The Palace of Culture in Goris is the first port of call for many refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh. A reception camp has been hastily set up in the small town 15 kilometers from the border with Azerbaijan. The arrivals are registered at the Palace of Culture, given medical treatment if necessary and then distributed further. At night the foyer transforms into a huge dormitory.
There is no less hustle and bustle in front of the building. A bus collects refugees heading to eastern Armenia. Next to them, a family drives off in their own car. The old gray Toyota is packed right up to the rear window. The family put a wall unit on the roof rack and then tied up their belongings on top of it so that they could be packed into bags. On this sunny autumn day, thousands of such loads are on the steep serpentines of the Armenian South Caucasus.
Meanwhile, volunteers offer water and warm food in front of the tents set up by various aid organizations. In one place, old clothes are lying haphazardly scattered on the floor. Margarita, an older woman, is choosing something for her grandchildren. "I'm terribly embarrassed. I don't dig around in things," she says. But they would have had to leave everything behind in their hasty escape. Margarita arrived with her mother, her daughter and her husband as well as seven grandchildren after a strenuous journey lasting several days.
Criticism of Armenia's Prime Minister Pashinyan
“I had to flee for the second time,” says the 60-year-old. When Azerbaijan was able to partially retake Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 after fierce fighting, she had to leave her first house. Now that Baku has violently re-incorporated the entire region, Margarita's family has become homeless for the second time. "We were sold out," she said, angry at Armenia's leadership around Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. Instead of fighting back, they gave up without a fight. Protests in Yerevan show that many Armenians think this way too.
Margarita, who once worked as a mining chemist, fought herself in the 1990s. At that time, the region, which is located in Azerbaijan but is predominantly inhabited by Armenians, broke away from Baku in a bloody civil war. But now she sees no chance of returning to her homeland. “I just hope my grandchildren find their way here,” she says. Ten-year-old Tigran next to her is a good chess player, she says proudly. “Just like its namesake.” The Armenian-born Tigran Petrosyan was the world chess champion in the 1960s.
Chess is also Geborg’s passion. The 28-year-old was a physics and chess teacher in Gerger. “My grandfather’s grandfather lived there,” he says. His father was killed in the war in 2020. So now he has loaded up his mother, his wife, his sister and his underage brother and is on the way to an uncertain future. He wanted to go to Masis, a city on the Armenian side of the Turkish Mount Ararat. At least they already have an apartment there. The rest has to be found.
No trust in Azerbaijan
Why didn't he stay when Baku had promised security to the Karabakh Armenians? Because he doesn't believe in the promises. “This has been happening for more than 100 years, since the massacre of 1915,” says Geworg, recalling the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire, in which up to 1.5 million people died. Turkey, whose President Tayyip Recep Erdogan repeatedly flirts with the resurrection of the Ottoman Empire, is firmly on the side of the Turkic-speaking Azerbaijanis in the conflict between Baku and Yerevan.
The history between Armenians and Azerbaijanis is also full of blood. With pogroms and mutual expulsion. The fact that Baku began storming Nagorno-Karabakh two weeks ago despite the ceasefire, after cutting the region off from the outside world for months and thus provoking a humanitarian catastrophe, also makes the Armenians doubt Baku's promises. And so Gevorg's family struggled for four days through the traffic jam from Nagorno-Karabakh and through the Lachin corridor to Armenia. In the small town of Vayk, where another reception camp was set up, they stocked up on water and food for their onward journey.
100,000 people fled Nagorno-Karabakh within just a few days. Officially, the total population was given as 120,000 a few years ago, but the number has been steadily declining.
Between suitcases and plastic bags on the street
Vayk, about 140 kilometers from the capital Yerevan, is visibly struggling to cope with the large number of refugees than Goris. The small town, which normally only has 5,000 inhabitants, is overwhelmed by the crowds. Many of those seeking help sit on the street between their suitcases and plastic bags. Edward, a 47-year-old worker, points to his swollen legs. "They are as worn out as old tires," he says after the long bus ride from Nagorno-Karabakh's capital, Stepanakert.
Pashinyan has promised the refugees aid of $250 per month for the next six months. But as in Goris, in Vayk it is mainly volunteers who are working to alleviate the distress. About half a dozen food tents have been set up. “Yesterday there were 2,000 people in our tent alone, 600 of them children,” says Karan. With other volunteers from a church aid organization, he gives out sandwiches, vegetables and also warm lunches. Cotton candy is made for the children to lighten the mood a little. "Almost all of the arrivals are depressed and sad. Most of them don't have the strength to be angry," says the 47-year-old.
"We lost everything"
Schasmin can only confirm this impression. “I feel an emptiness and deep regret,” says the 68-year-old. "We have lost everything." She was born in Baku, but had to flee there as an Armenian in 1988 due to ethnic unrest - with three small daughters. "Two of my daughters are now living under bombs in Kharkiv, Ukraine," while she, her husband and their third daughter in Stepanakert have now lost their home for the second time.
She sat on the street for three days, waiting for the bus that would take the family out of the city. She was now offered a place to stay in a remote village. But Schasmin cannot bring himself to take this step. "I've always lived in the city, I don't know if I'll be able to adjust at my age and start all over again," she says despondently.