October 2023, Yerevan, Armenia. From the left: Khar, Nushik and Diana, 18-year-old refugees from Artsakh.
Dreaming of home: How Armenian teenagers navigate the exodus and loss of Nagorno-Karabakh
Sitting in one of the small cafes in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, on a late October afternoon, 18-year-old Knar Khachatryan shared in an interview with me that her “only dream is to go back to my homeland Artsakh.”
She came to Armenia earlier to study at the Yerevan State University and could never go back because of Azerbaijan’s large-scale offensive on September 19, 2023 and the ensuing takeover of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region which is known to Armenians as Artsakh.
My other interviewees, 18 year-olds Nushik Mirzoyan and Diana Khachatryan, shared the same dream for their future – returning to their homeland Artsakh, a mountainous territory in the South Caucasus, which had been internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but operated as a de facto autonomous republic, governed by ethnic Armenians, since the 1990s.
These three girls – whose individual stories are featured further in the article – are among thousands of Armenian teens who were forcibly displaced from their homes in Artsakh as a result of Azerbaijan’s deadly military operation in mid-September, shattering the enclave’s self-declared independence.
Faced with threats of ethnic cleansing and persecution by Azerbaijan, more than 100,400 ethnic Armenians, over 80% of the entire current population of Nagorno-Karabakh, had fled to Armenia by the end of September 2023.
The fleeing families carried only what they could hold, many were arriving in Armenia with little to nothing. Rivers of cars and trucks flooded a single 50-kilometre route linking Armenia to Stepanakert, the capital of the Artsakh Republic.
Tragically, over 60 people died during this arduous 30-hour journey, marked by a scarcity of food, medical assistance and heating.
This rapid and mass exodus has triggered a health and humanitarian crisis in Armenia, who only have a population of around three million.
“The Armenian government is doing everything it can but the scale of the crisis is too large,” Marthe Everard, the special representative of the World Health Organization (WHO) regional director to Armenia, announced in early October.
Later that month, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said in the European Parliament that Armenia would allocate approximately $100 million to the cause but it would still need “international assistance to overcome humanitarian crisis resulting from the exodus.”
The experts of the International Crisis Group have warned that “the influx of displaced people will pose serious challenges for Armenia for years to come.”
An unfolding crisis: exodus follows blockade
The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: A Visual Explainer
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has been the longest-running in post-Soviet Eurasia.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have engaged in two wars over the region, one in the 90s and another in 2020. The mid-September assault in 2023 marked the culmination of a nearly ten-month humanitarian blockade of Artsakh by Azerbaijan, which left residents with very limited access to food, fuel, and medicine.
In August 2023, Mher Margaryan, the Armenian ambassador to the United Nations warned that Nagorno-Karabakh was “on the verge of a full-fledged humanitarian catastrophe.”
Some observers, such as former International Criminal Court (ICC) Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo and some international aid groups, warned that Azerbaijan was using starvation as “an invisible genocide weapon.”
International human rights organisations like the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Human Rights Watch and Freedom House called on Azerbaijan to ensure the rights of civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Nevertheless, these fervent calls for action echoed unanswered. The International Federation of Red Cross confirmed that the people fled to Armenia from Artsakh “with barely any food or sufficient clothes on them with this kind of weather that was getting colder and colder.”
Siranush Sargsyan, a freelance journalist from Artsakh, shared with me her struggles behind a months-long blockade.
“During the blockade, I was separated from part of my family as they visited Armenia earlier and couldn’t return,” she told me, recalling also how she didn’t have basic food to eat for almost ten months: “We all were using our stocks or whatever we could find on the ground.”
Mary Asatryan, the assistant to the Human Rights Defender of Artsakh, briefed me on the human rights violations during the blockade.
“Almost all fundamental human rights were violated – the freedom of movement, the right to life, family unification, healthcare, education. Moreover, the right to an adequate standard of living was violated because we didn’t have electricity, gas supply or a stable internet,” she told me. “Every aspect of our life was paralysed by Azerbaijan.”
Contemplating the factors driving the mass exodus, the assistant to the Human Rights Defender of Artsakh highlighted the haunting fears of a recurrence of the 1915 Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Empire.
“While our history has witnessed other episodes resulting in the depopulation of regions with Armenian communities, the current expulsion of Armenians from Artsakh stands as an unprecedented event. Never before has there been a period when Armenians did not inhabit Artsakh.”
Youth and children bear a brunt of the crisis
All families that fled to Armenia are now struggling to start anew in Armenia, as they arrived with just the bare necessities, leaving homes, schools and former lives behind.
The humanitarian catastrophe has also had a profound impact on children and young people. UNICEF has estimated that close to 30,000 children were displaced to Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh.
As of October 18 2023, the Armenian Government disclosed that 14,848 forcibly displaced children have been officially registered and attending primary and secondary schools across Armenia. Additionally, over 1,000 students are enrolled in high schools, while 1,155 students pursue higher education at universities. The enrollment process is ongoing.
“The disruption in the education of children in Artsakh has been serious since the 44-day Second Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020,” highlighted Mary Asatryan.
