In Kornizdor, a village on the eastern tip of Armenia, there is an overwhelming sense of abandonment.
On the other side of the valley the mist touches the hills on the Azerbaijani border. It is only a few kilometres away. Just beyond is the Lachin Corridor, the only road which connects Armenia with the exclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The people of Kornizdor are preparing for the worst; as fighting restarted in Nagorno-Karabakh, many believe an exodus of around 150,000 Armenians from their homeland is imminent. Yet it appears no-one has the capacity to stop it.
On Tuesday, the Azerbaijani government began what it described as an “anti-terrorist” operation inside Nagorno-Karabakh. It vowed that it would not stop until the ethnic Armenians who live there surrendered.
On Wednesday, the Nagorno-Karabakh government announced a ceasefire, and agreed to dissolve their army, and destroy their weapons.
The Azerbaijani government insists that it wants to integrate ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh – and has offered humanitarian corridors out to those who want to leave.
Their words mean nothing to many Armenians there: around 40,000 are currently waiting at Stepanakert airport, the headquarters of the Russian peacekeeping mission.
There are reports they are being denied food, water, and other essentials.
Outside the only shop in Kornizdor, a group of elderly men smoke cigarettes and discuss what may come. “Bigger countries have always fought over Armenia”, says one, “but they never help us. We are always, always left alone”.
It is difficult to describe the historical importance this exclave holds in the eyes of Armenians. Five out of six of Armenia’s most recent prime ministers have been born in Nagorno-Karabakh.
As a small landlocked country in the Caucasus, nestled between Russia, Turkey and Iran, the Armenian people and their land have been an afterthought for the great empires which have surrounded them.
Armenians are spread from Syria to the Caucasus, yet throughout history have rarely had their own state. Much of what was once Armenian land is now in Turkey, lost during the Armenian genocide in 1915, when over a million people were murdered in the final days of the Ottoman Empire.
Along the border, some believe this land is still worth dying for, even though they are well aware of the weakness of the Armenian army against oil-rich Azerbaijan.
“Fight and die, that’s all there’s left to do”, says a villager called Vartan. Another one agrees: “let the women and children leave. The men will stay and fight for what is theirs”.
‘It’s not a war, it’s genocide’
Nagorno-Karabakh is an enclave of ethnic Armenians within Azerbaijan. Two wars have been fought over it since the final days of the Soviet Union, when the government in Nagorno-Karabakh declared its intention to join the Republic of Armenia.
The first lasted from 1998 to 1994, with atrocities committed on both sides. It ended with a great victory for Armenia: it recaptured not only Nagorno-Karabakh, but seven surrounding provinces.
Together, they are referred to as Artsakh by Armenians. From these provinces, hundreds of thousands of Azeris were displaced. Tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians were killed – many more of the dead were Azeri.
Yet the victory was not to last. In 2020, Azerbaijan re-started the long-frozen conflict, with a far stronger army. They regained control of many of the surrounding provinces.
Nagorno-Karabakh retained its independence, with Russian peacekeepers dispatched to stop the conflict from reigniting. The defeat was a great humiliation for Armenia.
The sense of fear in the village is palatable, despite the new ceasefire. Many believe Azerbaijan will use their control of Nagorno-Karabakh to conduct an invasion of Armenia.
President Aliyev of Azerbaijan has made references to Syunik province and other areas of Armenia as “historical lands of Azerbaijan”.
Many on the border have relatives in Nagorno-Karabakh, or have lived there themselves. “It is not a war”, one woman says, “it is a genocide”.
Since its independence, Azerbaijan has always been aligned with Turkey, another Muslim nation whose language closely resembles the Turkish one. Azeris are referred to as “Turks” by many Armenians.
Calls have been growing to sanction Azerbaijan. Yet because of the war in Ukraine, and Europe’s desire to find energy sources beyond Russia, it has a uniquely strong hand.
Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, referred to Azerbaijan as a “reliable, trustworthy partner” last summer, upon signing an energy agreement for the EU.
‘Peacekeepers and war in the same village’
Yet the greatest sense of anger is directed towards Russia, historically the greatest power in the region, who they believe abandoned them at their time of need. “Russia supports no one”, one man says, “no one except itself”.
In 2020, Russia facilitated negotiations between the two, having reneged on its security agreement to defend Armenia. Russian soldiers guarded the Lachin corridor which connected Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh.
The war in Ukraine has left Russia distracted, its peacekeeping mission even less important as it focused on another conflict.
Watching his young son play with conkers, Tigran speaks of his disappointment with Russia: “how can there be peacekeepers and war in the same village?”
His thoughts are echoed in the recent words of Prime Minister Pashinyan, who recently described Armenia’s dependence on Russia as a “strategic mistake”.
They are strong words from a country which is second only to Belarus in terms of Russian dependence, according to an index by The Economist.
Azerbaijan’s military intervention seems to be the last act of the war which began in 2020. Since then, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh have lived in a state of uncertainty.
Many believed the war would inevitably start again; a blockade of the capital, Stepanakert, earlier this year was a foreshadowing of what was to come. Residents were without access to food and medicine, and entirely dependent on Azerbaijan.
The many names of Nagorno-Karabakh denote its complex history in a region between great powers. It is known as the Black Garden: Karabakh is supposedly an amalgamation of the Turkish word for black (kara), and the Iranian word for garden (bagh). Nagorno-Karabakh means “mountainous Karabakh” in Russian.
And lastly, Artsakh, the name used by Armenians for Karabakh and its surrounding provinces, is similar to the word for “free” in Armenian.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have not always been enemies. On the border, villagers spoke of warm relations under the Soviet Union: “we would invite them for tea. They would sleep in our houses”.
But many believe the current situation will lead to the end of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. It may be the final conflict that is fought over this land.
“Those times were good”, said one grandmother, “but that’s forty years ago. Now, Karabakh is gone.”
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