Despite Azerbaijani Aggressions and Uncertain Future, Stepanakert Armenians Determined to Live on Their Ancestral Land
A year has passed since the end of the 2020 Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) war launched by Azerbaijan, but Armenians living in Stepanakert continue to face the same hardships daily as Azerbaijan repeatedly violates the terms of the trilateral ceasefire statement.
Although strong-willed and determined to live in peace, Armenians in the region feel an immense growing pressure to leave their homes due to Azerbaijani forces creating unsafe and unwelcome conditions. In the midst of all these dangers, however, they remain resilient. Currently, there are 54,000 Armenians in Stepanakert, including those who were displaced after Azerbaijan’s occupation of Shushi and other regions of Artsakh.
On Monday, Stepanakert resident Taguhi Avetisyan, a social worker and Artsakh native, called her brother working at a nearby hospital to find out more information about the situation concerning Azerbaijani forces who shot at Armenian civilians near the Shushi border. According to unconfirmed reports, the incident took place in front of Russian peacekeepers. Her brother then confirmed that one man, Martin Yeremyan, 22, was killed while three others seriously wounded are still hospitalized there.
“This is a vile psychological warfare that makes everyone feel horrible.” — Stepanakert resident Taguhi Avetisyan
“We are continuing to live in an area that is risky and dangerous because this is our home, our homeland, we have many ties here and our entire lives are here. Of course it’s a dilemma we are facing, but it would be a betrayal to all of our martyrs to leave this land and therefore we will stay,” Avetisyan explained during an exclusive interview following the Azerbaijani attack.
Knarik Avetisyan, Taguhi’s daughter now living abroad, said she spoke to her mother right after the incident and noted Azerbaijani attacks on innocent civilians has become an ongoing occurrence even though the war ended with a ceasefire.
“Civilians being shot at, harassed and stoned by Azeri forces; their livestock stolen, our cultural heritage being turned to dust in front of our eyes.” — Stepanakert native Knarik Avetisyan
“This is what it is like living in Artsakh today. There’s no stable access to basic needs like water, electricity and communication. Civilians being shot at, harassed and stoned by Azeri forces; their livestock stolen, our cultural heritage being turned to dust in front of our eyes. Yet everyone seems to have moved on or become numb to all of this. The outside world clearly has. It’s scary to think what’s to happen to the Armenian community after the Russian peacekeepers leave in four years,” a concerned Knarik explained, who added she is also worried for her family’s safety in Stepanakert.
Taguhi criticized the Russian peacekeepers for being more concerned about being diplomatic with Azeri forces and Turkish officials, than about the safety of Armenians.
“Whenever there is an incident, they try to manage the Armenian side, pacify us and tell us not to retaliate, but it feels very one sided because the same message doesn’t reach the Azeri side,” she said. “My initial feelings were what a shame for our people that we don’t have a leader or proper leadership. We are trying to find the strength to get out of this unfortunate situation at the same time we realize we do not have the same capabilities as [Azerbaijan] and so we are dependent on others. Even though we resist the current devastating situation, what we face daily is not sustainable and we cannot continue living this way.”
On the same night of the attacks on Armenian civilians, Azerbaijan celebrated their war “victory” and occupation of Shushi closing with fireworks clearly visible to Stepanakert residents across the border. Taguhi recorded the scene with her camera phone from her window. She was expecting Azerbaijan to have its day of celebration but was appalled that they would continue to carry on such festivities the same day Azerbaijani soldiers attacked the Armenian civilians working on a water pipeline.
“I felt disgusted and had a range of emotions throughout the entire day and felt that even more as I watched the fireworks. This is a vile psychological warfare that makes everyone feel horrible. Every day, every single day we are struggling with problems but we just want to work and live our normal lives but they [Azerbaijan] are doing everything to disturb our peace.”
The Avetisyan family are descendants of survivors of the Armenian Genocide and the Shushi massacre from the Askeran region and are fifth generation of Artsakh Armenians. Taguhi is a mother of three, her son is currently a soldier in the Artsakh Defense Army, her eldest daughter Mariam is a well-known filmmaker who released an emotional documentary titled “The Desire To Live” earlier this year, depicting the aftermath of the 2020 Artsakh war.
“Living in Stepanakert comes with facing many hardships and challenges, whether it’s the phone constantly being cut off, or the internet not working or the electricity and water being shut off. To be honest, there are many difficulties but we somehow find ways to manage them. During the 1992 Artsakh war and previous wars, so many [of our] men were martyred, so many men fought for this land so that [Armenians] could live here, they made the ultimate sacrifice fighting for these lands so that life continues here. This means we are the ones who will keep life here,” T. Avetisyan explained.
Avestiyan said in spite of all the challenges, Stepanakert remains to be a thriving community of dedicated Armenians determined to sustain their lives there. In comparison to the bordering villages where Azerbaijani soldiers try to intimidate Armenians, she noted it is still considered to be safer.
For instance, they hear the shootings but don’t always experience direct threats as residents of bordering villages do on a regular basis. Whether it’s by burning down their forests, stealing their cattle or changing the flow of the water so that they lose access to water, Azerbaijan is always trying to intimidate the villagers.
“When you are walking in Stepanakert we tend to forget all this because life must go on here, but it’s very somber to see what the Azeris do to Armenians near the border and that immediately forces us to face the reality we are in. It’s enough to turn your gaze towards Shushi and also see the Azeri posts [on social media] and how they will do anything to try to scare away Armenians.”
Photo credits: Taguhi Avetisyan