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Nagorno-Karabakh evacuees flee in mass exodus from region that will soon cease to exist

When 23-year-old Ashot Gabriel woke up on Sept. 19, he feared that the months of increasing tension between Azerbaijan and the self-proclaimed but unrecognized enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh was about to erupt into violence.

That morning, Azerbaijani officials announced that six people were killed in two separate explosions triggered by land mines and blamed "illegal Armenian armed groups."

"We knew that something was coming," Gabriel told CBC News as he stopped to get water along a mountain pass highway in Armenia's southernmost province of Syunik.

"We started hearing the sounds of shelling and bombardment and we knew that the war had started."

Azerbaijan's swift offensive lasted 24 hours and ended in a Russian brokered ceasefire deal that called on Nagorno-Karabakh's armed forces to surrender and lay down their weapons. 

On Thursday, ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh said they were dissolving the breakaway statelet they had defended for three decades, where more than half the population has fled since Azerbaijan launched its lightning offensive.

WATCH | Uncertainty for evacuees: Those leaving Nagorno-Karabakh take the only winding road connecting to Armenia, taking whatever they can strap to their cars, but with little idea of what will happen when they arrive.

In a statement, they said their self-declared Republic of Artsakh would "cease to exist" by Jan. 1, in what amounted to a formal capitulation to Azerbaijan. 

For Azerbaijan and its president, Ilham Aliyev, the outcome is a triumphant restoration of sovereignty over an area that is internationally recognized as part of its territory but whose ethnic Armenian majority won de facto independence in a war in the 1990s.   

For Armenians, it is a defeat and a national tragedy. Armenia said that by Thursday morning, 65,036 people had crossed into its territory, out of an estimated population of 120,000.

People crammed into cars and trucks, laden with belongings, continue to stream out of the enclave.

An older man with white bandages on his head walks with the help of two aid workers who flank him.
Wounded ethnic Armenian man Sasha, 84 years-old, from Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh, is helped by volunteers walk as he arrives in Armenia's Goris in Syunik region, Armenia, on Wednesday. (Vasily Krestyaninov/The Associated Press)

'People are dying'

Gabriel and his parents are part of a long, informal convoy destined for Armenia's capital, Yerevan, but the teacher says he has no idea where they will be able to stay. He told CBC News he has never been displaced before despite growing up in a region that has been plagued by a protracted conflict for decades. 

He lived through violent clashes in 2016, and the 44-day war in 2020, but this time he fears there is no choice but to leave. He says it is not possible to integrate with a country that's killed civilians and established a months-long road blockade that led to widespread food, medicine and fuel shortages. 

Gabriel says some of his relatives are among the more than 100 still reported missing after a fuel tank exploded on Monday, where evacuees had been lining up before undertaking the arduous journey out. 

A man in a yellow shirt stands in front of a busy road in a mountainous region.
Ashot Gabriel, 23, a teacher from Nagorno-Karabakh, stops along a mountainous road in Armenia's Syunik province on Wednesday. ( Dmitry Kozlov/CBC)

"The saddest part of all of this is that people are dying just because of the chaos caused by Azerbaijan."

During the offensive, Gabriel says communication was down, and it made it difficult for him to get in touch with his colleagues and students to check in on them. When it was over, he learned of the death of a 15-year-old student in the village of Sarnakhbyur. 

Local Armenian officials say more than 200 people were killed in the offensive, while the Azeri government says it lost more than 190 servicemen. It is difficult to verify information about what is happening in Nagorno-Karabakh as the media are not allowed in. The U.S. and its allies are pushing for an international observer mission, but so far that hasn't been agreed to. 

Azeri officials have said that people aren't being forced to leave, and that the government is delivering humanitarian aid to those who remain in Nagorno-Karabakh. 

Evacuees have reported that it has taken them more than 36 hours to drive the roughly 70 kilometres from Khankendi, the capital of Nagorno-Karbakh, which is known as Stepanakert to the Armenians.

Two men sit in the back of a truck that is covered with a tarp and piled with belongings. A woman sits behind them.
Armenian refugees fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh in Kornidzor, Armenia on Wednesday. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

'Definitely get out'

Not far from the last checkpoint before leaving the enclave, 78-year-old Avansyan Emma sits on a makeshift bench, wrapped in a blanket. 

She sits as the sun sets behind the mountain and the night chill sets in waiting for her son, who is making the journey out. She laments that before the offensive he was getting ready to harvest three-to-four tonnes of grapes, but their hasty exit meant he had to leave them on the vines.

An older woman wrapped in blankets sits on the ground beside a tree.
Emma says she's been on the road for three days, and is now waiting for her son. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

Their village is 50 kilometres from the capital of Nagarno-Karabakh, and she says her family has already been on the road for three days.

"Our village mayor told us, 'I beg you, if you have any means of leaving, get out, definitely get out,'" she said to CBC News. 

Azerbaijan insists it was only targeting the military groups, but there are reports of villages being shelled, and video of apartments and cars damaged by the fighting. 

Vardan Shakhanumyan, 53, was employed as a soldier for the past two years in Nagorno-Karabakh and was stationed in a trench in the village of Matuni on Sept. 19.

He said it quickly became clear that the local forces were overwhelmed and that Azeri soldiers had taken control of roads and entered communities. The order to lay down their weapons came shortly after, and Shakhanumyan and others had to drop them off at a truck connected to Russia's peacekeeping operation in the region. 

An older man in a blue shirt stands solemnly in front of a wall.
Vardan Shakhanumyan, 53, is a former Nagorno-Karabakh defence army fighter who surrendered his weapons to the Russian peacekeepers. He is now in Goris, Armenia. Before he joined the army, he had a cheese business. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

Nearly 2000 Russian peacekeepers have been stationed in the territory since 2020 and it has been reported by Russian and Azeri media that six of them were killed during last week's offensive. 

Shakhanumyan says the local forces in Karabakh were fighting "all alone against Azerbaijan" and believes the decision was made to quickly surrender because Azeri soldiers had taken control of the roads in the region. 

Shakhanumyan, who joined the military after he struggled to make enough money from his family cheese business, describes feeling numb at having to leave an area that was home to several generations of his family. He has relatives in the Armenian city of Goris, but isn't sure where he and the tens of thousands of others who left will settle. 

"It is a catastrophic situation," he told CBC News in an interview near one of the evacuation centres. "Our government doesn't seem to be able to offer enough assistance. People are sleeping in their cars."

A boy in a maroon shirt eats a cookie.
A child who fled Nagorno-Karabakh is pictured in Kornidzor on Wednesday. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)