The island has gained exclusive access to Nagorno-Karabakh’s largest city after tens of thousands of its residents fled.
Khankendi, Azerbaijan – An eerie silence descends on the town square in the largest city in the Nagorno-Karabakh region
Strollers, chairs and empty boxes are all that remains in the square after more than 100,000 Armenians hastily fled Khakindi, the latest victims of the ancient regional conflict.
Azerbaijan defeated separatist forces in the breakaway region last month, leading Armenian leaders to agree with Baku that the so-called Artsakh state would cease to exist.
After the defeat of the separatist forces, ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, a part of oil- and gas-rich Azerbaijan that had been outside Baku’s control since the breakup of the Soviet Union, began fleeing to Armenia.
Residents of Khankendi, fearing persecution, also left for neighboring Armenia, leaving their homes and businesses behind.
They left despite Azerbaijan’s assurances of their safety and equal treatment as citizens.
Red Cross workers are in Khankendi, known to Armenians as Stepanakert, offering to evacuate those who could not find a place on buses and cars heading to Armenia.
The city’s morgue staff have also left, so the dead are being returned to Armenia by the Red Cross.
“We are still finding other people stranded at the moment in the city, and we have another concern since the rural areas have not yet been reached,” said Marco Socci of the International Committee of the Red Cross’ rapid deployment team. He told Al Jazeera.
“If you ask me what the immediate needs are, it is electricity, water and gas [the] Next winter. He added: “The ICRC has worked with the Azerbaijani authorities and we look forward to working with them.”
The puppies, left exposed to the elements, run toward anyone they see in the yard, hoping to be fed. Horses roam the streets lost without their masters, and their hooves on the runway break the silence.
Every now and then an ambulance drives through the windswept streets, looking for anyone left behind who needs medical help.
It’s a scene repeated throughout the city.
Even Russian peacekeepers, deployed in Nagorno-Karabakh since the end of the previous war over the region in 2020, have left some of their checkpoints in the city.
But for Armenians whose families have called them home for centuries, leaving is not an easy option. They gather at a staging point out of Khankendi, the anger evident in their voices.
“This is our city,” one of the men told Al Jazeera as he boarded the bus preparing to take him to Armenia.
The starting point is also a place where the very few Armenians who want to stay say goodbye to their departing families and friends.
“I want to live here with everyone,” a middle-aged man told Al Jazeera while speaking with an Azerbaijani man. “I have Azerbaijani friends who tell me I shouldn’t leave, so I will stay here.”
The city’s new Azerbaijani administration told Al Jazeera that it had established a registration center, provided ambulances, renewed mobile phone networks, and connected the city to the Azerbaijani electricity grid.
Azerbaijan says it wants Khankendi back after 30 years of conflict and occupation, and hopes the former residents of Nagarno-Karabakh will return.
“For the past 30 years, Azerbaijan has suffered from occupation. About one million members of the Azerbaijani population became refugees and internally displaced people and left this region,” Aykhan Hajizadeh, spokesman for the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry, told Al Jazeera, referring to internally displaced people. The population of Nagorno-Karabakh is majority Armenian, but Armenia seized other areas of Azerbaijan after the First Nagorno-Karabakh War and many Azerbaijanis fled the occupation.
“Now, as a result of Azerbaijan’s 24-hour anti-terrorism measures, Azerbaijan has finally regained its sovereignty over its territory. We are now calling on the Armenian population to return. We are ready to embrace the Armenian population,” Hajizadeh added.
In Khankendi, it is clear that the city will need more than these guarantees to truly rebuild. Ethnic Armenians will need to be confident that they are safe in Azerbaijan. In the empty streets of Khankendi, that confidence is not evident at the moment.
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