Nothing left behind as Armenians flee disputed Aghdam district

Nor Maragha (Azerbaijan) (AFP) –


The Armenians heave freshly slaughtered pigs into the back of a van as they rush to pack their possessions before Azerbaijani forces arrive.

As the village of Nor Maragha -- known to Azerbaijanis as Kyzyl Kengerli -- empties out, even an entire house is loaded onto a flatbed truck so the incoming Azerbaijanis will find nothing to recover.

For three decades Azerbaijan's Agham district has been under the control of Armenian separatists, who have also governed the neighbouring region of Nagorno-Karabakh since a post-Soviet war in the 1990s.

Back then it was the Armenians who forced Azerbaijanis to flee their homes after they took control of Nagorno-Karabakh and several nearby territories.

But on Friday the territory is due to be returned to Baku as stipulated in a Moscow-brokered peace deal signed by Armenia and Azerbaijan on November 9.

Now it is the turn of the local Armenian population, who were encouraged by separatists to move to the region, to experience the heartbreak of leaving their lush gardens, farms and homes to the enemy.

Electrical worker Gagik Grigoryan says he was planning to build a sauna and a kitchen before a new war for control of Nagorno-Karabakh broke out at the end of September, leading to six weeks of heavy fighting that killed several thousand people.

"But now I had to dismantle everything. And I'll burn the house with everything I own when I leave," the 40-year-old Armenian tells AFP.

Armenians who decided to flee rather than live under Azerbaijan's control are burning their homes en masse rather than relinquish them to their longtime rivals.

AFP journalists last weekend witnessed a similar exodus in the Kalbajar district, as the region approached its handover to Baku, which was then postponed to November 25.

In Nor Maragha, locals carry bag after bag of wheat out of granaries, as others pick every last persimmon from the trees.

Soldiers stand by to help load the trucks.

- 'Left in slippers' -

On the roads to the territories that for now remain under Armenian control, armoured vehicles with separatists pass by trucks loaded with furniture, pipes and any other items that locals could transport.

"This is my house! There was no house here before. I built it," says an old man with a white beard and gold teeth, pointing to the building that he is about to abandon.

The last item he loads into the back of his Soviet-era Lada Niva car before the majority-Muslim Azerbaijani forces arrive is a large gold crucifix.

Elsewhere in the Agham district, Aren Khatchaturyan, 29, surveys his pomegranate garden: "I don't know what we'll do tomorrow. It probably won't be mine."

Next to him, 59-year-old Vladimir Arapetyan, who lived in Nagorno-Karabakh for more than 20 years, loads crates filled with the fruit into the back of his car.

Arapetyan had to flee his home near Nagorno-Karabakh's second largest town Shusha, which was taken by Azerbaijani forces in the turning point of the latest war, forcing Armenia to recognise its defeat.