“We have the impression of being in a state of siege”: a year after the war, the life of the inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh is turned upside down

By Faustine Vincent

Posted today at 5:00 p.m.

Achot Haroutiounian hesitated before accepting to receive us at his home, because he feels like a foreigner there. This small apartment in the suburb of Yerevan, the Armenian capital, these somewhat decrepit walls, this furniture that does not belong to him … None of this resembles his life before, when this Armenian of 54 years lived with his family in a big and beautiful house in Chouchi (Choucha in Azeri), in Nagorno-Karabakh.

On paper, he is still the director of the city’s historical museum, symbolic and considered the Jerusalem of the disputed enclave. In fact, any return is impossible: Shushi passed into Azerbaijan’s hands after Armenia’s crushing defeat in the war that broke out just a year ago in Nagorno-Karabakh on September 27 2020, killing more than 6,000 on both sides. The ceasefire, signed on November 9 under the aegis of Moscow, also allowed Baku to regain control of the seven buffer zones surrounding the separatist enclave. The Armenians had conquered them thirty years earlier during the first war (1988-1994), driving out more than 600,000 Azerbaijanis.

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Refugee Achot Haroutiounian from Shushi city in his new apartment in Yerevan, Armenia on September 22, 2021.

Living memory of Chouchi, his hometown, Achot Haroutiounian is convinced to have been personally targeted by the bombardment which destroyed his house in October 2020, then by this other which shattered the windows of his car while he was driving the escape. Given for dead, he arrived a few days later in Yerevan safe and sound. “I represent a danger for Azerbaijan because I know Shushi’s story by heart”, he says, installed, with his wife and daughter, on his balcony with a view of Mount Ararat, symbol of Armenia. The day before, he has “Almost had a heart attack” by discovering, on a video, that the museum was ” destroy “ : “Azerbaijanis are allegedly doing renovation work because a bomb fell on it. They already renamed it the “Mehmandarov Palace” [fondateur de l’armée nationale d’Azerbaïdjan]. It hurts a lot ”.

Water cuts

In recent months, the family has considered returning to live in Nagorno-Karabakh, before giving up – temporarily – for lack of available accommodation. “This is the main problem”, says Guéram Stepanian, the defender of the rights of the self-proclaimed Republic. The return of 125,000 displaced persons (out of the 150,000 inhabitants officially recorded before the war) to a territory cut by two-thirds created a shortage, coupled with a sharp increase in rents. In Stepanakert, the “capital” of Nagorno-Karabakh, the population jumped by 30%. “Many families meet at eight in a studio of 10 m2, in very precarious conditions, continues Mr. Stepanian. However, the construction of new accommodation will take years. “

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