Perched on the towering slopes of the Nagorno-Karabakh mountain range, an Armenian outpost was abruptly deserted, remnants of half-consumed food ponged the air, a half-smoked cigarette idled away beside the half-eaten loaf, and a neglected cooking pot stood half-full. At a smaller outpost once vital towards the font line, a solitarily discarded Armenian log book abandoned in the grass offered a chilling final entry stating, “Everything is under control.”
These haunting vestiges presented an unnerving testament to the swift loss of control Armenians experienced merely two weeks prior, the result of a lightning-quick Azerbaijani military operation. In under twenty-four hours, the breakaway region that had been under Armenian control for three decades following a brutal conflict, was seized by Azerbaijani forces.
They achieved victory at a heartbreaking cost; around 200 Azerbaijani soldiers perished in the battle and approximately 500-suffered injuries, as per official statements. The specifics surrounding the rapid casualty count during that brief but fierce skirmish, however, remain shrouded in mystery. Azerbaijani military representatives, on a tightly-supervised media tour of the region, chose to keep those unsettling details obscured.
Yet, one anonymous Azerbaijani soldier, proffered as a spokesperson, revealed that this frontline stretch was reclaimed thanks to a combination of precise artillery strikes and infantry. They found themselves locked in combat with an irregular Armenian troop , armed with an armoured vehicle and couple of tanks, who fought back from their elevated position, snipers leading their resistance.
Teams dispatched by the UN and the Red Cross managed to secure access to the regional capital, Khankendi, referred to as Stepanakert by the Armenians. However, the BBC as well as other global media outlets were barred from entering the city, as the area was deemed insecure by Azerbaijani officials.
A sinister silence has descended upon Khankendi following the takeover, turning it into a virtual ghost town. Personal belongings lying forlornly on the streets suggest a hasty exodus of its residents.
In the span of two weeks, nearly 120,000 Armenians, constituting the entirety of the Nagorno-Karabakh population, have vacated the region. The lone escape path to Armenia, the Lachin corridor, remains marked by derelict cars and possessions abandoned mid-way due to mechanical breakdowns or fuel shortage.
However, the displacement of Karabakh Armenians was not forced. Reports confirm that there was no coercion or violence employed against the civilian population.
Hikmet Hajiyev, the foreign policy adviser to the Azerbaijani president, referred to the event as a “limited, local, counter-terrorism action”. He asserted that the target of Azerbaijan’s offensive comprised solely legitimate military sites, with no use of heavy weaponry, relying predominantly on light infantry.
Azerbaijan clearly expressed intentions to peacefully reintegrate the civilian population, a factor that saw the Armenians choosing to desert the region, according to Hajiyev.
However, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan slammed these events as an act of ethnic cleansing, with condemnation of the Azerbaijan operation echoing from entities like the EU. In the ten months leading up to the military action, Azerbaijan instituted a blockade on Nagorno-Karabakh, sparking a crisis of scarce food, medical supplies and fuel for the Armenian inhabitants.
Notwithstanding the lack of direct cisiveness, the mere threat itself serves as a potent instrument for ethnic cleansing, noted Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and an expert on the region.
“In this case, hundreds of Armenian soldiers were killed and the Azerbaijani army arrived and that was enough for the entire local population to flee,” De Waal stated. “They didn’t want to wait and see what would happen to them.”
Historic antagonism and mutual distrust culminating from a century of strife drove civilians on both sides to flee at every stage of the conflict in the 1990s. Stories of an Armenian-led massacre in 1993 still form part of school curriculum for Azerbaijani children.
Fast forward to the recent 2020 war lasting 44 days where almost 7,000 military personnel and 170 civilians were killed, along with many injured, in another bitter clash. The conflict concluded with a peace agreement mediated by Russia, where seven districts were returned to Azerbaijan while a crucial part of the region remained under Armenian authority.
What followed was a wave of patriotic celebration in Azerbaijan, a sentiment conspicuously absent following the recent operation. As one navigates through the region today, heartrending reminders of the clash emerge as local radio broadcasts pay homage to fallen soldiers.
The official handover of the rest of Karabakh to the control of Azerbaijan was received more as a sigh of relief than a celebratory event according to Zaur Mammadov, a telecoms engineer working in the city of Shusha. Having fled his native Karabakh in 1993, during the Armenian incursion, at nine years of age, Mammadov made his return following the 2020 war to find his childhood home occupied by Armenian soldiers and still standing despite the years of conflict. Now, Mammadov aspires to secure a property within one of the new Azerbaijani settlements in the region.