'They want to end us': Syrian-Armenian refugees in Nagorno-Karabakh facing destruction again

251020 Karabagh Syrian Armenians (user submitted)
Syrian-Armenians who fled the civil war to Nagorno-Karabakh are witnessing the destruction of their homes once again.

By ITV News Multimedia Producer Narbeh Minassian

Syrian-Armenian refugees whose homes were destroyed in a brutal civil war face destruction once again, this time in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Over the past month, Azerbaijan has bombarded towns in the ethnically Armenian region, which lies within Azeri borders.

More than half of the enclave’s 150,000 residents have been displaced and 37 civilians have died, according to officials, as war over the disputed territory continues despite three ceasefire attempts.

And with widespread reports of mercenaries from Syria recruited by Turkey to fight for Azerbaijan, the threats are all too familiar for Karabakh’s Syrian-Armenians.

“Our situation here is very serious,” said father-of-three Hovik Esmerian, who sent his children to safety in Armenia days after fighting broke out.

“Some of my friends have been hurt and others have lost their houses. They are hitting hospitals, homes, places where we gather… we are alive but we are not safe.

“And we have seen what those fighters did in Syria, they don’t care if they kill children or women and now they want to repeat that here.”

A man walks in the yard of an apartment building damaged by shelling in Stepanakert. Credit: AP

Hovik is among 22,000 Syrians who have fled to Armenia since the war there began in 2011, but he is one of only a handful to have then travelled slightly further east to Stepanakert, Karabakh’s capital.

Much of Syria’s Armenian community was formed in Aleppo by the survivors of the 1915 genocide, when up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by the Ottoman Turks.

Turkey still denies the Armenian genocide and today backs and arms Azerbaijan with state-of-the-art drones – while also vowing they “will not hesitate” to send troops if requested.

Hovik is in no doubt over the significance of Turkey’s involvement.

“They want to finish the genocide, they want to end us… we have seen the videos of them killing captured people,” he said, referring to footage shared on social media - verified by forensic experts - showing Azeri soldiers execute two prisoners of war.

“This is not just a war on the front line, they are shooting on civilians and towns to kill us. Erdogan (Turkey's president) wants to revive the Ottoman Empire.”

Karabakh is a region within Azerbaijan, just east of Armenia, with an Armenian population.

Among the shells fired at residential areas, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have confirmed widely-banned cluster bombs have been used.

The latter revealed on Friday they have documented four incidents of Azerbaijan using cluster bombs, which can be deadly long after the initial explosion.

In one street, no more than 200 metres from the office of the International Committee of the Red Cross, locals used sand from a nearby playground to cover unexploded payloads.

Azerbaijan's Ministry of Defence was asked by ITV News to comment on the reports.

The bomb's distinctive pattern along with its pink-coloured ribbon in Stepanakert (left), with unexploded munitions in Hadrut (right). Credit: Human Rights Watch/Union of Informed Citizens

Despite the almost-daily risk to life, Hovik insists spirits are “extremely high” in the beleaguered city.

The 50-year-old, who opened Samra café soon after arriving, told ITV News his days mostly consist of preparing free food for the army with his wife Zabel.

“We know we will win,” he said. “We have no choice, it’s either our freedom or our death.”

He has sworn not to leave the city and says the people “are not afraid”.

A view of a vehicle destroyed after shelling by Azerbaijan's artillery near a hospital in Martakert, Nagorno-Karabakh. Credit: AP

Such is his conviction that he is ready to serve on the front lines and has already registered his name, should the need arise.

He says he is not scared to face "savage" Syrian mercenaries.

“I feel a duty here as an Armenian to support our soldiers,” he added.

Hovik (left), with his brother Vrej, here with a tree he planted in Stepanakert in 2015.

The current conflict – almost certainly instigated by an Azeri offensive on September 27 – comes 26 years after around 30,000 died during a war in the 90s, which broke out amid the collapse of the Soviet Union and ended with Armenians taking control of Karabakh as well as occupying seven surrounding regions in Azerbaijan.

The mountainous enclave, recognised internationally as part of Azerbaijan, has Armenian cultural heritage dating back centuries and had a majority Armenian population even before the first war.

But the territory and the areas around were also home to many Azeris, hundreds of thousands of whom were displaced.

This has fuelled animosity among Azeris who feel a sense of injustice and frustration that a peaceful settlement between the nations has not been reached in the years since the last war.

In Ganja, Azerbaijan, soldiers and firefighters search for survivors in a residential area that was hit by rocket fire. Credit: AP

While the Armenians in the breakaway region want either independence or union with Armenia, Azerbaijan's president Ilham Aliyev demands a full withdrawal of Armenian troops.

Dozens of civilians have died in both Karabakh and Azerbaijan, with Armenian forces also responsible for rocket fire.

One of those who hopes for a future of peaceful co-existence is Hrach Kevork, who only moved to Stepanakert six months ago, having left Aleppo in 2013 for Lebanon and then Armenia in 2015.

“When we Armenians went to Syria, we were accepted by the Arabs and we lived there peacefully for years, nobody bothered us,” he said.

“It would be great to live together in peace, of course. We don’t want mothers and fathers to keep mourning their children.”

Hrach, 47, took his wife, Armik, 32, and five children to the town of Goris in southern Armenia when fighting broke out for their safety.

He had dreamed of buying a house in Karabakh, after both of his homes in Syria were destroyed in the war.

