Anna has already survived nine months of a blockade, then a new Azerbaijani offensive that brought shelling and gunfire to her city, and then days hiding in a basement.
Now, even as fighting dies down, life in her hometown in Nagorno-Karabakh is a struggle to survive, with shortages of nearly all critical goods, whole families sleeping rough or scrabbling for food after fleeing their villages, and an information vacuum that has separated loved ones and fuelled fears of the worst in towns occupied by Azerbaijan.
“They have genocidal intentions toward us, they have proved that,” Anna told the Observer by telephone from Stepanakert. “They subjected us to starvation for more than nine months, and then they killed more than 200 soldiers, more than 40 civilians, children. You cannot live in peace with these people.”
In dark towns and villages, with little food and no phone signal, ethnic Armenians in Karabakh are scrambling to find loved ones while many fear what could happen if Azerbaijani soldiers come into their homes before they find a way to escape. “I am a person who is active on social media,” said Anna. “I have also been involved in journalism … It’s very dangerous for me personally to be here. It’s dangerous for anyone to be here.”
Karabakh is a mountainous region that Armenians have claimed as an ancestral homeland but which has been internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan since the fall of the Soviet Union. Many Azeris were forced out of the region during a bloody war in the 1990s that ended with large swathes of Karabakh under the control of a breakaway ethnic-Armenian state called Artsakh.
Border clashes have periodically flared up since then, and in 2020 Azerbaijan launched a huge offensive that ended in a decisive defeat for Armenia, as well as numerous accusations of war crimes. Azerbaijan forces took control of the historic city of Shusha and forced Armenia to sign a controversial ceasefire agreement involving the introduction of Russian peacekeepers.
Last week, Azerbaijan launched a new offensive, forcing the breakaway republic to agree to disband its territorial defence forces and enter talks that it said would lead to the “reintegration” of Azerbaijani lands.
Stories from ethnic Armenians in Artsakh paint a picture of the disintegration of a state and the deprivations of war. After three decades of self-rule, many have watched their lives collapse in a matter of weeks.
“We have lost everything,” said another resident of Stepanakert, who spoke briefly via the messaging app Telegram on Thursday. “Mainly, I am just thinking about where to get enough water and food for my children. I have collected just the things that we will need to go [to Armenia], when we think it is safe to go on the roads. Right now, there is no way out.”
Marut Vanyan, a freelance journalist living in Stepanakert who has chronicled the toll that the war has taken using X (formerly Twitter), wrote: “Living all my 40 [years] here, I don’t feel this city any more.” With no electricity, he wrote, the city smells of wood smoke as residents go outdoors to cook on open fires. The hospital, where some of the hundreds of war wounded have been treated in overwhelmed wards, was, he wrote, “just horrible”.
Others have described exhausted doctors and nurses treating an influx of war wounded, many of them young men scarcely older than 18. The smell at the hospital – which is also one of just three places in the city where people can charge their phones – is said to be overpowering.
Artak Beglaryan, a former human rights ombudsman who has remained in Stepanakert, said all goods – fuel, electricity, water, and especially food – were “running out”.
“The hunger is quite a serious problem now,” he said. “There are thousands of people. Maybe 15,000 or 20,000 displaced from their villages – some of them occupied, others just risky and dangerous. Mostly they are in Stepanakert in basements and streets, and we have serious problems supplying them with food.”
The humanitarian situation is dire as the effects of the blockade are compounded by the destruction of war. “No electricity, no gas, no food – people who left their villages and are scared to stay in the city went to the airport,” said Ruben Vardanyan, a former senior official in the breakaway republic and a wealthy businessman. “There are a lot of kids, pregnant women, old people who just spend their nights in the grass in the ground without anything. No toilets, no water. No communication because the telephones cannot be recharged.”
The number of estimated casualties from the war has soared even higher. Vardanyan estimated that 500 people were still considered missing .
“People are really nervous about trying to find their relatives and friends,” he said. “It’s quite a bad mood.”
Many have posted on Facebook and other social media to try to locate their loved ones. “All together, we are looking for a woman and her 4 children,” read one post. “Please. According to our last information, the woman was in Kusapat village of Martakert region with her 4 children. The evening before the war they were already in the basement. However, up to this moment there is no news or connection with them. Whoever has any information, please call this phone number.”
Anna said: “We don’t know what’s happening to half the population of Artsakh right now. I know personally a lot of people who I cannot find because there is no connection.”
Armenians have demanded that Azerbaijan agree to open up a humanitarian corridor, allowing aid in and refugees out. The key conduit is the Lachin corridor, a winding highway that leads from the Armenian city of Goris through the village of Tegh before crossing into Karabakh and the city of Berdzor, which Azerbaijan calls Lachin. Armenian police have established a checkpoint that prevents regular citizens from driving further into Karabakh, where the road is blocked by Russian peacekeepers and Azerbaijani soldiers.
Last week, Armenians gathered for a protest in Republic Square in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital. Among them was Lucy Muradyan, who was born in the Hadrut region and has lost touch with her family in Karabakh. “We are here in the square because our relatives, our parents, our family members are there surrounded by [Azerbaijani] troops,” she said. “Now the only thing we want is for our loved ones to be safely taken so that the road is open: men, women and children. Not just women and children, as it’s currently said.”
Fears that men could be filtered out at Azerbaijani checkpoints and tried as terrorists for fighting in local defence forces go back to before this month’s offensive, when men travelling from Karabakh into Armenia were sometimes “kidnapped” at a checkpoint held by Azerbaijan along the Lachin corridor.
Locals fear a repeat of the atrocities of the 2020 war, when Azerbaijani forces were filmed mutilating and torturing Armenian soldiers and civilians. In a 2020 investigation, the Guardian confirmed the identities of two men beheaded in gruesome videos put online by Azerbaijani troops associated with far-right groups. The men had refused to leave their village ahead of the onslaught.
Videos have already appeared online showing Azerbaijani troops firing automatic rifles at civilian homes. Ahead of a potential takeover by Azerbaijani’s forces, people have even begun to destroy local archives to prevent them from falling into enemy hands, said Vardanyan, the former senior official.
The Lachin corridor remains closed. At a police checkpoint near the town of Kornidzor on Friday, a dozen or so men from Karabakh waited for news in the hope that their relatives might have made it to the border. But no one has been let out. One father of two smoked nervously as he looked across the valley into Karabakh, where his children live with their mother. He was trapped outside the region when Azerbaijan launched its blockade nine months ago and has not seen them since.
Andranik, also from Karabakh, was dressed in camouflage as he stood at the police checkpoint. He had managed to move his family out, he said, but was worried for other relatives and friends still trapped in the region. “We have to save them,” he said, shaking his head. “Otherwise the worst will happen to them too.”