Thousands flee to Armenia over ethnic cleansing fears: What we know

In recent days, one-half of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh has entered Armenia after Azerbaijan seized the region.

A military style truck with a cracked windshield and an open bed holds over a dozen people along with a bicycle tied to the roof of the cab.
Ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh ride a truck on their way to Kornidzor in Syunik region, Armenia, on Tuesday. (Stepan Poghosyan, Photolure photo via AP)

More than 70,000 people, including close to 20,000 children, have fled the Nagorno-Karabakh region in Asia to Armenia, officials in the Armenian capital of Yerevan have said, in response to what some have labeled “ethnic cleansing.”

Last week, Azerbaijan seized control of the so-called breakaway region after it launched a “terrorist military operation.” The assault lasted 24 hours before a ceasefire was agreed.

On Sunday, residents scrambled to evacuate the region after Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, lifted a 10-month-long blockade on the region’s lifeline — the Lachin Corridor — a road that connects the landlocked enclave to Armenia. For nearly a year, vital supplies including food and humanitarian aid could not enter the region.

A convoy of several dozen cars on a stretch of road with mountains in the background.
A convoy of cars of ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh moves to Kornidzor in Syunik region, Armenia, Tuesday. (Vasily Krestyaninov via AP)

Over the last four days, the Lachin Corridor has been packed with cars and trucks carrying people who have fled their homes with little to no belongings. Ethnic Armenians fear a reprisal by the Azerbaijani government — something it has strongly denied.

Where is Nagorno-Karabakh?

The Artsakh Republic — better known by its Russian name, Nagorno-Karabakh — is located in a mountainous region in the South Caucasus located between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Azerbaijan has laid claim on the region for decades despite the ethnically Armenian population claiming it as self-autonomous. “The people are indigenous there, they have always lived there,” Sossi Tatikyan, a foreign and security policy expert, told Yahoo News. “They had lived there, until this week, for 3,000 years, and they have had different degrees of self-government throughout history. Even during the Soviet period, they had an autonomous status.”

A map of the Caucasus highlighting Goris, Armenia, and Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan.
Photo Illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images

While under the control of the Soviet Union, the area was considered to be part of Azerbaijan despite it being home to a majority of ethnic Armenians. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, in 1991, a war broke out and the long-disputed territory became self-autonomous again.

Backed by Israel and Turkey, Azerbaijan launched a war in 2020 — known as the Second Karabakh War — and took control of 75% of the land in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, concluding three decades of self-governance. The war ended in a ceasefire that was mediated by Russian and Turkish “peacekeeping” soldiers in the region. Since then, it has lain within Azerbaijan’s borders and has been recognized by the international community as being a part of Azerbaijan. However, more than 90% of its current 120,000 population is ethnically Armenian.

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What caused the latest conflict?

Last week, Azerbaijan launched an offensive attack to restore “constitutional order” and dissolve the Armenian government in Stepanakert, the main city in the Nagorno-Karabakh republic.

The conflict lasted 24 hours and a ceasefire was agreed to when Samvel Shahramanyan, the Nagorno-Karabakh region’s president, agreed to the demands set by Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev. The demands saw the region come under Azerbaijani control.

Two people embrace while someone wearing a red hat and vest, each emblazoned with a red cross, holds a gloved hand on the back of one of them.
Ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh embrace upon arriving in Kornidzor in Syunik region, Armenia, on Tuesday. (Stepan Poghosyan, Photolure photo via AP)

Armenian officials said that at least 200 people died and over 400 were wounded in the conflict. Tatoyan Foundation, a human rights nongovernmental organization, claimed that 18 civilians were killed, including six children. Meanwhile, Azerbaijani officials said that at least 192 troops were killed and 511 injured.

Azerbaijani guards arrested Ruben Vardanyan, the former head of the government, and charged him with “financing terrorism.”

Former foreign minister David Babayan said he would hand himself in to Azeri authorities.

An elderly woman looks from the window of the passenger seat of a car beneath cargo wrapped in plastic tied to the car's roof rack.
An ethnic Armenian woman from Nagorno-Karabakh sits inside an old Soviet-style car as she arrives in Armenia's Goris in Syunik region, Armenia, on Wednesday. (Vasily Krestyaninov/AP)

On Thursday, it was reported that Shahramanyan signed a decree dissolving the republic and all the organizations and departments within it — ending all dreams of independence — as part of a ceasefire deal. It will “cease to exist” from Jan. 1, 2024, a statement read.

How the international community — including Kim Kardashian — has responded

On Tuesday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said he was “following with concern” the growing humanitarian situation in Armenia, adding that “protection of all civilians must be an absolute priority.”

Celebrity Kim Kardashian urged President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken to impose sanctions against Azerbaijan and stop “another Armenian genocide.” Kardashian, who is half-Armenian, asked the president to “take a stand immediately.”

A man with apparent burns to his fingers holds his face to his arm while seated in the back of a vehicle.
An ethnic Armenian man who was injured during an explosion at a crowded gas station in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, is seen in an ambulance at the National Burn Medical Center in Yerevan, Armenia, on Tuesday. (Hayk Baghdasaryan/Photolure Photo via AP)

The head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Samantha Power, traveled to Armenia earlier this week, where she met with those who had arrived in Armenia. “The military attacks of last week have made a dire situation even worse,” she said, adding that many had arrived with “severe malnutrition.” Power came under criticism for her delayed response and the lack of action taken by USAID during the 10-month-long blockade on the region. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Blinken said he spoke to President Aliyev and urged him to refrain from “further hostilities.”

“The statements from Secretary Blinken ... and Power were too little too late,” the foreign policy expert Tatikyan said. “International presence was needed to ensure the security and rights of Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh, what would its mission be after most Armenians have fled and their self-governance bodies abolished?”

What happens next?

Officials in Azerbaijan said the next steps were to discuss “reintegration” for the Armenians willing to stay. “Those who don’t want to accept Azerbaijani jurisdiction, they have to leave,” Farid Shafiyev, chair of the Center of Analysis of International Relations in Baku, told CNN. “Those who would like to stay and get the passports, they are welcome to stay.” After months of starvation, many Armenians feared for a future under Azerbaijani rule, and so tens of thousands fled.

Two people embrace next to a child carrying a toddler.
Ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh arrive in Kornidzor, Syunik region, Armenia, on Tuesday. (Stepan Poghosyan/Photolure Photo via AP)
A man on a hospital gurney amid a half-dozen medical staff.
An ethnic Armenian man who was injured during an explosion at a crowded gas station in Stepanakert is transported to the National Burn Medical Center in Yerevan, Armenia, on Tuesday. (Hayk Baghdasaryan/Photolure Photo via AP)
A woman hands what appears to be a yogurt container to someone standing with several dozen others.
Ethnic Armenians line up to receive humanitarian aid at a temporary camp in Goris on Tuesday. (Vasily Krestyaninov via AP)
A woman and four children walk along a road with mountains in the distance.
A family walks along a road from Nagorno-Karabakh to Kornidzor on Tuesday. (Vasily Krestyaninov/AP)