KORNIDZOR, Armenia — At the crest of the hill in this small town at the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, now a gateway for a flood of refugees fleeing Azerbaijan’s takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh, Laura and Jorik Isakhanyan finally could pull over their white Lada Neva to change a tire.

Cars streamed past them as volunteers handed out water, apples, and cigarettes to exhausted families. Military helicopters whirred overhead.

The trip, less than 50 miles, would normally take just a couple of hours. But during the 48 hours it took the Isakhanyans to drive to the border from Stepanakert, the capital of the disputed region, the tire repeatedly went flat. Every so often, Jorik, 70, and Laura, 65, got out to pump it again, hurrying to escape the city before the Azerbaijanis arrived.

Then, they ran out of fuel.

After a 10-month blockade of the territory by Azerbaijani forces, gasoline had become scarce and expensive. So their neighbors Karlen and Mariana Makartchan hitched the Isakhanyans’ car to their dump truck filled with firewood, a sheep, and their own electric-blue Lada, and together, the four childhood friends completed the exodus from their birthplace – almost certainly for the last time.

“We are never going back,” said Laura Isakhanyan, who ran a small store in Stepanakert. “We have witnessed three wars. The Azerbaijanis just stop and start wars whenever they want.”


The two couples were among more than 52,000 people who had crossed into Armenia by Wednesday afternoon, according to the authorities, abandoning the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which Armenians call Artsakh.

The mass departure represented an epic and still-unfolding human drama – one that some officials warned could turn horrific if there is a reprisal of the ethnic cleansing that is a tragic hallmark of the disputed region’s history.

Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory, has been fiercely contested by Armenia and Azerbaijan since a war in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Armenians in the region sought to break from the newly independent nation of Azerbaijan.

That first Nagorno-Karabakh war ended with a decisive Armenian victory. Massacres were committed by both sides, but ultimately the vast majority of Azerbaijanis – hundreds of thousands – were forced to leave the territory.

In a brief war in 2020, Azerbaijan recaptured most of Nagorno-Karabakh, ending decades of Armenian control of the region. But a cease-fire, hastily brokered by Russia, left uncertain the fate of Stepanakert, its population of roughly 50,000, and some 70,000 other residents of the region, the overwhelming majority of them ethnic Armenians.

A surprise military offensive by Azerbaijan last week forced the self-declared government of Nagorno-Karabakh to capitulate and agree to dismantle its armed forces – bringing a stunning end to one of the world’s longest and most bitter territorial disputes.


Like so many others, the two couples who arrived in Kornidzor on Wednesday have suffered through decades of vicious conflict.

The Isakhanyans’ son-in-law lost his leg from the hip down during the height of fighting in the 1990s. Mariana Makartchan, 60, gave birth to her four children during wartime.

“It has affected us all very deeply,” Laura Isakhanyan said. “It changed our psychology, our nerves, our memory capacity.” She continued: “I often found we couldn’t sleep properly, we were always waiting for something bad to happen and people were living in fear -– especially children.”

But the friends, like other refugees interviewed Wednesday, said none of what they experienced previously compared to the lightning offensive Azerbaijan unleashed last week, which in a day effectively gave Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, control of the entire region.

On Wednesday, Azerbaijan announced that 192 of its soldiers died during the offensive and another 511 were wounded.

“You cannot compare the other wars with this war,” Mariana Makartchan said. “This one used modern technologies. It was so terrible and violent.”


Anya Mukanyan, 63, sat on the roadside waiting next to a large truck filled with young children and piles of bags and blankets. Her friend, Ira, sobbed quietly beside her.

“I can’t explain it. . . . It was relentless shelling and artillery. Not for a moment did they stop,” Mukanyan said. In her village of Sos, she said, most houses were destroyed by bombing, and many civilians were killed. After a kiosk was bombed, a 72-year-old man, one of her distant relatives, was killed.

“I saw his body lying there behind the kiosk. He had been queuing for gasoline. His son was also injured,” she said.

