One year after Karabakh war, displaced eke out new lives

Journalist: Hasmik Baleyan,

Photographer: Artem Mikryukov

Topic: Women Conflict

When 76-year-old Marietta Sahakyan closes her eyes, she can still feel the breeze blowing at the foot of a hill near her home in the village of Karmrakuch (Qırmızıqaya) in Nagorno Karabakh. 

A tiny hamlet of just over 100 people, Karmrakuch is part of Hadrut District, which fell to Azerbaijan during the 2020 Karabakh war. Marietta fled during the fighting and, like thousands of others displaced by the war, she has never returned to her house near the hill. 

 The Armenian government estimates that just under 30,000 families—around 91,000 people—were forced to flee their homes in Karabakh during the war. Most went to Armenia and, over the past 18 months, approximately 80 percent have returned to the disputed enclave, according to Armenia’s Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. 

An estimated 20,000, including Marietta and her family, remain in Armenia. While the Armenian government and the Karabakh authorities have provided some assistance, the displaced have largely been left alone to find jobs and housing.

The process has been familiar for Marietta. She and her late husband found themselves homeless in 1988, when they fled the capital of Azerbaijan on the eve of the first war over Karabakh. 

"All this is very difficult, very cruel and impossible to accept until the end,” she says. 

But she adds that the loss of a house pales compared to the loss of a child. “Thousands of families have lost their most precious thing, their sons,” Marietta notes. “I have no right to complain about other things.”

Marieta Sahakyan with her grandchild Jasmine Hayrapetyan

Instead, she is working to create a new life with her son and his family in the Armenian capital Yerevan. The family has received some social assistance from the Armenian government, mostly one-time payments.

Mikael Virabyan, who heads the Karabakh government mission in Armenia, says roughly 5,500 displaced residents of Karabakh—around 1500 families—remain in Yerevan. To assist them, the Armenian government carried out 20 assistance programs, according to Zaruhi Manucharyan, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. 

The assistance included a one-time payment of 68,000 Armenian drams (around $140) for more than 100,000 residents of Karabakh displaced by the war. An additional payment of 300,000 drams was given to people like Marietta, whose home is now outside the control of the Karabakh authorities. The ministry says approximately 36,000 people received the payment. 

29-year-old Karen Shirinyan, who fled from Mataghis (Sugovushan) with his wife and infant son, says the payments were appreciated but they have not been enough. Today he has to work two jobs to care for his family, especially since they have to pay rent for the apartment where they live in Yerevan.

“We pay 60,000 drams a month for utilities, 40,000 drams for rent, and about 65,000 drams for baby formula and diapers,” he says, noting that they received 45,000 drams from the Armenian government in February, but nothing since. 

Karen underscores that the family did not just lose a house; they lost the entire life they had built for themselves in Karabakh. “Before the war and deportation, we lived a prosperous life․ I worked in the Mataghis military canteen as a chef,” he says.

The trauma and loss Karen and his family experienced are shared by tens of thousands of his compatriots, notes psychologist Armine Avagyan, who is working with families who were displaced by the fighting.

"Many of the displaced still have psychological problems, which leads to post-traumatic stress disorder, fear of the future ․․․ There are families who have lost a family member and a house, land--it is not easy to cope with all that psychologically. The feeling of loss and the challenges of adapting to a new environment are very difficult,” she says. “That is why even years later it leaves a deep mark on people's psychology.”

22-year-old Ani Sargsyan, who was a student when she had to flee Hadrut District with her younger siblings, is still troubled by memories of their flight through the war zone.

“I have nightmares almost every day. I am always in Hadrut in my dreams" Ani says. She was responsible for bringing her nine-year-old brother and fourteen-year-old sister to Yerevan as her parents stayed to fight. 

Today she and her grandmother are living with relatives in Yerevan. She finished her degree in Armenian language and literature and has a job, but she longs to return to Karabakh. 

Earlier this year, her parents, brother and sister decided to return to Karabakh, even if they could not return home. 

“People in Armenia are warm, but our birthplace is Artsakh,” Ani says, using the official name of Karabakh. “Months passed, but the children kept repeating that at least not in Hadrut, but they want to live in another part of Artsakh. Now they feel relatively better, but they still mourn the loss of our house in Hadrut and have not been able to forget the horrible scenes of the war.” 

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