The situation along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border: the stories of local people
New Armenia-Azerbaijan border
To write this article, journalist Tatul Hakobyan traveled along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border from the banks of the Araks River, where the Armenia–Iran–Azerbaijan borders intersect, to the village of Sotk in the Vardenis region, near the shores of Lake Sevan. He visited all the settlements with security, humanitarian and legal problems, talked with residents, and listened to their concerns and opinions.
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Nerkin Hand under the Azerbaijani blockade
Seryozha Adamyan is sad and desperate — after September 13 he was no longer able to visit the grave of his son who fell in the 44-day war. The Nerkin Hand cemetery is under the control of the Azerbaijani military.
Adamyan is one of the few dozen residents left in Nerkin Hand, and despite the security environment and threats he continues to live in the village with his wife and is not willing to leave his son’s grave.
“The Russian peacekeepers did nothing to stop the Azerbaijani attack, nor did they help Armenian soldiers and villagers who were under fire,” Adamyan complains, standing in front of his house in Nerkin Hand.
The 44-day war of 2020 and the border clashes of September 13-14, 2022 have created a new situation for dozens of Armenian settlements and residents on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border.
Before the 44-day war, the distance from Nerkin Hand to the Armenian-Azerbaijani border was 100 kilometers.
After the war and the Azerbaijani advance on September 13, this distance has been reduced to 100 meters. Azerbaijani troops and border guards stand along the Soviet-era Armenian-Azerbaijani borders and have invaded and established themselves in the sovereign territory of Armenia at more than a hundred points.
In the past two years after the 44-day war, Azerbaijan captured about 140 square kilometers of territory from Armenia, of which about 15 square kilometers are in Nerkin Hand.
The village is under siege from three sides, with only one road left to connect with Kapan and other towns in the community. The Azerbaijani armed forces captured twelve Armenian positions in the village, and in a few hours Armenia had seventy dead and many wounded.
Among the wounded was a 19-year-old conscript, Vahe Torosyan. September 15 was the last time Vahe contacted his mother by phone and said that he was injured in the forests of Nerkin Hand, which had come under the control of Azerbaijan.
Vahe’s mother and father are in Yerevan organizing protests in front of the Armenian Ministry of Defense and demanding their son. Three people, including Vahe, are missing. “I am Vahe’s mother. I demand my son,” says his mother, crying and trembling.
In the September 2022 clashes, Armenia saw more than 200 slain and around 300 wounded. Yet Armenia and the Armenian people have lost something else: faith in Russia and the Russian soldier. Russia is no longer perceived as a friend and a partner.
After the 44-day war a Russian peacekeeping mission was established in Nagorno Karabakh, and from Sotk to the Armenian-Azerbaijani-Iranian border, Russian Federal Border Service troops were deployed.
Gagik Vardanyan’s house is right in front of the new Azerbaijani base in Nerkin Hand. Azerbaijani flags are clearly visible from three sides of his yard. The enemy is several hundred meters away and is strengthening occupied positions. “The attitude towards Russians is awful. In my opinion, during the last invasions, Russia was on Azerbaijan’s side,” Vardanyan says.
Nerkin Hand was deprived of drinking water. The Azerbaijanis occupied the part of the forest from which the village’s water was collected, so people have to use the water from the river Tsav flowing through the village.
One of the two interstate roads leading from Armenia to Iran passes in the vicinity of Nerkin Hand. After the 44-day war, some parts of this road came under the control of Azerbaijan, so Armenia had to build new roads.
Problems of border settlements in Armenia’s south
A total of 55 students attend school in the Kapan community bordering settlements Shishkert, Tsav, Nerkin Hand, Srashen, Shikahogh, and Chakaten. Together, these villages share more than 50 kilometers of border with Azerbaijan.
Shikahogh was the largest settlement in the Kapan region. Today there are only three schoolchildren in the village. They go to school in the neighboring village of Srashen, where five other children study. At one time the school in Shikahogh had about180 students.
Norik Zakaryan’s family is one of the few remaining in Shikahogh. He has two tractors but says there are no people, no work, no wheat planters, and no hope. After the last attack by the Azerbaijanis with the occupation of positions and territories, sowing in the fields has become more dangerous. “My son wants to move to Kapan. If he leaves, I will leave as well,” he says.
In the Srashen-Shikahogh region, during the September 13 attack Azerbaijan captured five positions and the small mountain range in front of two villages, from where the city of Zangelan opens. Recently a new airport was put into operation in Zangelan, where the Turkish president’s plane landed.
Aramayis Stepanyan, a resident of Srashen, believes that the Azerbaijani army has captured new territories and positions from Armenia so that the Zangelan airport is out of visible control.
“After the latest attack by Azerbaijan, our arable lands are in danger. Seventy people live in Srashen, and there is no youth,” Stepanyan says.
As a result of the 44-day war, Syunik has faced serious security, transport, and humanitarian challenges. Several sections of the Armenia-Iran interstate road near Vorotan, Shurnukh, and Kapan have come under the control of Azerbaijan.
At the end of August 2021, Azerbaijan closed the road, due to which the Goris-Kapan traffic was stopped, the Armenia-Iran road was blocked, and several Armenian villages came under siege.
