The Forgotten Victims of the Nagorno Karabakh Conflict

By Guest
An Armenian girl looks out from her ruined house in the town of Agdam in Nagorno Karabakh. Reuters Photo/David Mdzinarishvili

As sad and overwhelming as they may be, some experiences make you say, “I am glad I was there to witness it.” Meeting with the refugees and IDPs affected by the Nagorno Karabakh conflict was that kind of an experience for me.

The conflict started in 1989, when the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, a predominantly Armenian territory within Soviet Azerbaijan, declared its independence from Azerbaijan and union with Armenia. The resulting tension between the Armenian and Azerbaijani residents of NK soon turned into an ethnic conflict that led to the death of many and the displacement of many more. As the Azeris in Armenia, NK, and surrounding territories fled to Azerbaijan, the Armenians in Azerbaijan moved to NK and Armenia proper. The total number of displaced people is estimated to be one million.

Nineteen years after the ceasefire in 1994, an agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan is still not reached and the NK Republic continues its existence as a de facto independent republic recognized by no other state. In the meantime, the life of a displaced person has become a permanent tragedy for the Armenian refugees as well as the Azeri IDPs.

The IDPs in Azerbaijan have more or less sufficient support from the government. As a sign of the national will to end the conflict and reclaim the territories, the IDPs from Shusha (a city inside NK with Azerbaijani majority prior to the war) have organized as a community in an area outside Baku, with their neighborhoods, schools, and arts centers. Although they have acceptable living standards, the government’s promise to return them to their homes perpetuates their status as IDPs and prevents them from integrating into the society. It also makes them put up with the misery of a temporary life in the expectation of a mutually-agreed settlement that does not appear to be in sight.

The situation of Armenian refugees is more dire. Having left Azerbaijan, the ones that chose to stay in Armenia faced two difficult choices. The first was to obtain Armenian citizenship and renounce all claims to assistance they might get through refugee status. The second was to remain as refugees but endure the costs of quasi-absent state support, insufficient mobility, and limited access to employment opportunities. Even in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, they live in abandoned buildings that raise sanitary concerns and accommodate far too many people. In addition to this, they lack the glimpse of hope that the Azeri IDPs have: they do not want to go back to Azerbaijan even if an agreement is reached because they are too afraid.

Although there is a vast difference between their living conditions, there is one thing that the Armenian refugees and Azeri IDPs have in common: despite experiencing the most suffering, they are the forgotten victims of this conflict. And as long as both governments define their national identities on the basis of this conflict and fail to reach an agreement, they will continue to be so.

Ezgisu Biber is a Master's student at Johns Hopkins SAIS. She visited Azerbaijan and Armenia as part of a conflict management field trip.