Refugees from the Nagorno-Karabakh region in Azerbaijan ride in a truck upon their arrival at the border village of Kornidzor, Armenia, Sept. 27. Tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians, most of them Christian, are fleeing the enclave Armenians call Artsakh following a defeat by surrounding Azerbaijan forces. OSV News photo/Irakli Gedenidze, Reuters

Fear of erasure fuels Artsakh exodus

  • October 11, 2023

In a chilling reminder of the Nazi blitzkrieg that ripped through Europe in the 1940s, Azerbaijan, with a lightning military offensive on Sept. 19, dealt a fatal blow to Artsakh (also called Nagorno Karabakh), a disputed territory within its boundaries, sending almost all of its 120,000 Christian Armenians into forced exile.

Isolated, starved and weakened by the nine-month blockade of the Lachin Corridor that connects Artsakh (the ancient Armenian name for the territory) to Armenia, their only supply route to food and other essentials, they were overpowered and routed in the sudden miliary strike by Azerbaijan.  

Artsakh Armenians are now leaving their ancestral homeland, homes, possessions, churches and monasteries, terrified by the prospect of further persecution and erasure of their ancient Christian heritage by the Azerbaijani government.

Having adamantly refused to lift the blockade for nine months, Azerbaijan finally opened the Lachin Corridor on Oct. 1 after Artsakh’s leaders signed a surrender decree.

Instead of a lifeline allowing them to remain however, it became an escape route. Families crammed into cars and trucks, with whatever belongings they could carry, reached Armenia after a long, harrowing drive.

Armenia had received 47,000 refugees in 48 hours by Sept. 27,  said Alexandre Meterissian, a Canadian Armenian from Montreal.

“That is the equivalent of Canada receiving 600,000 refugees,” said Meterissian. “We couldn’t even handle 300 per day at the peak of the Roxham Road crisis (the “irregular” crossing since shut down along the Quebec-New York border). Armenia needs our help.”

By Sept. 30, the number of refugees had climbed to 100,000.

Nuri Kino, a Swedish journalist and humanitarian worker who founded the non-profit A Demand for Action, says many who are fleeing have a genuine fear of ethnic cleansing and the loss of their Christian heritage under Azerbaijani rule.

“Armenians are also deeply concerned about the fate of the religious heritage they are leaving behind in Artsakh, including churches and monasteries dating as far back as the fourth and fifth centuries,” said Kino.

Simon Maghakyan, an expert on cultural erasure, and a lecturer at the University of Colorado in Denver, said it’s the first time in 1,700 years the entire Armenian Church had to flee Artsakh.

“To ensure the peoples’ right of return to reclaim their heritage, it would require strong and sustainable international presence, demilitarization of the borders and self-governance by the Armenians of Artsakh.  This is not something that Azerbaijan is willing to offer, and not something that the international community is willing to push for. But it doesn’t mean that the issue shouldn’t be raised,” he said.

Kino has come across some harrowing scenes as he helps the refugees.

“Haik (Kazarian) and I and drove with a team of volunteers to the Goris,” said Kino. “Some individuals were crammed into small, severely dilapidated cars, having waited in queues for days. In the first car I approached, there was a man with his ailing wife, three children and a large carpet. It turned out to be woven by his great-grandmother. It was the most treasured possession he wanted to bring with him.”

Haik Kazarian is a Canadian Armenian from Montreal, who moved back to his birth country to help people displaced by the Azerbaijan-Armenia war of November 2020. A charity he founded at the time, Transparent Armenia Charitable Foundation, is now in overdrive to help those fleeing and is working in partnership with Kino and A Demand for Action.

“Yesterday we drove a total of 10 hours to and from Goris (a border town, 250 kms from the capital, Yerevan) and we took a little over two tons of food, clothes, shoes, school supplies, hygiene products and some toys,” he said.

The exodus has seen charitable organizations in the border towns of Armenia such as Goris — prevented for nine months by the blockade from tending to the humanitarian needs of the starving people of Artsakh — now working around the clock to raise funds.

Aid workers say food, medicine, emergency shelter for those who have no relatives in Armenia and trauma counselling are the most urgent needs for the refugees, who having left Artsakh may never return. Many of them, severely malnourished due to the shortage of food during the blockade, had not eaten for days when they arrived,

“A major tragedy is unfolding before our eyes in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Latest reports from Armenia indicate that up to 100,0000 people have been forced to flee their ancestral homeland,” Carl Hétu, executive director of Development and Peace - Caritas Canada stated in a press release. “We understand from Caritas Armenia that the situation is critical. The displaced families need food, water, shelter, hygiene products, health care and trauma counselling.”

Hétu said the Canadian bishops’ development agency is sending an initial $35,000 to Caritas Armenia to help address the immediate needs of the refugees.

“We are also closely monitoring the situation and will act as needed, in coordination with Caritas Internationalis and Caritas Armenia. We accept donations for this crisis on our website at and we invite the Catholic community to pray for the Armenian refugees and the restoration of peace in the region.”

During the blockade of the Lachin Corridor, Azerbaijan had effectively prevented charitable organizations such as Caritas Armenia from providing any kind of humanitarian assistance. Even the International Committee of the Red Cross was given only sporadic and limited access during the nine months of the blockade.

For Kazarian and other Armenians, the scenes before them triggered flashbacks to painful experiences of the past.

“One of the refugees we helped was a weak, starved, wiry boy, maybe seven or eight years old,” he said.

“A long time ago, I was in a similar situation. I’ve been told stories by my parents, which became memories of my first day in Canada after leaving Armenia in 1994 (after a war with Azerbaijan displaced thousands of Armenians). I saw myself in that kid.”

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