By Olivia Katrandjian and Siranush Sargsyan /openDemocracy
- Trigger warning: Contains descriptions of violence and death
It was the afternoon of 19 September on a late-summer school day for Gurgen that the carnage erupted with sudden ferocity. The seven-year-old had just returned from classes when explosions sounded in Sarnaghbyur, his small village in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh in the South Caucasus, known to Armenians as Artsakh.
Azerbaijan, which had blockaded Nagorno-Karabakh for over nine months, starving the 120,000 ethnic Armenian inhabitants, had launched a massive assault across the region, which lies just east of Armenia proper, within the official borders of Azerbaijan. After 100,000 people fled the attack, MEPs in the European Parliament have said the attack amounts to ethnic cleansing.
Garik Aleksanyan, the mayor of Sarnaghbyur, attempted to control the situation and prevent panic in the village, directing residents to what he thought was a safe place behind a hill in the hope of escaping the shelling from Azerbaijani positions a few kilometres away.
“Three very large shells exploded, throwing the whole earth from under our feet into the air,” Gurgen said from his hospital bed in the regional capital of Stepanakert, 30km away from his village. Speaking to openDemocracy with the permission of his mother, he was eerily calm as he gestured to demonstrate the bomb blast.
Shrapnel cut into Gurgen’s hand, leg, and forehead. Other children around him were even more severely wounded. His aunt was dead.
“Rozig’s cheeks were pierced by shrapnel, and Ashot’s eyes were damaged,” he said, speaking of two other children. “Mikael’s throat was severely damaged, and the son of the village mayor’s son had shrapnel piercing through his nose. Auntie Gohar’s nose was severely injured by shrapnel, she passed away.”
Aleksanyan, the mayor, had walked away from the group to try and find phone service – the shelling was relentless, and the villagers had no way to escape. He needed to ask officials in Stepanakert to send immediate help. But the phone lines had been cut.
“By the time I returned, the villagers had been shelled again. I found my son there, bleeding,” said Aleksanyan, who also discovered his mother-in-law and father dead and his wife and daughter wounded.
After nine months under siege from Azerbaijan, which surrounds the enclave, no one but the mayor had enough fuel to drive to the hospital. So Aleksanyan gathered his 15-year-old son and the other wounded children into his car.
Though he was injured, Gurgen helped his younger siblings into the car. “I took my sister first, and then my brother,” he said proudly.
The mayor’s son’s condition was so critical that there was no time to reach the largest hospital in Stepanakert. Instead, Aleksanyan took him to the nearest hospital in the town of Askeran along the border with Azerbaijan, hoping his son could be treated quickly at the understaffed, rundown facility.
“They promised me they would operate on my son and bring him back,” Aleksanyan said.
Leaving his son at the Askeran hospital, Aleksanyan proceeded through incessant bombing, past fires and burned vehicles, to a far more well-equipped children’s hospital in Stepanakert, about 20km to the east, where he handed over the wounded.
“In that moment, I received the news that my son was no more,” Aleksanyan said in shock, his voice empty.
The methods used to attack Sarnaghbyur also played out in other villages across Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous territory that had operated as a self-governing entity since Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a war over the region in the early 1990s. Azerbaijan captured part of the territory in a 44-day war in 2020, after which Russian peacekeepers were deployed in the area. But that didn’t stop occasional attacks by Azerbaijan.
Since December 2022, Azerbaijan has blockaded what remained of the autonomous enclave, cutting off the supply of food, medicine, fuel, and basic necessities. That action, designed to starve the population into submission or flight, drew charges of genocide from an array of international experts and watchdog groups.
On 19 September, Azerbaijan launched a large-scale offensive against Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan’s defence minister had said in a statement that this so-called ‘anti-terrorist operation’ targeted “only legitimate military installations and infrastructure” “using high-precision weapons.”
But according to eyewitness accounts by residents and officials to openDemocracy, Azerbaijan’s military attack included indiscriminate shelling not only along the line of contact, but also residential neighbourhoods in Stepanakert, as well as towns and villages throughout Nagorno-Karabakh.
Within a day, Azerbaijani forces quickly overwhelmed local defences, killing over 200 people, including civilians.
A ceasefire was signed in which Azerbaijan agreed to stop the bombing if the local unrecognised government surrendered and disarmed. Days later, without the intervention of any outside powers, Nagorno-Karabakh president Samvel Shahramanyan was forced to sign a decree dissolving state institutions by the end of the year. “The Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) ceases its existence,” the declaration read.
According to local officials, of the 76 residents of Sarnaghbyur village, five were killed, including three children, and 15 more were injured in the attacks. Half of the six children who attended the village’s elementary school died. Four people were also captured, three of whom are women.
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Thousands of forcibly displaced people spent over a week on the streets of Stepanakert, transforming the city into an open-air refugee camp, where people wandered in obscurity like ghosts, desperately seeking food, medical aid and warm clothing. Without fuel, trucks were not able to collect rubbish, and the streets reeked of rotting garbage.
Finally, on 24 September, Azerbaijan allowed the first group of refugees to enter Armenia, after they spent days camped outside Russian military bases. According to Armenian government officials, by 30 September, 100,417 forcibly displaced people – almost the entire population – had been evacuated to Armenia.
Aleksanyan was evacuated from Stepanakert to Goris, Armenia, with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), along with his wounded wife and daughter and the bodies of his mother-in-law, father and son.
Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev has publicly promised to guarantee the rights and security of ethnic Armenians living in the region, claiming that those who fled did so of their own choosing. Yet international experts, including a former chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, have said there is “reasonable basis to believe that a genocide is being committed” against the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh. Like many Karabakh Armenians, Gurgen said he desperately wants to return to his village, but cannot imagine living there safely under Azerbaijani rule.
After a 30-hour journey, Gurgen, his mother and four siblings, reached Goris as well, with only the clothes they were wearing when they fled the bombardment. As refugees, they have been given temporary housing at a hostel in a nearby town, having left behind everything in Sarnaghbyur.
Olivia Katrandjian is a writer whose work has been published in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, the BBC, PBS, ABC News, Quartz, the Oxford Review of Books, and Ms. She has been nominated for the PEN/Robert J. Dau Prize, and listed for Luxembourg’s National Literary Prize, the Bristol and Cambridge Short Story Prizes, and the Oxford-BNU Award. She is the founder of the International Armenian Literary Alliance.