‘This is our life’: Armenians flee before Azerbaijan arrives

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Prodding her cows forward with a long stick, Asya Petrosyan drives the herd along the snow-covered Lachin corridor, the last road out of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia.

With Azerbaijani forces preparing to take back this district on Tuesday, the 67-year-old is rushing to bring 30 animals more than 55 kilometres (35 miles) to the town of Goris across the border in Armenia.

“We used to live here but it is being returned to (the Azerbaijanis) so we are leaving,” says Petrosyan, wrapped in a fluorescent green down jacket against the cold.

“This is our life,” she says, trudging along the road while an accompanying Lada SUV carries goods and two calves too young to make the long journey.

Lachin is the last of three districts — after Aghdam and Kalbajar — that Armenia is surrendering to Azerbaijan under a Russian-brokered peace deal that ended weeks of heavy fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh.

The agreement, signed on November 9, sees Armenia handing back seven districts that it seized around Karabakh when the separatist region broke away from Azerbaijan’s control during a war in the early 1990s.

Lachin runs from north to south along the eastern border of Armenia down to Iran and will be under Azerbaijani control except for a few areas bordering the corridor.

– Abandoned –

Travelling north from the town of Lachin (called Berdzor by the Armenians) the next village is Qarega, set on a mountainside overlooking a deep valley.

Here residents wasted no time in leaving. The few dozen houses scattered around the village have already been abandoned, partly destroyed or burnt down.

On Sunday, a thin plume of smoke was still escaping from a building with blackened walls.

Outside another partly burnt building, 56-year-old Seryozha Ordyan of Goris is busy retrieving black plastic water pipes while his son collects firewood.

The building’s owners and their two children — relatives of Ordyan — left everything behind a few days ago. The children are now in Goris while their parents went on to the Armenian capital Yerevan to look for housing.

“We are taking this wood to heat us and their children, and I’m also collecting this pipe. It is theirs; they might need it,” says Ordyan.

– ‘We’ll stay with the Russians’ –

Along the edge of a small road leading to the village, men use chainsaws to harvest snow-covered logs and load them into a dozen vans and large trucks.

Despite the frantic efforts to clear out, there is some relief in the district.

In his office, Lachin district head Mushegh Alaverdyan says he has learned that Armenians living in some settlements will be allowed to stay.

“We have received official information that Berdzor, Aghavno and Sus will remain Armenian,” he says, referring to three towns along the roadside of the Lachin corridor.

“There will be no Azerbaijani authorities here. That is clear,” he insists, before adding more cautiously: “At this moment I cannot tell you what will happen over the next few hours.”

In the centre of town, at an intersection with the strategic road that goes to Karabakh’s main city Stepanakert, Russian peacekeepers are stationed with two light armoured vehicles.

Moscow has deployed some 2,000 soldiers between the two sides including at checkpoints along the five-kilometre-wide (three-mile-wide) Lachin corridor.

“We will stay here with the Russians… until the next bad news. My house is right next door; I’ll stay if I’m allowed,” the owner of a grocery store at the crossing says on condition of anonymity.

Asked about the possibility of Azerbaijanis using this road, the man says he is “not afraid of Azerbaijanis if they come”.

“In Russia I met a lot of them. People live on both sides of borders after wars, and things are fine.”

France 24

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