Karabakh displaced grapple with new life after war

Yerevan (AFP) –


Relatives, friends and neighbours from the town of Hadrut gathered at a military cemetery overlooking Armenia's capital Yerevan to bury Arman Sarkisian, two days after his parents identified him.

The 20-year-old was killed more than three months ago fighting against Azerbaijan for the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, and his body was recently reclaimed by his family.

But the mourners could only convene more than two hundred kilometres (120 miles) away from their hometown to lay its native son to rest this week.

That's because Hadrut no longer belongs to the Armenians of the self-proclaimed state of Nagorno-Karabakh. It was captured in the six-week war and is under Azerbaijan's control.

"This is where we come together now as a town -- at funerals for our boys," said Margarita Karamyan, 58, as a military band played over the sobs of female mourners.

"His family would have wanted to bury him back in Hadrut but that is impossible now."

The town's more than 4,000 former residents are among those who may never go back home after the conflict last year saw Azerbaijan retake swathes of territory won by Armenians in a war in the early 1990s.

The losses set off the latest wave of forced displacement to hit this turbulent region since the Soviet Union crumbled.

Karamyan and others from Hadrut fled with just documents and the clothes on their backs as Azerbaijani forces closed in, leaving behind their homes and possessions.

Now she lives in a rented flat in Yerevan with her husband, adult son and his family -- and like the rest of her hometown is facing the prospect of having to rebuild a life from scratch far from the community she once knew.

"We thought at first that we were only leaving temporarily," she said.

"It is something almost impossible to process -- your brain just switches off."

- Mayor with no town -

Karamyan says most of Hadrut has resettled for now in and around Yerevan, while others have gone to Armenian-controlled areas of Nagorno-Karabakh or emigrated to Russia or Europe.

The government is providing monthly payments to help cover rent -- but that does not look set to last and she is searching for private help to start afresh.

"We are living in uncertainty, we don't know what the future will hold," Karamyan told AFP.

Meanwhile Vahan Savadyan, 35, has become a mayor without a town.

He is still running Hadrut's local administration -- but it is split between Yerevan and the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh in Stepanakert.

Instead of dealing with the problems of daily life, he is trying to help find temporary housing and keep track of his former residents now living scattered around.

"It is difficult -- but you need to adapt somehow and not lose your spirits, not lose hope, and keep working," he said.

- 'Wait and hope' -

Those displaced by the conflict have filled up four floors at a student hostel belonging to Yerevan's main university on the outskirts of the city.

The coronavirus pandemic meant many rooms were vacant as classes were virtual -- but now lectures are restarting in person and pressure is building for space.

Three generations of the Saakyan family are living together in two rooms.

"Back in Hadrut we had a house, land, garden, everything," says Arman Saakyan, 35, who was injured in the fighting.

"We heard that our house has been turned into a office for the local Azerbaijani emergency services."

The family says they could only grab their documents, mobile phones and a blanket to keep the children warm as they fled.

"But we aren't upset about leaving our possessions behind, we are upset about leaving our ancestral home, the graves where our grandparents are buried," said Arman's sister Maria Petrosyan, 38.

For now the priority is to make sure the family has a new home of its own.

But regardless, they will keep on thinking of their mountain-fringed hometown, and dreaming of returning there.

"If it is ever possible to go back then we would go back with joy," Petrosyan said.

"But we don't even know if that will ever be possible -- we just wait and we hope."