It’s quiet on the streets of Noravan. “Most of us have left,” says Anaida, a 51-year-old grandmother pouring coffee for a group of elderly residents sitting on the side of the road. “Those of us who have stayed don’t know where else to go.” 

Last week, locals in the Armenian village, just a stone’s throw from the frontier with Azerbaijan, woke up in the middle of the night to a massive artillery bombardment that echoed around the mountains, with shells falling in residential areas across nearby towns and troops moving in to take strategic heights. “There is a plague upon us,” says 61-year-old Artoshen, helping his neighbour clear up the coffee cups. “Who knows whether we will survive it.”

Anaida, like many living in Norovan, has already run away once – she was born in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, and was forced to flee following the fall of the Soviet Union, when hundreds of thousands of Armenians and Azerbaijanis were displaced by fighting between the two newly-independent countries. Now, with officials in Yerevan warning that a tentative ceasefire brokered last week could collapse at any moment, those in the rural community who have their wealth tied up in their houses, or in flocks of sheep and herds of cows, risk losing everything.

Frozen conflict

Azerbaijan insists its troops were responding to “provocations” from the Armenian side, and only strike military targets – accusing their foes of stationing soldiers in schools and hospitals. However, on a historic visit to Yerevan on Sunday, Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, declared that “the fighting was initiated by the Azeris and there has to be recognition of that,” while one member of the Congressional delegation insisted that the US would “resist any changes to borders.”

Baku, however, argues its own borders have never been respected. Since a brutal war in the 1990s, the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, sandwiched between the two countries, has been under the control of Armenian separatists, governed as the breakaway, unrecognised ‘Republic of Artsakh,’ still formally inside Azerbaijan’s internationally-recognised territory but accessible only from the Armenian side. 

Anaida, 51, is one of those left behind in the village of Noravan

For decades, the frozen conflict sat unresolved until, in 2020, Baku’s forces launched a war to take back swathes of territory, leaving Artsakh in control of only its capital, Stepanakert and the surrounding towns and villages. The fighting only stopped after a Moscow-brokered agreement saw swathes of land handed over to the government, and Russian peacekeepers deployed to hold the line and protect Armenians from being forced out of their homes – or worse.

Now though, with Russia distracted by its war in Ukraine and its peacekeepers failing to prevent advances, it seems Azerbaijan is intent on resolving the standoff once and for all – by piling pressure on Armenia to do a deal that would see it recognise Baku’s sovereignty over all of Nagorno-Karabakh. “For years the destruction played out on our territory,” one well-connected Baku expert tells me, “now the response will start to affect Armenia proper.”

Last week, hours after a tentative ceasefire came in following a day of heavy shelling, thousands of protestors took to the streets of Yerevan, incensed by rumours that Armenian Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, was poised to sign a deal that could end his country’s support for Artsakh. In an apparent last-minute U-turn, he posted a video insisting: “No document has been signed and, moreover, no document will be signed.” 

“I thought he was going to be shot that night,” one Armenian friend says, as political tensions peak. But while many oppose any change to the status quo in Nagorno-Karabakh, few at the demonstrations had any ideas on what could be done to avoid another defeat at the hands of Azerbaijan that could ultimately inflict a catastrophic outcome for the Caucasus nation.

Land bridge

Just up the road from Noravan is the city of Sisyan. Located at the center of Armenia’s thinnest point, it is flanked by Azerbaijani territory on both sides – bordering the enclave of Nakhchivan. If Baku orders another invasion, officials fear here is where its forces will try to cut the country in two.

Calls have since come out from public figures in Azerbaijan and its close ally, Turkey, to conquer the surrounding province of Syunik and turn it into the “Zangezur Republic.” Many Azerbaijanis originally hail from the region, and were displaced in the first war in the 1990s, while Armenians forced out by pogroms just across the border moved in. 

“We pray nothing will happen,” says Armen Hagopjanyan, the elected head of the district at a meeting in his office in Syunik, “but of course we will defend our land if it does. There’s no other option.” 

The region has already rehoused 650 Armenians displaced by the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, and some locals are resentful that they have received benefits and priority access to schools and services. “We have elections coming up and I’m not so popular right now,” he adds, “I might be wearing a white shirt but I can take it off and someone else can have my job if they think they can do it better.” 

According to Hagopjanyan, Russian support for Armenia in the region has been limited, and not enough is being done to shore it up ahead of a possible war for survival. “We see the flags, not the help. Our troops need everything from socks to weapons to coffee.” Donation boxes have appeared across the country, with citizens clubbing together to buy dry food, clothes and cigarettes for those serving in the army.

Sisyan regional head Armen Hagopjanyan is praying for the best, but planning for the worst

In Yerevan over the weekend, as Pelosi spoke to local officials, thousands again took to the streets to demonstrate against Russia which, under the terms of the CSTO alliance that Armenia is part of, is obliged to intervene and protect its territory. Despite Pashinyan lodging a formal request, Moscow has dragged its heels on any intervention, dispatching only a fact-finding mission that few have faith will lead to anything more.

Humanitarian crisis

Anna Petrosyan and her husband Armen Hagopyan, both 42, are among the refugees who have arrived in Sisyan in recent weeks after decades living inside Azerbaijan’s borders. Originally from the region around Syunik, they relocated as newlyweds to the village of Aghavno under a policy that saw thousands of Armenians move to the areas under Artsakh’s control after the war that followed the fall of the Soviet Union. There, they built a house and raised their three small children. Originally home to an Azerbaijani community evicted in the war that followed the fall of the Soviet Union, Aghavno was handed back to Baku in August under the terms of the 2020 peace deal.

“I can’t describe what it’s like to have to flee with your family like this,” says Hagopyan. “Sometimes we’ve had to tell the kids that they can’t go to school because there’s shelling – they say, “So what? it’s just boom boom.” They’d rented an apartment in Sisyan to escape the 2020 war over Nagnorno-Karabakh, only moving back to Aghavno after the fighting stopped, but kept the lease just in case they were forced out again. “Leaving the second time was more painful than the first,” Petrosyan says, “because it was already an open wound.”

With the conflict spilling into Armenia’s sovereign territory, they are now once again facing uncertainty over their future. “I don’t want my son to see war,” says Hagopyan, pointing to 12-year-old Tigran. “In Armenia, military service is compulsory. You have to do it to become a man. He could die there, but what can we do?” 

For the time being, waiting for what feels like an inevitable offensive from Azerbaijan, few in Syunik feel they can do anything at all.

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