Christian Solidarity International (CSI) is providing support to Armenian Christians who were ethnically cleansed from Nagorno Karabakh and are now living in a camp run by the Armenian Catholic Church in Torosgyugh, northwestern Armenia.
More than 100,000 Armenian Christians were driven from their homes by Azerbaijan’s brutal military takeover of Nagorno Karabakh in September. Many have found temporary shelter with family and friends in Armenia but others are being housed in camps for the displaced.
Through its local partner organization, Armenian Caritas, CSI has provided humanitarian relief to 31 families, or 130 people, at the Aghajanyan Camp for the past month. In addition to a roof over their heads, the support includes meals, clothing, and medical and psychological care.
The Grigoryans are one of those families to have found shelter in the camp. They initially decided to stay put as their village Kochoghot came under shelling from Azerbaijani forces. But on the second day, a community leader came and told them to move to the airport where Russian peacekeepers were based. The Grigoryans let the cattle out of the barn and fed the pigs for the last time. Then the family left, taking only personal documents with them.
“Less than two hours later, Azerbaijani troops invaded the village and looted it,” says Kamo Grigoryan.
After a long journey in a bus carrying 50 people, the family arrived at the camp traumatized. An elderly neighbor had died on the bus. “We took her body and laid in on the back seat,” Kamo says. “Our son kept asking, ‘Where did auntie go?’” The Grigoryans don’t plan to stay at the camp for long. They lived off the land in Nagorno Karabakh and would like to do the same in Armenia. “The cold here does not bother us. It is very similar to the climate of our village. I would like to live and work in a village,” Kamo says.
“If we receive support to do so, we will recreate the life we had and we will live. What else can we do?”
The Mirzoyans, a family of six, also left everything behind when they fled Nagorno Karabakh. They say they have had to move house three or four times and do not intend to do so again. “Our children are in a safe place now. Here, we have the opportunity to farm and raise animals, which helps us to focus on something positive and not think, at least for a little while, about the disaster that we experienced.”
The Mirzoyans have registered their children with the local school. Around 30 children from the camp attend the school.
In the panic following Azerbaijan’s attack, Armenians rushed to evacuate Nagorno Karabakh. Thousands of cars filled the narrow mountain highway that connections Karabakh to Armenia. Normally, the journey takes a few hours, but it took three days and nights for Ira Sargsyan and her husband, Slavik, to reach Torosgyugh in a military ambulance. Slavik, 75, suffers from Parkinson’s disease. Ira cannot talk about their experience without shedding tears. Leaving behind everything they had ever worked for, the couple arrived in Armenia hungry and thirsty and with fear in their hearts.
But the fearfulness was nothing new, Ira says. Azerbaijan besieged Nagorno Karabakh for over nine months before the final attack came. The siege led to huge food shortages, and Azerbaijani forces would terrorize the population by shooting randomly at farmers and other civilians.
“We got used to living in fear,” Ira says. “It wasn’t like the displacement came out of the blue. Lines for bread in shops from 4 o’clock at night, often returning home empty-handed, struggling 24 hours a day to live became normal for us.”
The couple is still waiting to be reunited with their family. Their grown-up sons with their wives and children are all staying in different places until they decide what to do next. The Sargsyans are filled with longing for their home in Nagorno Karabakh. Ira has not entirely given up hope that she will one day be able to return to Stepanakert and drink coffee with a neighbor.
Mkrtich Babayan, the manager of the Armenian Caritas support program for forcefully displaced persons from Nagorno Karabakh, says that the camp provides comfortable accommodation for residents and most will stay until they decide where to settle. “They have no demands on anyone,” he says. “At this moment, all they want is peace.”