Armenians burn their homes ahead of mass exodus




Armenians burn their homes ahead of mass exodus
Armenians burn their homes ahead of mass exodus  

As his wife and daughters said goodbye to their home, Gulgen Tomanyan loaded the family's possessions onto a truck and prepared to escape a contested land.

"Danger is coming," said Mr Tomanyan, 60. "We've lived here for over 20 years but have no choice but to leave. Where will we live now? I do not know. I cannot tell you."

Mr Tomanyan and his family are among thousands of ethnic Armenians fleeing their villages in the separatist enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh ahead of a November 15 deadline that hands control of part of this disputed territory to Azerbaijan.

Some residents have even taken to burning down their homes, refusing to leave them to Azerbaijanis who are expected to return following the handover and were themselves evicted in the early 1990s as part of the region's desperate cycle of displacement.

Ethnic Armenians fear revenge attacks once the area is relinquished to Azeri forces as part of the Russian-brokered peace agreement which ended weeks of fierce fighting.

Thousands have been killed around the unrecognised republic, which falls within Azerbaijan's borders but broke away from Azerbaijani control in the 1990s.

The ceasefire deal stipulates that the Kalbajar district and several other areas in Nagorno-Karabakh must be ceded back to Azerbaijan. In village after village, civilians have been piling their vehicles with luggage, furniture and appliances.

One car was loaded with sofas, another with a washing machine and toilet bowl. Some were seen stripping tin sheets from their roofs while others removed flooring and window panes before their hurried departure.

"They're kicking us out and we barely have time to pack up and leave," said Antaram Melikan, a grandmother in her 60s. She broke into tears as her husband Grisha loaded a van, this time without the help of their son who was killed a few weeks ago on the battlefront.

"How can I stay here alongside Azerbaijani people? We could never live together. Never."

"If we stay, we're going to be slaughtered," Grisha added. "So what's the point in staying?"

Their daughter-in-law, Ani Melikan, 29, looked on from the roadside. "This is our land, our ancestral land," she said, holding back tears. "I hope one day we can return but for now we can't."

Set against the backdrop of dark peaks, the small town of Kalbajar still lies partly in ruins from battles that took place here in the first Nagorno-Karabakh war almost 30 years ago.

Since 1993, Armenian separatist leaders have held the wider district after tens of thousands of Azerbaijanis were forced from their homes, taking refuge in other parts of the country.

Houses here have again been hit by fresh artillery strikes in recent weeks. Among the latest round of refugees is Aleksandr Bagiyan, a builder in his 50s with three children. He came here after fleeing the Azerbaijani capital, Baku when Armenians living there faced persecution.

Ethnic tensions and conflict are uprooting him once more.

"We lost everything when we had to flee back then so we moved to this area to start a new life," he said. "But we can't stay here and wait for them to come and slaughter us. We need to be going. There is no other option."

Mr Bagiyan plans to move in with relatives temporarily in Armenia. Beyond that, his family's fate is uncertain.

"We have no faith that we'll be able to return here. No one here knows what the future holds."

In the valley below, dozens of men had taken to the slopes to cut down as many trees as possible to sell for timber, before they too would leave for good.

"Time is of the essence," said one of them, chainsaw in hand. "We're cutting down these trees to sell the wood before the Azeris arrive. This is our last opportunity to make some money."

Several miles away, soldiers and families gathered outside the Dadivank monastery, a millennium-old complex nestled into a rugged mountain gorge.

Dating back to the 9th century, the highland church was built at the heart of a restive region, fought over by rival empires for centuries. Now it too will fall into Azeri hands.

Faces etched with sadness, scores of visitors had come to say goodbye to the sacred site before the territory's handover cuts off access.

Wearing black gowns and a silver crucifix, the head priest met with members of his congregation and hugged them farewell.

"Dadivank is a pearl for Armenians," said Father Hovhannes, a former army chaplain, who recently posed for a photograph posted by the Armenian government while holding a cross and assault rifle.

"Is the world blind to what is happening here? Only God knows if my life is in danger. I will stay with my parish and with my people."

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