On Sunday, Nina Shahverdyan took her students’ drawings down off the walls and burnt them in a bin behind the school where she works. 

Along with dozens of children she teaches English, and their families, the 22-year-old now has to pack up whatever she can carry and leave the village she calls home. Aghavno, on the edge of the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, is being handed over to Azerbaijani troops, and ethnic Armenians like her are being forced out.

“We spent energy, time and effort on these artworks,” Shahverdyan says. “And we don’t want to see videos of soldiers stepping on them or tearing them up. Each picture carries memories – our memories. If it has to come to an end, we want to do it by ourselves.”

Thirty years ago, the village was known as Zabukh, and populated almost entirely by Azerbaijanis. But, during the First Nagorno-Karabakh War that followed the fall of the Soviet Union, it was captured by forces loyal to the unrecognised, Yerevan-backed ‘Republic of Artsakh.’ The locals were exiled and Armenians came from far and wide to settle what both sides see as their ancestral homelands.

In the years since then, Azerbaijan has boomed on the back of its oil and gas revenues, becoming a major regional power and setting its sights firmly on the breakaway region, inside its internationally-recognised borders. In a brief but bloody war in 2020, Baku’s well-armed troops took back virtually all the territory lost three decades before, leaving Artsakh in control of only its capital, Stepanakert, and the communities around it.

Azerbaijan accuses the breakaway state of illegally occupying the region, and the UN has previously passed resolutions calling for its troops to leave the area. The Armenians, though, say they can’t be trespassers on land they are indigenous to and inhabited long before the Russian Empire carved it up.

Locals in the village of Aghavno have been given just weeks to uproot their lives. Credit Nina Shahverdyan

As part of a Moscow-brokered ceasefire deal, the defeated Armenians agreed to hand over settlements such as Aghavno that lay along the Lachin corridor – currently the only route between Stepanakert and Armenia – before giving up the highway itself in favour of a new, as-yet unfinished alternative road. 

However, locals point out that they were supposed to have more than a year left to prepare themselves to leave. They’ve now been given just 20 days. Armenia is denying that it is handing over territory ahead of time, but it seems the pressure is building on Yerevan to make concessions.

Last week, Azerbaijan launched “Operation Revenge,” claiming its forces had come under fire from the outnumbered, outgunned Artsakh units. As part of the new offensive, its soldiers pushed into the buffer zone that is supposed to be protected by Russian peacekeepers. Despite accusing Baku of violating the ceasefire, embroiled in the war in Ukraine, its reputation in tatters, Moscow seems unwilling or unable to do anything about it.

“If we have peacekeepers, why don’t they keep the peace?” Shahverdyan asks. “The residents of this village are not really from one place – some were born here and had children here, but most relocated. Some don’t have any relatives here because we have Syrian Armenians, Lebanese Armenians and so on. They now don’t know where they can go.”

Worse still, both Armenia and Artsakh are running short on homes to rehouse displaced people, many having been allocated to those forced to flee the 2020 war. A wave of Russian emigrés fearing repression back home since the start of the invasion of Ukraine have also driven up demand. Villagers leaving Lachin were reportedly told that if they destroyed their homes ahead of the advancing Azerbaijanis, they wouldn’t receive a penny in support to find a new one elsewhere. Even those who comply though face an uncertain future.

That story is altogether too common in this part of the world. Just a few miles along the mountain, Azerbaijanis are returning to the places they themselves were displaced from in the 90s. Many of the 600,000 forced to leave have spent decades living in harsh, impoverished conditions, longing to return to their villages. But the settlements they remember no longer exist, their homes stripped back to the foundation stones and carted off piece by piece over the last thirty years.

Ali, a police officer in his thirties, says being deployed to the region is the greatest honour of his life. “I went to look for my parents’ house from before the war,” he adds. “There was nothing there but rubble.” Does he feel sorry for the Armenians now finding themselves being made homeless? “It’s hard to,” he replies. “We have been through so much, and we are looking after ourselves first.”

While the international community recognises Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh, many states have criticised it for the way in which it is trying to take it back. 

In March, the EU Parliament condemned a “pattern of a systematic, state-level policy of Armenophobia, historical revisionism, and hatred towards Armenians promoted by the Azerbaijani authorities.” And yet, Brussels also appears to have few options available to cool the crisis.

Last month, on a visit to Baku, EU Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, signed a memorandum of understanding that will mean the bloc buying more gas from Azerbaijan. With embargoes on Russian fossil fuels, and Moscow choking off the flow of gas through the Nord Stream pipeline, the country is becoming a vital partner in the fight to bring down high prices and get through a potentially catastrophic winter.

Teachers in Aghavno strip the school of students’ work, torching it before leaving. Credit Nina Shahverdyan

Facing overwhelming odds and with international support waning, Armenia is intent on avoiding another war, and its Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, has been accused of leaving Azerbaijan to take back the territory. Protests have raged in Yerevan over the summer, with hardliners marching to shouts of “Nikol is a traitor.” In reality, embroiled in a conflict he cannot win and only lukewarm support from the outside, Pashinyan seems to have few options on the table.

Under the terms of the ceasefire, Armenia is required to withdraw all its troops, which it insists it is doing. However, Azerbaijan argues that also applies to the local fighters loyal to the self-declared Republic of Artsakh, who they say are assigned commanders from Yerevan. Locals fear Baku will demand they lay down their arms before it moves in to take charge and the result, many living in Stepanakert fear, would be that 100,000 ethnic Armenians are forced to flee or face “ethnic cleansing.”

Now though, with Azerbaijani troops on their doorstep and their own leaders calling for them to leave, those living in villages such as Aghavno have no choice but to pack up their possessions and go. The long and bloody history of Nagorno-Karabakh, it seems, will have yet another tragic chapter.