“Hello… I hear you, brother, tsavet tanem [let me take your pain]. We are all fine. My phone’s battery is completely drained… It’s my brother. He lives in Russia; he’s disabled,” says Gayane Mangasaryan, 56, as she flips the jingalov hats [Armenian flatbread stuffed with herbs] and attempts to talk to her brother once more. “He’s also from Garnakar. His son came and took him to Russia. Who will take care of him here? Hello… no, it’s dead…”
Mangasaryan, like all displaced Artsakh residents, arrived in Armenia with her family in September. They registered and eventually settled in Yeghvard. She and her in-laws rent a house where they live with their children and grandchildren.
“Should we live with the Turks?” she asks. “We lived in Baku for 30 years, and you have seen the life we have lived. How can we live with Turks after all this? Or will they once again say that the Russians will provide us with everything? How can I raise children there?”
When Azerbaijan launched a large-scale attack on Artsakh on September 19, resulting in complete Azerbaijani control over Artsakh, the capital, Stepanakert, was also bombarded. In the afternoon, powerful explosions reverberated throughout the city triggering sirens. Women and children in apartment buildings fled in terror to the basements, where they remained until it became clear that they had “no right” to live in basements either until Artsakh was completely depopulated of Armenians.
Mangasaryan says that her house is located in the suburbs of Stepanakert. Upon hearing the sound of shelling, she ran out of the house in a state of confusion and began searching for her son.
“Our neighbor had a truck. When he saw me, he said, ‘Where are you going, Ms. Gayane? Let the children climb onto the back of the truck, and we can go to the koltsevoi [Freedom Square in Stepanakert],’” Mangasaryan recalled and told the neighbor, “I won’t go until I find my son.”
Mangasaryan urged her daughter-in-law to get into the truck while she continued to look for her son.
“You can’t imagine how they were shooting… There were two young men there. They looked at me and said, ‘Madam, don’t you see what’s happening? Where are you going?’ I told them that I was looking for my son. Then my son came, weapon in hand, and also urged me to go to the koltsevoi. But he was going back. He said, ‘Mom, should we let Turks enter our home?’” recalls Mangasaryan. Although the police were assuring them that there was an agreement on a ceasefire, she recounts that terrible news had already spread. People were talking among themselves about how they would be massacred if they didn’t leave.
The following morning, Mangasaryan baked some lavash, boiled some of the chickens she kept, and set out on the road.
“My son released the rabbits, saying that we would not slaughter them. We took the chickens –– some cooked and some raw, knowing that we no longer have a home or a place to stay, but that at least we could make a fire somewhere along the journey, and the kids wouldn’t go hungry. However, we did not eat the chickens as they had gone bad, so we had to throw them away and went hungry,” recounts Mangasaryan, weeping as she recalls the difficulties of the three-day journey. “They gave us flour to bake bread in Lisagor. Nobody can endure what we suffered, nobody…”
This was not her first deportation. Mangasaryan is originally from the village of Garnakar in Martakert region, but had lived in Baku for almost 30 years. After the Sumgait pogroms, she and her family temporarily relocated to Russia before returning to Baku.
“Less than ten days after our return, the bloodshed started in Baku,” she says. “Russian tanks stood in the streets, supposedly to protect Armenian families. But still, one by one, we began to leave. However, we didn’t suffer as much because we knew it wasn’t our land. But Stepanakert…. how can we be forced out of our homes?”
Mangasaryan, like all citizens of Artsakh, has no idea what will happen next: “Thinking about what comes ‘afterwards’ drives me insane. Do you think I can’t go to Russia? My brothers have been living there for 30 years, but at least here it’s our people, our homeland.”
Until that “afterwards”, Mangasaryan, together with her daughter-in-law’s mother, bakes the famed Artsakh dish, jingyalov hats, in an attempt to help support the family.
However, the business started by the two in-laws is not going smoothly. They cannot always find the greens characteristic of this dish and the ones that are available are expensive. So far, sales have not been successful.
“We received orders a few times and that’s it. Many people don’t even understand what it is. They sometimes make fun of it,” says Mangasaryan, flipping the bread and reminiscing about her house. “Our house was located near the military barracks. During the 44-day war, we endured a hail of artillery falling on us, damaging the roof. We repaired everything, but now we find ourselves sitting in someone else’s house, waiting for help from others, like beggars. Is this the kind of house we used to live in? Who would have thought that we would see this day? I wish I could make at least one trip back home, just to see my house once more.”