This was not the first time Mukanyan had left. During the 1990s, after a shell crashed into her backyard, she relocated her family to Yerevan, the Armenian capital. Her husband had been wounded in action, and after his recovery, the family returned to Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Isakhanyans said they had left behind two homes and roughly 25 acres of land. Before they left, they released all their livestock but they were determined to leave as little as possible for the Azerbaijanis. They waved to a large truck passing by as it ferried two yellow tractors. “That’s my nephew,” Jorik Isakhanyan said. “He’s not going to let the Azerbaijanis steal the farming equipment!”

Laura Isakhanyan just looked on sadly. “What can I say, what can I feel, when I’ve lost everything?”


Artsakh, Mariana Makartchan said, was “heaven for us.”

Her husband, Karlen, dragging on a cigarette held between two sooty fingers, rolled his eyes. “It wasn’t that good, but we just want to live on our land. . . . I never imagined we would ever leave. Even now I don’t accept it.”

In the neighboring city of Goris, the Goris Hotel was now overcrowded with refugees.

On Wednesday, gaggles of children played in the courtyard, while elderly men sat smoking on benches. Margarite Sahakian, 60, led her youngest granddaughter, Nazik, 3, through the hotel lobby, showing her the fish in an aquarium.

When the Yerevan-born Sahakian was 30, she decided to join up to fight for Artsakh in the 1990s, alongside her husband and teenage son. “My husband was crazier than me, so we went,” she said, “but it was the history of the Armenian nation as well as my pride in being part of that history that motivated me to go.”

Sahakian worked as a nurse, evacuating wounded soldiers while armed with a gun. Her son was killed in 1993. She said that her husband died of a stroke soon after. Sahakian pulled back her hair to show a deep scar below her right jaw – the result of shrapnel, she said, after one evacuation was bombed.


During the 44-day war in 2020, Sahakian was forced to leave her village of Haykajur, where her husband and son are buried, when Azerbaijani forces occupied the area. She left her home with nothing.

When her new home in Horatagh was shelled last week, the family was just getting ready to celebrate Nazik’s third birthday.

Once again, she left with nothing, running to stop a passing van, flinging open the doors, and throwing her four grandchildren into the back. The family ended up sleeping at the Stepanakert airport for four days, in their coats on the asphalt, until Russian soldiers arrived and set up tents and medical points.

The Russian soldiers are part of a peacekeeping force that was sent in after the 2020 cease-fire but failed to prevent further clashes or to stop an Azerbaijani blockade of the sole highway connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia through an area known as the Lachin corridor.

The nearly year-long blockade created a crisis, including food shortages, as well as infighting among the Artsakh governmental authorities.

As the number of displaced people soared Wednesday, Azerbaijani border guards said they had detained Ruben Vardanyan, the former state minister of Artsakh.


Vardanyan was arrested as he tried to cross the border along with other refugees Wednesday morning, according to his wife, Veronika Zonabend, who posted about his detention on social media.

The Azerbaijani state border service published a photo of Vardanyan in custody, apparently in handcuffs but with his hands blurred out, standing next to two officers at what appeared to be an airport. Authorities said that Vardanyan had been taken to Baku and “passed on to the appropriate state bodies.”

Vardanyan, an Armenian-Russian oligarch turned state minister of the breakaway region, was a sharp critic of Azerbaijan’s policies and had advocated loudly for self-determination of Nagorno-Karabakh. Last September, Vardanyan gave up his Russian citizenship to move to Nagorno-Karabakh.

“Ruben stood with the Artsakh people during the 10-month blockade and suffered along with them in the struggle for survival,” Zonabend said in her statement. “I ask for your prayers and support to ensure my husband’s safe release.”

Sahakian, who slept with her grandchildren at the airport, said the battle for Nagorno-Karabakh was not over.

“If they say we will fight for Artsakh again, I will go back again and fight,” she said, her voice trembling with emotion. “I don’t think Artsakh is over. I will never agree that Artsakh will be Azerbaijani.”

She took out a phone to show photos of her home, her grandchildren, and her rose gardens. Then she looked up, with an angry expression. “I am going to teach my grandchildren to hate Azerbaijanis and take revenge.”

Robyn Dixon in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.

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