden Palace hotel in the city of Tsaghkadzor in Armenia’s Kotayk region, one of the best tourism locations in Armenia, used to be a luxurious five-star establishment until its owner handed over the facilities to the government in 2018, when he was facing criminal charges. It now hosts families that have arrived from Artsakh.
Although it offers quite comfortable living conditions, it is located around 4 km from the main road and there is no transportation to the city. As a result, the school-aged children that stay there are virtually deprived of their right to an education.
“My son is in second grade and he hasn’t been going to school since last year. First, it was the coronavirus, then the war, and now we’re here on top of this hill where we don’t even have an Internet connection. I have been teaching him the alphabet myself, can you imagine that?” said Ruzanna Petrosyan, a 29-year-old mother of four.
Ruzanna’s parents are from the Getashen region, whose Armenians were forced to leave in 1991. They barely managed to escape Azerbaijani troops and arrived in Artsakh, where they settled in the Aknabert community. After getting married, Ruzanna lived for nine years in Karvachar, where her husband’s family had moved since the early 2000s, as part of the resettlement program.
“My parents were refugees and I was always filled with terror when I heard their stories. But I could never imagine that I would have to walk that same path with my family. On September 27, my children left the house and I was rushing to work when we saw a drone flying right in our direction. Our guys shot it down. But my children were so scared that it is causing them sleepless nights even now. They jump up in fear at night,” said Ruzanna, adding that they would probably stay at the hotel till spring, but they did not know what they would do after that.
Ruzanna’s husband is a contracted military serviceman, but the positions that he was defending have now been handed over to the other side. It is still not clear where he will be based next.
“The people from Stepanakert have returned, but where can we go? We had built so much over all these years, but we had to leave it all behind, even the furniture,” Ruzanna said. “Now, we’re moving from one hotel to the other. We have asked for refugee status, but it is not clear what will happen. We have to just sit and wait in this uncertainty.”
Even after more than a month has passed since the signing of the agreement, there is still a lot of uncertainty. The borders are still being demarcated, which has even resulted in clashes between the two sides. The confirmation of borders in general is the most critical issue when it comes to the security of Artsakh as well as Armenia. The borders are much closer now and settlements on either side are in proximity, which has caused concern among many people. The residents of many communities refuse to live right next to the enemy.
Ethnologist Hranush Kharatyan, who has worked actively with citizens that abandoned their homes both during the first Karabakh War as well as this second one, considered these concerns to be absolutely normal.
“This was a terrible war. Besides that, people left their homes knowing that the Azerbaijanis had been seeped in hate toward the Armenians for a long time, through the official policy of their state and its various manifestations,” Kharatyan explained. “Yes, they were terrified that there would be ethnically-charged acts and Armenians would be targeted with violence, or abducted. In this sense, they are refugees for sure, and we must have serious discussions regarding their problems from both a legal and moral point of view.”
Kharatyan also pointed out that many of the people that abandoned their homes as a result of the signed agreement were being displaced for a second time.
“Nor Seysulan, Nor Maragha, Nor Manashid, Nor Getashen – there are several dozen villages like these that consist of several kinds of refugees. They were refugees from back in the USSR era, when Operation Ring was conducted; they were refugees of the first Karabakh War. It is very difficult to start a life in a new location all the time, to keep living, when many families have also lost loved ones in this period. These people have been hit several times – the war, the decisions that were made, the painful solutions that have been accepted. These are people that have borne the burden of the war and postwar period for 30 years, and now it seems like there is no program in place for this population. The people I’ve seen are lost in uncertainty, and they face many problems.”
Undeniable Rights… Denied
“In mid-October, residents in several southern communities of the Kashatagh region were given just 40 minutes to leave their homes. They were told that they were leaving for just one day and would then be brought back. So people walked out with nothing, but they ended up leaving forever. And people that had everything—big farms, a large number of livestock—are now homeless,” said Arus Galstyan, a 32-year-old resident of the city of Berdzor in the Kashatagh region, trembling with anger at the injustice of it all.
The Government of Armenia has attempted to support the people of Artsakh that have lost everything, and issued a decision to provide a one-time payment of 300,000 AMD to each citizen from more than 100 settlements in the Kashatagh, Martakert, Shahumyan, Hadrut, Shushi, Askeran and Martuni regions.
Through a decision made earlier, a payment will also be made in the sum of the minimum monthly wage (68,000 AMD) to each registered citizen of Artsakh that was displaced by the war and forced to move to Armenia. The decree stated that, if the citizen did not have any property (including partial) rights in the Republic of Armenia, additional support would be provided in the sum of 15,000 AMD.
However, the residents of Berdzor cannot avail of that 300,000 AMD payment because, for the time being, the city will probably remain under the control of the Armenian side. However, the residents have said that the Azerbaijani military already has access to the city, and the residents’ security is not guaranteed.
“Berdzor is not within Azerbaijani-controlled territory, so we have not been offered that government support. That money only goes to people whose settlements are now under Azerbaijani control. The people of Berdzor have not even been given status of any kind – they say that nobody asked us to leave in the first place. But we were forced to leave the city,” says Galstyan, noting that there were no guarantees of safety in her native city. “The city of Berdzor gets its drinking water from the Karegah community [to its north], which is now on the Azerbaijani side. So then a decision was taken to supply the water from the Nerkin Sus pump, but that also ended up on their side. How can we be sure that we won’t be poisoned? Even now, they are abducting people on the road and taking them prisoner. How can we be sure that they won’t sneak up through the valleys and hurt someone in their own homes? Naturally, we’re scared. We don’t want life here to be like a suicide mission.”
Galstyan’s family was resettled in the Kashatagh region; they had been living there since the 2000s. On January 1, they were due to receive a new house in Berdzor, and they had bought everything they needed for their new home. A new year, new home and fresh hopes – it was all irreversibly shattered and, instead of chasing new dreams, they are now forced to leave their beloved city.
“A new kind of Armenian community was taking shape in Berdzor – Armenians that had gathered here from all corners of the world were bringing a new flavor to the place. There were intellectuals in the city, but everyone has been on the receiving end of this condescending treatment. This is very demeaning, our dignity has suffered, and we have been left hanging in the air,” said Galstyan.
Article 3 of the Constitution of both the Republic of Armenia and that of Artsakh say the following:
“The human being shall be the highest value. The inalienable dignity of the human being shall constitute the integral basis of his or her rights and freedoms.
“The respect for and protection of the basic rights and freedoms of the human being and the citizen shall be the duty of the public power.
“The public power shall be restricted by the basic rights and freedoms of the human being and the citizen as a directly applicable law.”
But for Galstyan and her neighbors… these are just words on a page.