The Surrender of Artsakh—An Eyewitness Account

VIEW GALLERY: Entrance to Shushi with an Azerbaijani sign (All photos by Dickran Khodanian)

BY DICKRAN KHODANIAN

KASHATAGH/STEPANAKERT, Artsakh – Imagine having to take the key to an Armenian church from Kashatagh in order to hand it to parish priest Rev. Fr. Aharon Melkumyan in Goris because potentially you may have been the final Armenian to visit before the region was surrendered to Azerbaijan’s control.

This is the reality we’re facing as an Armenian nation right now. As part of the deal made on November 9, Aghdam was ceded on November 20, Karvachar on November 25 following a 10 day delay, and Kashatagh on December 1.

From November 27 to 29 as I stayed in Goris. I was able to visit, explore, and help document the region of Kashatagh one final time prior to its transfer to Azerbaijan in addition to also visiting Stepanakert as well. Kashatagh is one of the 7 provinces of Artsakh and is the largest province by area (3,376.60 km2). The region’s capital is Berdzor and according to the last population count, its population was close to 10,000. The region bordered Armenia to the west and Iran to the south and was well known for accepting close to 200 Syrian Armenian refugees following the Syrian Civil War.

On December 1, 2020, a majority of Kashatagh was transferred to Azerbaijan with the exception of the Lachin Corridor, containing the localities of Berdzor, Sus, and Aghavno. Therefore, I had the opportunity to travel to northern Kashatagh, where I was able to visit multiple villages, churches, and other historic sites. After passing a heavily damaged bridge once entering Artsakh, my journey began with the village of Hochants. Hochants is home to the 17th century St. Stepanos Armenian Church that was reopened and reconsecrated in 2019 through the efforts of the Artsakh’s Ministry of Culture, Youth and Tourism, the Armenian Apostolic Church, and the Tufenkian Foundation. It was the key to this church that I had to take back to Goris.

The journey then continued to the Tsitsernavank Monastary, a 5th-6th century monastery that’s 5 kilometers of the border of Armenia’s Syunik province. The basilica of Tzitzernavank was believed to contain relics of St. George the Dragon-Slayer. Tsitsernavank’s church of St. George was reconsecrated and renovated in October 2001.

The villages were already emptied at this point and most houses were abandoned. Scenes of Armenians cutting trees to take with them to Armenia and taking apart homes were common similar to my trip to Karvatchar approximately two weeks ago. However, during this trip, the presence of Russian troops was heavy. In addition to the Russians now using what was the checkpoint for the Artsakh Republic as you entered, Russian convoys, police cars, and other types of military vehicles were on the road and stationed at different locations.

On day two, I travelled to as north of the village of Hak and made an attempt to stop at as many churches and historic sites as I could on the way back south to the main road. Hak is home to the 17th century Armenian Church of St. Minas and is located in north-west Kashatagh. It was restored in 2009 by the Tufenkian Foundation. Hak was already emptied out without a single soul in site and the church is located in the center of the village.

Later that day, we made stops in the villages of Mirik, Herik, Bertik, and Mashatagh where I visited the local Armenian churches and witnessed various historic sites and Armenian cross-stones (khachkars). These villages were also emptied out. The only individuals present were construction workers present to take apart certain structures. These villages are fairly remote and require a dirt road to get there. Mirik and Herik specifically are deep in the hills of Kashatagh where one can overlook mountain after mountain and valley after valley in the region of Kashatagh. Church after church and village after village, it kept become even more excruciating to face the concession of these territories, which was only taking place a few days following my visit. During my visit, a group from TUMO and the Tufenkian Foundation were also traveling across all the regions that were being transferred to Azerbaijan in order to 3D scan the churches in the region.

On day three, I made the trek to Stepanakert. Traveling through Berzdor where the situation still seemed uncertain following the agreement, it was evident that not everyone had returned and the town had not returned to its normalcy. When I was there in the final days of November, news about which parts of Berdzor and Kashatagh were to remain under Armenian control were very mixed, which some outlets stating that the residents of Berdzor were also forced to leave when they were initially told not to.

However, on December 1, Berdzor Mayor Narek Aleksanyan stated that many residents of Berdzor are still there. He added that the Russian peacekeepers had told them to lower the flag because no flags from either side would be allowed to be raised. Russian peacekeepers are currently stationed in Berdzor.

One thing that’s certain is that as I passed by the “A Free and Independent Artsakh Welcomes You” sign at the border of Armenia and Artsakh, it certainly didn’t feel like a free and independent Artsakh.

On the way to Stepanakert there were multiple Russian checkpoints with their flags raised everywhere. As you come across the entrance to Shushi, the painful sight of Turkish and Azerbaijani flags hung around the sign of Susa dauntingly welcomes you. Prior to my trip, the pictures of the Azerbaijani flags around or at the entrance of Shushi were extremely disheartening and troubling. I genuinely wouldn’t wish this sight upon anyone in person. Shushi has been home. Shushi has been a site where young diasporans from around the world have come to volunteer, build relationships, and contributed its development. And now as images and videos of Azerbaijani soldiers vandalizing churches and Armenian properties surfacing, it could be traumatizing for many.

As I entered Stepanakert, surprisingly there was some type of liveliness and it was clear a great deal of families had returned. Residents were walking around town and many markets and stores were operating. Internet, electricity, and utilities were mostly available. I drove through the city to find heavily damaged areas and sites heavily affected by the shelling and attacks as reported by the Armenian government. However, it seemed like the damage was mostly repaired and there was not a great deal of damage that remained.

I visited the market where approximately half the vendors were present selling fruits, honey, mulberry vodka, jingalov bread, among other items. The main market had surely been hit and it had not been entirely repaired but was enough to be. Based on my visit and exchanges with several local individuals, there were many individuals from Hadrut who were displaced and lost their homes who were currently in Stepanakert.

Outside the city hall in Stepanakert, there was a massive line of people waiting in order to receive nutrition from the government. The International Red Cross had provided boxes of nutrition and these boxes were being divided by families in Artsakh. In the main Renaissance Square in Stepanakert, I also witnessed a demonstration that took place organized by the families of the missing soldiers.

Some of the other sited damaged included the electricity network building in Stepanakert, the maternity hospital, and various homes throughout the city. The Armenian Relief Society’s Sosse Kindergarten was also slightly damaged due to an explosion that took place nearby. The kindergarten had been hit by shrapnel pieces.

Although the city was attempting to reach normalcy, it was apparent that it wasn’t entirely normal. The mood was somber and the people confused. Confused about what their future holds and unsure of the new developments that may or may not even take place regarding the deal that was made on November 9.

One thing that’s certain is that as I passed by the “A Free and Independent Artsakh Welcomes You” sign at the border of Armenia and Artsakh, it certainly didn’t feel like a free and independent Artsakh.

Those who wish to enter Artsakh now are welcomed by a heavy presence of Russian peacekeepers, an Azerbaijan controlled Shushi overlooking Stepanakert, and for the time being, only one Armenian controlled road that takes you to Artsakh from Armenia, the Lachin Corridor, since Karvachar was transferred to Azerbaijan.

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