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Exodus of ethnic Armenians from troubled Nagorno-Karabakh region sparks humanitarian crisis

by Ros Mayfield

The Armenian government says a mass exodus of Christians from the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, has almost emptied the historic territory of its residents.

Due to an unexpected resurgence of conflict with Azerbaijan, which led separatist leaders to agree to lay down their arms, ethnic Armenians, who have been living in the region controlled by Armenia since 1994, are now exiting their homes - packing their entire lives into vehicles or bags they can carry.   The military action came after a nine month blockade by Azerbaijan, which prevented humanitarian aid from getting through, bringing many close to starvation. 

What followed was a surprisingly swift collapse of a three-decade battle for independence.  Almost 80 per cent of Karabakh residents have sought refuge in Armenia in recent days.  Hundreds of displaced families queued for days, blocking the single winding mountain road that connects the two, known as the Lachin corridor.

Leaving Nagorno-Karabakh is not just a geographical relocation. It means severing ties with their deeply engrained cultural and religious heritage. Most are part of the Armenian Apostolic Church, an early Christian denomination dating back to the 1st century AD, and woven into the fabric of the region’s history.

The significance of their faith is visible throughout the region with many ancient Armenian churches and monasteries standing as proof of their historical Christian connection. Leaving these landmarks means leaving behind a massive part of their identity, and there are fears over how this precious heritage will be preserved after they're gone.

Small border towns in Armenia are struggling to cope with the enormous humanitarian situation that's unfolding in front of them.  Charities including the Red Cross and World Vision have been supplying aid and shelter and psychological support.  

“We continue to be troubled by what is happening in Nagorno-Karabakh. The fates of thousands of people remain uncertain, including thousands of children who are fleeing in panic to seek safety and shelter. World Vision Armenia are prepared, have capacity in place and will mobilise resources and our staff to respond to the needs of forcibly displaced people as they arrive to Armenia,” said Raffi Doudaklian, World Vision Armenia Director.

In early ceasefire negotiations Azerbaijan pledged to respect the rights of ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.  There are reports that at least one of the separatist leaders has been arrested trying to enter Armenia.  World Vision says the situation, "remains volatile and highly unpredictable".  The uneasy peace underscores layers of political, cultural, and spiritual difficulties.

The international community, led by France, has called for UN peacekeepers to be deployed.

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