Armenia had to launch another secondary road to connect with Iran. Armenia is carrying out enormous road construction works in these parts to restore the roads between Armenian villages. Dozens of kilometers of new roads are being built in some areas, while old ones are being repaired in others.
Shurnukh: the divided village
According to Armenian maps, Shurnukh village was in the territory of Armenia. But Azerbaijan, having won the war, says otherwuse.It took over the eastern part of the village, which is separated by the Armenia-Iran interstate road.
Twelve houses in Shurnukh are now in Azerbaijan. The property of one resident, 72-year-old Stepan Movsisyan, was actually divided: the house remained in Armenia and half of the cattle ranch in Azerbaijan. Movsisyan says that the Azerbaijani border guards came to his house and they had tea together.
“They came and said that according to the GPS, the border will pass right through here,” Movsisyan says.
After the arrival of the Azerbaijanis, no inter-ethnic incidents occurred in Shurnukh. Today the interstate road is the new border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. East of the road, some of the twelve houses left by the Armenians are occupied by Azerbaijani soldiers and border guards. Three flags – Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Russian – fly over the village with a dozen houses.
Until 1989, Armenians and Azerbaijanis lived in Shurnukh. After the tension in inter-ethnic relations, Azerbaijanis left the village, and Armenians from Azerbaijan resettled in the village.
Sotk: reexperiencing the 1988 deportation
On September 13, after more than three decades, residents of Sotk came under threat of losing their homes and livelihood when the Azerbaijani military shelled the village for two days.
Until 1988, Sotk was inhabited by Azerbaijanis from Armenia. After their departure, Armenians from Azerbaijan settled here.
Yulia Danielyan moved to Sotk with her Armenian husband in 1999. Yulia’s father is Spanish, her mother is Ukrainian. They met and got married in Tashkent, where Yulia was born, grew up and met her husband, an Armenian from Baku.
“When the night of September 13 began, my husband and I got into our car and went to Vardenis calmly. It’s always windy and cold here, but I love Sotk,” she says.
Every day Yulia prepares hot food in the school cafeteria in Sotk. As of September 1, 2022 the school had 157 students. Since some of the families have not yet returned to the village, 128 are currently enrolled.
Artak Melkonyan has been the director of the school in Sotk for thirteen years. “A few days after the two-day attack and shelling by Azerbaijan, the villagers started to return. Children do not get along in other places, they want their village and school, they want their friends. The family of one of our students has moved to Abovyan, he tells his parents he wants his school and his house,” Melkonyan says.
The administrative head of the community, Sevak Khachatryan, says that about 80% of the villagers have returned home, although most of the houses were damaged by Azerbaijani shelling. He says there is still a sense of fear among residents, but the main problem is not security, rather employment.
“Today there is almost no livestock left in the village. In a panicked mood, people sold the cattle at cheap prices. Only twenty families have livestock. We need to help people get livestock,” Khachatryan says.
The population of Sotk is mainly engaged in cattle breeding and potato cultivation, and several dozen people work in the gold mine, most of which passed to Azerbaijan after the 44-day war and the tripartite declaration of November 9.
Winter is harsh in Sotk, and the village is more than 2000 meters above sea level. The roofs of damaged houses in the village are being replaced with the funds from the Tashir charitable foundation. The villagers are waiting for all the roofs to be repaired.
Russian border guards were stationed at the Armenian army base in Sotk, left immediately after the shooting and never returned. Bombs fell on their shelter as well, but only after the Russians had left.
The villagers treat the Russians with anger and humor. They expected that the presence of the Russians would restrain Azerbaijan from attacking, and they laughingly tell how the Russians, the defenders of the Armenian people, ran from the village after the first shots.
The Badalyans’ house is right next to the military base. Homes that are close to the military base were, of course, more affected.
“After the first shot, the Russians fled. There were seven of us at home when the first bombs fell: me, my wife, my son, my daughter-in-law, and our three grandchildren. The children were screaming in fear,” Rafik Badalyan says.
Nine bombs fell in the area of Hakob Atayan’s house. His family moved to Sotk from Mirzik Armenian village in the Khanlar region of Azerbaijan. Armenians from rural areas of Azerbaijan have settled in both Sotk and Vardenis, former Azerbaijani villages.
“Destroyed and damaged houses must be restored so that people can return to normal life. Care should be taken so that people do not lose hope. If hope is gone, no one will stay here,” Atayan says.
The aggression of September 13 left no hope for the residents of Sotk that peace would be established in the near future. The situation of the families who lost people during the events of September is much worse.
The body of 33-year-old contract soldier Shiraz Khachatryan was left in the Armenian-Azerbaijani border area. Family members could see on various surveillance devices how Shiraz’s body became ossified and then covered in a white layer of snow. The Ministry of Defense of Armenia and international organizations considered it risky to approach his body, due to the shooting from the Azerbaijani side.
Shiraz’s family and two young children are still waiting for him at home.
The article was prepared under the project “Restoring mutual understanding after the 2020 war” funded by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs
New Armenia-Azerbaijan border