Armenians flee homes as Azerbaijan takeover looms

Kalbajar (Azerbaijan) (AFP) –


Villagers in the mountainous hamlet of Nor Getashen in disputed territory in Azerbaijan pile sofas, washing machines and suitcases outside their homes as they prepare to flee.

The settlement is part of the Kalbajar district that is being handed over to Azerbaijan by Armenian separatists on Sunday as part of a Russian-brokered peace agreement that ended weeks of fierce fighting between the longstanding rivals.

Clashes broke out at the end of September between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region that broke away from Baku's control in the 1990s. More than 1,400 people have died.

Residents of Nor Getashen worry they will face retaliatory attacks by Azerbaijan if they remain in their homes in the rugged region after the handover deadline Sunday.

"I cried all night when I heard the news," says 68-year-old Hayastan Yeghiazaryan, wearing a worn tracksuit.

She hastily sifts through belongings in the home heated by a wood burning stove to decide what to leave behind.

Next to her, a jar of pickled red peppers sits on a bed without a mattress and enamel crockery, chipped from old age, is lying among pairs of boots and books in Cyrillic.

In front of a workbench, Yeghiazaryan's 82-year-old husband Zohrab, who is struggling to decide what to take, says he is not even sure where they will go.

- 'We were happy here' -

"With the help of the children, we'll try to rent a small apartment in Yerevan," he says, referring to the capital of Armenia, which has been rocked by political unrest since the country's leadership agreed to the peace accord that cedes swathes of territory in Karabakh to Azerbaijan.

"We might be able to come back, don't you think?" he says with a hopeful look.

Kalbajar's residents were encouraged to settle in this region of Azerbaijan by separatist leaders who had grabbed control of the area.

No one has ordered them to leave their homes, Yeghiazaryan says, "but we quickly understood that there is no choice".

Her two sons came from Yerevan to help her pack up the home and sell off the cattle before Sunday.

"The house is not very luxurious, but we were happy here," Zohrab says sadly.

Media reported that residents of Kalbajar were setting alight their homes, preferring to destroy their dwellings than leave them to Azerbaijan.

But in Nor Getashen most of the abandoned homes were left standing.

"We will not burn down the house. But we will take Mickey, he's a good dog," Zohrab adds.

On the edge of the village, which already resembles a ghost town, a couple in their sixties is busy filling a large truck.

"We are going to leave the cows. We didn't find anyone in time to buy them," says a mother of seven, letting out a sob.

They will leave the house intact, she added, "but those who will come to take it do not deserve it".