National geographic It’s dangerous here,” says a nurse working in the battle-scarred region of the southern Caucasus. “We don’t know what will happen next.”
A man grieves at a military cemetery in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. A six-week war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the long-disputed territory left more than 5,000 people dead and displaced tens of thousands.
By Kristen Chick Photographs by Anastasia Taylor-Lind
Two decades ago, Khanum and Volodya Grigoryan planted a pear tree in their new garden as they started over for the second time.
In 1988, they’d fled a violent backlash against ethnic Armenians in Azerbaijan and settled in neighboring Armenia. They waited as a war raged between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, a breakaway region in southwestern Azerbaijan populated primarily by Armenians. The conflict ended with Armenians seizing control of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding Azerbaijani districts, including Kalbajar (known as Karvachar to Armenians). All of Kalbajar’s Azerbaijani inhabitants—some 60,000 people—were expelled, and ethnic Armenians, including Khanum and Volodya, moved in.
The couple built their house on a former resident’s foundation, gradually adding comforts like electricity and plumbing. The pear tree grew and bore fruit. Khanum filled the shelves of her small kitchen with preserves from the garden, and they painted the walls of their sitting room turquoise. Behind their home, on a rocky hillside jutting toward the sky, the crumbling remains of an abandoned house served as a reminder of the valley’s previous Azerbaijani occupants.
The couple expected to stay there for the rest of their lives. But war broke out again in September 2020, and this time, Azerbaijan prevailed. Under a Russian-mediated ceasefire, Armenia agreed to return territories it seized in the first Nagorno-Karabakh war to Azerbaijan, including Kalbajar. In November, Khanum, 60, and Volodya, 61, packed up their lives once more. All around them, neighbors did the same. Woodcutters swarmed the hillsides, harvesting as much as they could from the land before it changed hands. When they came for the pear tree, Volodya stopped them. He still held on to the hope that he and Khanum might stay. “Forget about it,” his wife told him. “It’s over.”
The couple’s relatives and friends loaded what possessions they could fit into the back of a truck: a worn mustard-colored sofa; the jars Khanum used to pickle cauliflower; the wood-burning stove that heated their home. They dug up her roses, packing the roots into plastic water jugs. She supervised from the doorway, squinting behind her rectangular eyeglasses and barking instructions. When they had finished, she fed them a lunch of bread, cheese, and homemade vodka.
“Let’s drink to our heroes,” she said, as they all raised their glasses. “They killed so many of our young people in the war. I just want peace. Armenians have always been suffering from this.”
Volodya locked the door for the last time. They were homeless once again.
Read more: on https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/2021/01/nagorno-karabakh-people-grapple-war-aftermath-covid/#close