Mangasaryan’s grandchildren are also struggling to adjust to their new home. They attend school in Yeghvard, and while they claim everything is fine and they’ve adjusted and made new friends, their mother, Naira Mangasaryan, 32, divulges some “secrets”.
“Of course, they miss their home. They miss their toys, clothes and school. They miss their teacher and even the days of the blockade. They long for potatoes grilled on the stove. They want pizza but we don’t have an oven or the necessary equipment.”
Naira emphasizes the challenges of integrating children into their new environment. She mentions that communication can be difficult because locals sometimes have trouble understanding the Artsakh dialect, and vice versa.
Mangasaryan says that she is also facing difficulties finding a job. Previously, she worked as a nurse in Stepanakert, but despite applying to various jobs, she has only received offers as a cleaner.
“Reluctantly, I agreed to the position of a cleaner,” she says. “But they didn’t even call me back for that. I want to do something, at least for the sake of the kids.”
These two families-in-law are faced with the same social and economic difficulties as other displaced people. Grandmothers Lucia and Asya, both 83 years old, are the pillars of these two families.
“We have grown old and have become a burden to our families. It’s really difficult for us,” says Lucia Barseghyan, crying as she recalls her once large and comfortable home. “My husband died three years ago. I used to live alone in a three-room apartment, but now all ten of us have come and gathered here, living under one roof.”
“We have left our vegetable garden, our house, and our livelihood,” Asya Mangasaryan says, continuing her in-law’s thoughts. “My son never let us go hungry, but during the blockade, we would stand in line for bread all night and return home empty-handed in the morning. But I still thank God: my sons were also queuing at the fuel depot. They came back and… afterwards we heard…”
The elderly woman regretfully notes that she received far more attentive care in Stepanakert, even in medical institutions, compared to Yeghvard. When she visited the doctor, she was advised to go to Yerevan. In general, she notices that they are constantly told to go to Yerevan for everything. Although Yeghvard is only around 20 kilometers away from Armenia’s capital, this places an additional burden on the family, especially since going to Yerevan often proves to be futile.
Gayane Mangasaryan’s husband, Alyosha, continues to list the injustices he witnesses, including the fact that some families have received no assistance while others are consistently supported.
“There are numerous issues,” he says. “Financial assistance is sometimes provided, but other times it is not. And if you are unable to pay rent, the landlord will say, ‘Leave. Goodbye’. Should I prioritize paying rent, buying winter clothes for my grandchildren, or taking care of my own health?”
Mangasaryan shows the cement floor, the inadequate bathroom, and the bicycle brought from Stepanakert that has already been gnawed at by rats here.
Although he is dissatisfied with life in Yeghvard, he cannot imagine returning to Artsakh.
“You can put a machine gun to my heart –– all the same, I still won’t return,” says Mangasaryan, expressing his lack of trust in any safety guarantees. “Who could have imagined that all of Karabakh would leave everything like that and depart? I know what it’s like to be a refugee. I lived in Baku for 30 years. At the end, I came to Stepanakert in my zhiguli. It’s the same now: I built a life in Stepanakert for 34 years, then I got into a small car and came to Yeghvard.”
The residents of Artsakh hold different opinions about returning to their homes. While everyone wants to go back, they don’t believe it is a realistic possibility. Thousands of Artsakh citizens have already left Armenia, as has been reported. They long to return, but residents of Stepanakert do not want to go back to “Khankendi”, Shushi residents don’t want to return to “Shusha”, and Martakert residents don’t want to go back to “Aghdara”. People, desperate, sometimes blame their own authorities, other times the Armenian authorities, and occasionally the Russians. As for the Azerbaijanis, the situation is clear. They enter the homes of Stepanakert inhabitants and upload videos of the abandoned city on social media from the balconies, claiming that the doors are sealed and that no one can enter. “We are not vandals like you,” they remark. And the “vandals” watch these videos, recognize their streets and homes, see the silent church, and can only put a sad emoji on Facebook.
We want our “blockade”, many Artsakh residents say. We are at home in Armenia, and yet we are not.
Photos by Marut Vanyan