A growing number of Syrian-Armenians who have fled the escalating violence in their native land are resettling in an occupied territory claimed by Azerbaijan.
Since early 2012, Armenia has been accepting diaspora members seeking to escape Syria’s civil strife. In recent months, 29 refugee families, roughly 90 people overall, have found new homes in what Armenians call the Kashatagh district. The territory is known as Lachin internationally and in Azerbaijan, and it serves as a land bridge between the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. The area was overrun by Armenian forces during the hot phase of the Karabakh conflict in the early 1990s, and remains in Armenian possession today.
“There are many other Syrian-Armenians who want to move here, but they still live in Yerevan trying to find work there. Many of them have contacted us to ask about moving to the district,” said Robert Matevosian, head of the de-facto district government’s Resettlement Department.
Matevosian added that about half of the recently arrived refugee families had received housing and a plot of land. The remainder were “on their way to getting all this,” he said.
The Armenian government is keeping a low profile when it comes to the resettlement in occupied Azerbaijani territory, due to the unsettled nature of Karabakh’s political status. Negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan on a permanent political settlement for the territory remain stalemated. In all, Armenian forces occupy roughly 20 percent of Azerbaijani territory.
Azerbaijani officials have issued an official note of protest and expressed concerns about the resettlement in Kashatagh/Lachin.
Hovhannes Sahakian, an MP and senior member of the governing Republican Party, was dismissive of Azerbaijan’s protest. He insisted to EurasiaNet.org that Syrian-Armenians were moving to Kashatagh/Lachin of their own volition, while describing the trend as a “positive step.”
“It is not our concern what Azerbaijan officials see in that,” he added.
One of several charities involved in providing resettlement assistance to Syrian-Armenians is an initiative called Help Your Brother. Launched last September, Help Your Brother sends humanitarian aid to Syria and raises funds for housing construction and other resettlement necessities, said Lilit Galstian, a former MP and a leader of the initiative.
According to central government data, about 6,000 Syrian-Armenians have arrived in Armenia since the outbreak of violence in Syria. Overall, about 100,000 ethnic Armenians were believed to be living in Syria at the start of 2012.
Nationalist sentiment appears to be a factor in the resettlement aspirations of at least some of the refugees in Kashatagh/Lachin. One, 55-year-old Mushegh Aroian, stated; “patriotism drove me here. We need to live on our land.”
A physical therapist by training, Aroian resettled with his wife and children in the district town of Kovsakan, known internationally as Zengilan. Originally, the family lived in Qamishli, a city in northeastern Syria. Initially, he described conditions in Kovsakan/Zengilan as crude, but now he says the situation is improving “little by little.”
“Our possibilities are limited, but I am still thankful,” he added. “I have a plot of land, a house and employment. … Since September, my wife and I have been working in the Kovsakan hospital; I work as a therapist, while she is an epidemiologist.”
Vardan Poghosian, 29, was also driven by a sense of patriotic duty to bring his wife and year-old daughter in late 2012 from Qamishli to Berdzor, another Kashatagh town, known as Lachin internationally. “I’ve chosen Berdzor. That’s it. I’m going to live here,” he said. He currently works as an accountant.
“The living conditions are fine, but the salary is very low and is barely enough to support the family, but I think everything will be alright. I'm farming a patch of land, too. I have a few hectares of land and we have recently sowed wheat and barley,” said Poghosian, whose family still lives in temporary housing.
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan and editor of MediaLab.am. Anahit Hayrapetyan is a freelance photojournalist also based in Yerevan.