Weeks of shelling could not force Irina Safaryan’s parents from their bunker in the southern Karabakh town of Hadrut. Only when Azerbaijan’s soldiers reached the settlement’s outskirts did the Armenian family agree to run.
“We expected to go back to our houses in three or four days, maximum a week,” Safaryan says. They left behind the family photo albums.
Fighting over the breakaway south Caucasus territory ended this month with Hadrut under Azeri control. “Nobody expected they were leaving their land, their house, for the last time,” Safaryan says.
The Armenian exodus mirrors another from three decades earlier, when 600,000 Azeris fled the first war between the post-Soviet republics over Karabakh, among them Hagigat Hajiyeva. She had also believed she was only temporarily leaving her home city of Shusha, less than 100km from Hadrut, when she fled in 1992.
“When we left Shusha we were thinking things would calm down and we would return,” Hajiyeva says. “Even after the Armenian occupation of the city, my family settled in [the Azerbaijan capital] Baku, but we still thought, ‘We’ll be back soon.’ It never happened.”
The Azeri victory over Armenia in the six-week war over Karabakh has turned tens of thousands of Armenian residents into refugees. For an earlier wave of Azeri exiles from Karabakh, the capture of the territory signals the end of a long wait to go home.
Safaryan, 28, says she was part of a “war generation”: both she and her sister were born in the underground bunker where her mother spent much of the 1988-1994 conflict over the mountainous territory. By the time it was over, most of the Azeri population had been forced out of Karabakh, and the Armenian victory over the area they call Artsakh was woven into the stories she heard as a child.
“I was always watching movies, documentaries, reading books about the war and the liberation of Artsakh,” she says.
Azerbaijan had sworn it would one day retake Karabakh, but Safaryan grew up feeling shielded by the mountains and tales of Armenian valour. “Geographically, Hadrut is very well protected and it was nearly impossible to take,” she says. “The feeling of being protected never left me. Even during this latest war, I was 100% sure our soldiers would do anything to win.”
The 1990s war over Karabakh was an escalation of nationalist sentiments that had been kept in check by decades of Soviet control. “Armenians and Azeris had been living together but there was no trust,” Safaryan says. “We had neighbours, maybe we had friends, but it wasn’t trustful coexistence.”
Speaking from her home in Baku, Hajiyeva, 72, remembers Armenians in the region holding protests as the USSR started to teeter. “I asked my Armenian neighbour what they were protesting for, and she said they wanted more theatres and cinemas,” she says. “Later we learned it was about unification with Armenia.”
By the late 1980s, violence was escalating, and the Armenian population of Shusha were ordered to leave. “We said goodbye to our Armenian neighbours in good spirits,” Hajiyeva says. “We even drove beside them as an escort out of the city.”
She assumed tensions would eventually die down, the way they usually did during the Soviet era. “Slowly, month-by-month, people started using guns and after some months, rocket systems,” she says.
“One day the Armenians fired a shell at the cinema outside our house and it was destroyed,” Hajiyeva recalls. “After that we decided to leave. It was too dangerous to live there.”
On the morning of 27 September this year, Safaryan woke to the sound of explosions near her home in Stepanakert, where she worked for the regional government. “I opened my window and saw the whole city was under shelling,” she says.
The first strikes on Hadrut were on military sites near her family’s home. “My parents just woke up and realised war had begun.”
Her parents spent the next weeks in the same bunker where the girls were born. “Some days they couldn’t even go outside to see the sun or breathe fresh air,” Safaryan says. “They were very bad, very harsh days.”
They were evacuated from Hadrut in the middle of October, two days before the town was overrun by Azeri soldiers. A buildup in military spending fuelled by oil wealth, including on Turkish and Israeli drone technology, helped to decisively turn the conflict in Azerbaijan’s favour.
“The whole street where we grew up and played, it was burned by Azeris,” she claims. “They left nothing from my childhood. People who came from there told us they burned everything.”
Several boys she had grown up playing with were among the more than 1,170 soldiers that Karabakh’s Armenian government says have been killed.
Safaryan’s parents are now staying with her grandparents in Yerevan. “They are just existing,” she says. “We are trying to figure out what we are going to do.”
After 1994, the plight of the Azeris who were displaced from Karabakh in the first war became a national cause in Azerbaijan, but the sense of being adrift never faded, Hajiyeva says. “Some people were saying, why have you left your city?” she recalls. “They were kind of blaming us. We felt ourselves insulted, humiliated, shy that we had been forced to leave our city.”
Her grandson, Suleyman, 25, was born after the family fled, but grew up hearing stories of their life in Shusha. He has tracked the fate of the family home using satellite maps and videos from the city posted online. “The house has survived the occupation,” he says. “I have always followed some Armenians from Shusha on social media to see what’s happening in my city.”
The reality of moving to the city may be more complicated than he imagined. “My friends, my work, everything in my life is in Baku,” he says. “But I’ve always prepared myself that once I’ll be back in Shusha, I’ll start my new life from zero.”
Hajiyeva says that after so many years she lost faith she would ever return. “I cried for hours when I heard that Shusha was liberated,” Hajizada said. “It is impossible to explain the feeling in words. We will kiss the soil there.”
Across the border in Armenia, refugees such as Safaryan have started their own long wait to go home. “I feel like I’m nobody now,” Safaryan says.
“Everything I was living and fighting for – making plans for big projects in Hadrut and every village and city in Artsakh – and now there’s nothing. Nothing to fight for, and nothing to live for.”