Since late September, over 100,000 ethnic Armenian refugees have been forced to leave their homes in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Eighty percent of the enclave’s entire Armenian population fled after the Azerbaijani military launched an offensive, backed by Turkey, that took control of the territory. After blockading the enclave for nine months, the Azerbaijani military attack killed and wounded hundreds. Those fleeing, some with only the clothes on their backs, are unwilling to live under Azerbaijani rule, fearing they will face oppression. Armenia condemned the Azerbaijani military operation against Nagorno-Karabakh, as “ethnic cleansing.”
Nagorno-Karabakh is recognized internationally as being part of Azerbaijan, but this region has been controlled by ethnic Armenians for 35 years. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union the nations have waged two wars over the territory, first during the 1990s where Azerbaijanis were driven out, and again in 2020.
Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Dr. Sharon Chekijian, associate professor of emergency medicine at Yale-New Haven Hospital. Here she discusses the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, which Armenians call Artsakh, and the current situation for the enclave’s residents that have been forcibly exiled in a crisis largely ignored by the world community and news media.
DR. SHARON CHEKIJIAN: In 2020, Azerbaijan attacked the area and regained some areas that were being occupied as sort of a buffer zone for safety. But they also took areas of Artsakh. So I can’t say they regained those areas because those were never their areas, although they were within the Soviet borders of Azerbaijan. There was a horrific 44- day war and it left us with a very small land mass.
Within that area there were 120,000 Armenians that were living. Last year, actually, I was in Armenia and there was an attack, a sort of four-day war on different areas in Armenia proper and also attacks on Artsakh. And this year, with all the pressure that was being mounted by the international community, which was not enough pressure to stop what happened, Azerbaijan decided to attack and the world powers have said that they were being reassured by Azerbaijan that they were not going to attack.
But all of the signs were there, namely munitions flowing from Israel into Azerbaijan, which we saw before the 2020 war. And on Sept. 19, they really brutally attacked civilian populations. There are reports, although there are no international observers, nor will they let U.N. missions into the areas where this happened. But there are reports that there were massacres of approximately four villages — beheadings, including the beheading of the mayor of Martakert.
Death of children, actually, beheadings of children and videos being posted of Azeris firing directly into civilian settlements. And so when the following day Lachin corridor was opened up, you can imagine that there was a mass exodus. Azeris are trying to paint this as a voluntary fleeing. They don’t even use the word fleeing, but voluntary exodus. But every Armenian and every Armenian of Artsakh knows that you don’t leave voluntarily, with just the clothes on your back.
These were people that were living in fear for their lives, that had been starved for close to one year, who were living in bunkers whenever bombs were falling on them. And when the opportunity presented itself and the border opened, they left in a panic, including actually even the health minister of Artsakh, who I consulted with. He left just as an ordinary citizen with nothing more than the clothes on his back.
So this was certainly not a voluntary exodus.
SCOTT HARRIS: We only have a few minutes left, Dr. Chekijian, but I did want to ask you this. Why has there been so little attention by the world community and especially our corporate media outlets here in the United States to this tragic case of ethnic cleansing? The second question would be what can the United States or any of the nations of the world do at this point to help those refugees who have been forced to flee Nagorno-Karabakh?
DR. SHARON CHEKIJIAN: So I’ll say one word about the refugees. They’re very lucky that they were just adjacent to Armenia, a country that speaks the same language they speak. And so within those parameters, they were able to freely move around Armenia, as opposed to other refugees who are kept in refugee camps and who really have no legal status. So we’re really quite fortunate that we’re able to house people.
Of course, it’s a challenge in a country of, you know, close to 3 million people to suddenly find housing, schools, jobs for, you know, 120,000 people. But there’s almost nobody left in Artsakh right now. An emergency group stayed behind to look for the elderly and people who couldn’t evacuate. So I think that the most important thing, you know, why hasn’t this received a lot of attention?
Azerbaijan has spent billions actually ensuring, as has Turkey, that that there will be silence. They’ve bought silence on the part of the journalist. In fact, there was a media junket to an area called Shusha that was captured in the 2020 war and people had their flights paid for. And that buys, you know, silence on the part of the media, unfortunately.
So the most important thing is really to get the word out. If I could dream and it’s really a dream at this point, our ultimate goal would be remedial secession. And that means, you know, if you’re a threatened people in an area, that area can actually secede from the country within which borders it survives and lives. But that really, in this case would require U.N. armed peacekeepers, not just peacekeepers, but armed peacekeepers and a lot of them to keep the peace.
And it would also really require a world power recognizing the Republic of Artsakh. And so far, nobody’s come forward to do that, unfortunately.
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