Hrach Kevork with his wife and five children in happier times.

He has promised to look after the children of soldiers fighting on the front line while caring for his own, who are 11, 10, eight and twins aged seven.

But he still makes the roughly four-hour round trip to Stepanakert every day, volunteering to bring food, supplies and offering help in any way he can.

And while he longs for peace, he says Armenians now have no choice but to fight.

“We need to win so that our nation survives, so that we don’t relive 1915, we only kill because we have to defend our people and our freedom,” he said.

"We are not afraid of death here. Death is death, it will happen to us all eventually.”

Farmer Garo Magarian, who grew up in Syria, also believes the war is not just about land for Armenians.

Garo was ordered to evacuate his village in southern Karabakh, where the fighting is particularly intense, and is now staying in southern Armenia while his wife and children are in the capital, Yerevan.

He said he didn’t even have time to collect their clothes for his two boys, aged six and two, and left everything they have in his home by the fields.

Ethnic Armenian Rosa reacts after her house was damaged during shelling in the town of Martuni. Credit: AP

“We had no time to take anything, we had to leave at once and had to leave everything there,” he said.

“It’s clear to me, they want to kill us. Why else would they be firing on civilians?”

Genocide Watch, an alliance of 75 organisations, has described a ‘genocide emergency’ in the region, citing Azerbaijan’s “denial of past genocide against Armenians, its official use of hate speech, and the current targeting of civilians in Artsakh (the Armenian name for Karabakh)”.

The Armenians’ fear of ethnic cleansing is partly based on Aliyev himself, who has been president for 17 years.

In 2012, Aliyev infamously pardoned Ramil Safarov - an Azeri military officer who beheaded an Armenian lieutenant in his sleep during a NATO-sponsored course - after he was transferred from a Hungarian prison to his home country.

Safarov, greeted with a hero's welcome, was promoted to the rank of major, awarded eight years of salary arrears, and offered an apartment.

Ilham Aliyev has been president of Azerbaijan since 2003. Credit: AP

With the war showing no sign of stopping and Karabakh’s cold winter on the horizon, another battle threatens to compound catastrophe.

The Covid-19 pandemic has not bypassed the south Caucasus and Armenia has been particularly badly affected.

Nearly 80,000 have tested positive and the death toll has topped 1,100 - in a country with a population of less than 3 million.

The fighting has diverted the region’s scarce resources away from containing the virus, which spread unchecked amid artillery fire and drone attacks that have forced people to spend many hours in overcrowded bunkers.

Health care workers have been hit especially hard and have no choice but to continue to operate on the wounded.

“They may lie down in a corner to bring the fever down and then get up and continue to perform operations,” said Karabakh’s health minister Ararat Ohanjanyan, who tested positive and continues to work despite a fever and pneumonia.

Patients in the most serious condition have been sent to Armenia, while others have been admitted to hospitals or are treated at home.

Ohanjanyan said authorities still don’t have a good handle on how many people are infected after shelling put an end to contact tracing.

With Azerbaijani forces reportedly inching towards Lachin District, the key road connecting Armenia to Karabakh could be severed - a scenario that could leave tens of thousands trapped within the enclave in the winter of a pandemic.

Health care staff have had to carry on working despite symptoms. Credit: AP

The precise death toll is unclear but is well into the thousands, with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week putting the total figure across the conflict at “near 5,000”.

Official figures around military casualties given by both sides are considered unreliable and Azerbaijan has not announced how many of its soldiers have died – but civilian deaths stand at 37 and 61, according to Karabakh and Azeri authorities respectively.

As more and more die, the international response has generally been limited to either ineffective action or statements of concern.

Canada suspended weapon sales to Turkey while US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he hoped Armenia will defend itself.

Russia and France both mediated a ceasefire that lasted just a matter of minutes, while the United States-brokered agreement has also been ignored.

The UK's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said he discussed "the need to de-escalate current tensions in... the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh", while NATO, of which Turkey is a member, is "deeply concerned".

Meanwhile Turkey remains outspoken and forthright about its support for Azerbaijan and has not responded to calls for de-escalation.

For Armenians from Syria and Karabakh, it all adds up to a painful reminder of the past.

“During the genocide, who helped us? We have always been alone,” said Garo.

“We were alone then and we are alone now.”

Tahir Taghizade, Ambassador of Azerbaijan in the UK, said in response to the various claims: "It has been almost 30 years that Armenia occupied and ethnically cleansed Azerbaijan’s internationally recognised Nagorno Karabakh region and 7 adjacent districts. UNSC resolutions of 822, 853, 874, and 884 of 1993 demanding immediate, complete and unconditional withdrawal of Armenian occupying forces from occupied territories of Azerbaijan remain unfulfilled.

"In light of the above-mentioned, there are fundamental questions to ask: What are these Syrian-Armenians doing in the internationally recognized territories of Azerbaijan? How could Armenia pursue illegal re-settlement in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan in the post-1945 world of norms and principles, including those pertaining to sovereignty, territorial integrity and inviolability of state borders?"

He added that Azerbaijan was exercising its right to self-defence under UN charter and taking counter-offensive measures at its internationally recognised territories occupied by Armenia.

He said: "Azerbaijan does not deliberately target civilians and does not use cluster munitions against them. Armed Forces of Azerbaijan have been constantly calling civilians to stay away from military installations.

"Azerbaijan categorically rejects the allegations on the use of Syrian mercenaries."