From time to time, when leaving school, Ani Haroutounian, 13, follows in the footsteps of the older children on the dirt road leading to the cemetery in the hamlet of Khoznavar, in the south of Armenia. Alone, she hates walking between these avenues of gloomy gray steles where the tall grass camouflages snakes. Here, the muffled sounds of war still resonate. A few kilometers away, on the other side of a ravine filled with brush, lies Nagorno-Karabakh. On September 20, this territory hitherto populated by Armenians and landlocked in Azerbaijan, surrendered at the end of a lightning campaign led by the Azerbaijani army.
Ani doesn’t like coming here. But from these heights, the cemetery offers the only point of view that allows him to observe his father’s comings and goings. Enlisted in Ashkharazor, a militia created in concert with the Armenian army after the 2020 war, he goes on lookout every other week in an outpost, below the village. Ani is worried. Since the defeat in September, people have been asking the same question: what if Baku’s forces did not stop in Nagorno-Karabakh? In Khoznavar, the elders repeat that the war could move here, at the foot of the gray steles, on the dirt road which marks the border with Azerbaijan. Some rumors, fueled by social networks, even claim that the enemy wants to invade Armenia.
So we get active. In the tiny village square, a military van squeals its tires. About fifteen men in camouflage uniforms jostle, their arms loaded with bags, rifles, and bouquets of dry grass. “We use them to make brooms for the village,” explains one of the militiamen, his face blackened by dust. Even at the border, we don’t forget the essentials. So here is the militia. None of them was a soldier in the regular army, not even Ani’s father, a teacher of Armenian language and literature in the Khoznavar school. In exchange for a salary of 120,000 drams (270 euros) and an automatic weapon, they gave up their job. “Nearly 60% of the men in the village volunteered,” reports the mayor, Varo Grigorian. “They were just waiting for that, to be able to defend themselves.”
Ani’s father is part of the convoy, the teenager rushes into his arms. He soberly kisses his black hair. A 5-year-old nephew takes the opportunity to tear off his three-hole hood and pull it over his face. The other kids protest: they all want to be there. Become a soldier. “To protect the homeland,” says an 8-year-old blond boy, visibly sure of himself. “To obtain peace,” adds, more shyly, his friend. On this border strip, the war can also be heard in the words the children repeat.
In these gray areas, where reality and fear merge, no one trusts diplomacy. The announcement of talks that would be held between the two countries under the aegis of the European Union at the end of October leaves us unmoved. Three decades of conflict have created heavy liabilities. Since the victorious offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh, 100,000 of the region’s 120,000 inhabitants have preferred exile to life under Azerbaijani rule. “It looks like” ethnic cleansing, said Catherine Colonna, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, on October 5, reaffirming France’s diplomatic and political support for Armenia. On site, the route of the border becomes a point of contention. If the Zangezur corridor, supposed to connect Azerbaijan to Turkey by crossing Armenia, could be resolved with Iran’s proposal to pass it through its territory, Yerevan accuses Azerbaijani soldiers of illegally occupying 150 km2 of his territory. From Khoznavar, residents claim to have seen the enemy pillboxes approaching little by little. “A way to intimidate us,” according to Ani’s father.
Flee away from war
In a sense, the tactic works. In Goris, the provincial capital located a little further west, people want to flee to avoid the bullets. In the luxurious Goris hotel, the refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh can only think of leaving. To go where? Few accept being redirected to the border villages where most of the available housing is located. “I will not take the risk of making my children relive bombings,” repeats Angela Kagramanian, cuddling her 5-month-old daughter against her.
During the day, these refugees walk slowly in the courtyard of the hotel, in small groups, while looking for solutions. At night, five of them, sometimes six, huddle together in small rooms. Will the exodus of Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh give way to someone else? Because on this side of the border, the villages are emptying and the youth are leaving. “Kornidzor has become a retirement home,” laughs Garik Amarian, wearing a black cap that falls over his ears. At 75 years old, the man nicknamed “the encyclopedia” knows everything about this village, the last one before Azerbaijan. He was there in 1984, the year Kornidzor was awarded a Soviet medal for his agricultural achievements. “But that’s over. The arable land has gone to the Azerbaijani side. There is no more work here.”
Of the 1,300 officially registered residents, many have left. A conscientious neighbor of Garik Amarian kept their names in list form, on a piece of paper. In case, one day, the village completely empties. In front of his old friend, he walks in circles. “Every day I see Azerbaijani soldiers patrolling in the distance, near the border. Let them come down, I am waiting for them here.” The two elders promised each other never to leave Kornidzor. They are no longer really able to defend it. But like those who remain near the border, we will have to come and pick them up to dislodge them
The roots of the conflict
In the 19th century, Tatars (today the Azeris) lived in the territory of present-day Armenia, while numerous Armenians lived in Baku, today’s capital of Azerbaijan. The collapse of the Russian and Ottoman empires changed this situation. In 1915, the genocide perpetrated in Turkey left a million Armenians dead. Refugees flocked to ancestral Armenian lands, massacres took place as far as Baku with the complicity of the Tatars. In 1919, Azerbaijan and Armenia proclaimed their independence, claiming Nagorno-Karabakh. The two Republics were integrated into the Soviet Union, but in 1921, Stalin chose to attach Nagorno-Karabakh, mainly populated by Armenians, to Azerbaijan. Inter-ethnic violence then shook the entire 20th century.