She described how, during the blockade, the education process faced constant interruptions, leading to children being sent home due to inadequate energy supply. Furthermore, malnutrition was prevalent among them, which resulted in exhaustion and hindered focus on studies.
Another significant challenge for education was the violation of the right to movement. For instance, many students who had received scholarships to study abroad found themselves unable to leave the country or visit their families during holidays.
The blockade had a huge negative impact on the healthcare of many, including children, pregnant women and the elderly. There was at least one documented case of a death from starvation
“There is no food, no medicine, no electricity, no natural gas, no public transport, and now not even water,” said Siranush Adamyan, a Stepanakert-based reporter for CivilNet.
There were severe problems in medicine supply, as tweeted by the office of the Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh human rights ombudsman, that all practices were “experiencing drug insufficiency, estimated at lower than 50%.”
Three different stories share dreams
Knar Khachatryan, Nushik Mirzoyan, and Diana Khachatryan – 18 year-old girls from Artsakh – have experienced an unfortunate abundance of horrors at a young age.
Through interviews with them, I gained insights into the tremendous impact of the events mentioned above, as well as a deeper understanding of their needs and aspirations for the future.
Knar Khachatryan: "My only dream is to go back to my homeland, Artsakh" | Picture by: Jefferson He
Feeling safer but longing for home
Knar Khachatryan, originally from Kolkhozashen village in the Martuni region of Artsakh, is currently pursuing a degree in intercultural communication at Yerevan State University.
One of the initial challenges for her in Armenia was navigating the busyness in the capital Yerevan, especially when crossing streets as the city’s bustling traffic was a stark contrast to the quieter roads of Artsakh.
Despite the adjustments, Knar expressed a heightened sense of safety in Armenia: “In Artsakh, we were surrounded by enemies and we didn’t know what would happen next.”
Describing the blockade experience, Knar emphasised the constriction of freedom – limiting opportunities for study, communication, and mobility. In mid-August, there was a rare chance for some Karabakh Armenians to be escorted to Armenia and she was among the beneficiaries.
Reflecting on the takeover of Artsakh and the subsequent mass exodus in late September, she recalled the realisation that returning to her home was no longer an option. “It was so sad,” she said, adding to the fact that she was separated from her family residing in Artsakh, and unable to make contact for five days.
“I was feeling guilty as I was relatively safer here but my family was in danger.”
Now they are united but the family is encountering job-related difficulties. “I think the unemployment is the main problem, otherwise we are slowly getting used to this new environment.”
When asked about her dreams for the future and what she wished to bring back from Artsakh, Knar expressed a strong desire to return to her homeland. She cherished the memories and emotions from a youth centre they had established in their village.
“We overcame so many difficulties in Artsakh and we should think that we will be back there. We should not lose hope.”
Nushik Mirzoyan | Picture by: Jefferson He
Healing power of connection
Nushik Mirozyan is also from Kolkhozashen village in the Martuni region of Artsakh and currently studying at Yerevan State University.
She transferred to Armenia with the help of a special mission in August. Currently, she is staying at a student home in Yerevan where she was later joined by her family who fled Artsakh after its takeover.
“The support we receive here from caring individuals is invaluable,” said Nushik, adding how she is surrounded by approximately 30 young people at a student home which is a “positive distraction, alleviating the pain.”
“We are constantly interacting on various occasions which keeps us occupied and prevents us from dwelling on the events that unfolded, especially the takeover of Artsakh.”
In contemplating the transition, she characterised it as peculiar, highlighting the contrasts of city life, marked by the abundance of shops and cars.
In Yerevan, she appreciates the ability to plan and execute activities systematically, unlike the circumstances in her village in Artsakh where actions were shaped by available opportunities.
While acknowledging a sense of safety in Armenia, Nushik expressed a longing for the home. “I think everyone who came from Artsakh has one and only wish, which is to be back in their homes and see in the shape that they left them.”
In conclusion, she emphasised the therapeutic value of sharing feelings as a way to cope with stress.
Diana Khachatryan | Picture by: Jefferson He
Displaced and disconnected
Diana, hailing from the Martuni region in Artsakh, fled to Armenia on September 27, following the seizure of the region by Azerbaijan.
“We were stuck on the road for two days without food. And with it was very cold, we slept in cars,” she recalled the arduous journey of displacement.
Now she is majoring in translation studies at Yerevan State University but she feels a sense of apprehension. “People are very hospitable but it is very hard for me to adjust here. Even when the lecturer says to the class that there is an exam next Monday, I think that it’s not about me. I’m feeling absent. I don’t belong here.”
Finding jobs proved to be another significant challenge for Diana’s seven-member family, all unemployed. Though the Armenian government provided financial assistance to affected families, Diana’s family encountered difficulties in accessing these funds, prompting them to seek employment.
Despite the challenges, Diana stays optimistic and yearns for their eventual return to their homeland. “I even dream about it – last week, I had several dreams where I found myself back in my home and village.”
When prompted to share any final thoughts, she poignantly said: “I can only add a couple of tears.”