The cars, trucks and vans jamming the mountain roads deep into the night Saturday brimmed with all the possessions that the fleeing Armenians could rescue: upholstered furniture, livestock, glass doors.
As they left, many set their homes on fire, enveloping their exodus in acrid smoke and illuminating it in an orange glow. Near some of the burning houses stood older ruins: the remains of homes abandoned a quarter-century ago, when Azerbaijanis fled and Armenians moved into the region.
In the southern Caucasus Mountains at the border of Europe and Asia, this weekend was a turning point in a decadeslong conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over isolated and mountainous lands that both sides believed rightfully were theirs. Back in the 1990s, it was the Azerbaijanis who were forced to leave. Now, it is the Armenians, a renewed tragedy for them and a triumph for their foes.
Under a Russia-brokered peace deal ending a six-week war that killed thousands, Azerbaijan on Sunday was set to take control of a swath of the breakaway, ethnic Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is part of Azerbaijan under international law.
“How can I burn this?” said Ashot Khanesyan, a 53-year-old Armenian, referring to the home he had built and was about to desert in the town of Kelbajar. His neighbors had urged him to destroy the house, he said, but, “My conscience won’t let me.”
He was packing his chickens, tying up their feet with white string, but he said he would leave his potatoes behind.
The New York Times came to Armenian-controlled areas and to Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, to document this pivotal moment for both sides in the conflict. The war has drawn in some of the region’s biggest international powers, with Turkey backing Azerbaijan and Russia struggling to stop the fighting in a region it once ruled.
Russian peacekeeping troops, overseeing the handover, rumbled into the district of Kelbajar on Friday aboard armored personnel carriers. They set up one of their observation posts at Dadivank, a centuries-old monastery that Armenians, who are mainly Christian, fear the arriving Azerbaijanis, who are mainly Muslim, will deface.
“When an Armenian is born, they all know about Artsakh,” said Vergine Vartanyan, 24, in tears, using the Armenian term for Nagorno-Karabakh.
Along with hundreds of other Armenians, she prayed at Dadivank for what could be the last time Friday, to bid farewell.
The contrast with the scenes in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, could hardly be sharper. There, celebratory flags graced almost every surface, hanging from balconies, draped over car roofs and windows and wrapped around the shoulders of a teenager at the Martyrs’ Alley cemetery on a hillside overlooking the Caspian Sea.
Much of Azerbaijan exploded in joyous celebration in the streets Tuesday after President Ilham Aliyev announced in the early hours of the morning that the war was over and that Armenian forces would withdraw from three districts adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh and return them to Azerbaijani control.
“We are so happy because we finally won, thank God,” said Ibrahim Ibrahimov, 18, a computer science student walking with two friends near the seafront in Baku. “Finally, the people of Karabakh can go home.”
Armenians and Azerbaijanis lived side by side when both countries were part of the Soviet Union, but century-old ethnic enmity reignited when communism collapsed. Nagorno-Karabakh, mainly ethnic Armenian, ended up as part of Azerbaijan. Armenia won a war over the territory in the early 1990s that killed some 20,000 people and displaced 1 million, mostly Azerbaijanis.
Azerbaijanis were expelled not only from Nagorno-Karabakh itself but also from seven surrounding districts, including Kelbajar, that had been mostly inhabited by Azerbaijanis. The entire region became the internationally unrecognized, ethnic Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Azerbaijan’s desire to return its citizens who had been displaced from their homes became a driving force in its politics.
A quarter-century of on-and-off talks failed to resolve the standoff, and on Sept. 27, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan launched an offensive to retake the territory by force. Advanced drones, funded by Azerbaijan’s oil and gas boom, pounded the Armenians in their trenches. At least 2,317 Armenian soldiers died; Azerbaijan has not released a death toll.
As Azerbaijan’s forces in early November approached the fortress city of Shusha – a place steeped in history and symbolism for both countries – Azerbaijanis barely slept, watching the state television channel for news.
“We were all crying,” said Teymur, 37, recalling the moment when Aliyev announced that Azerbaijan had taken Shusha.
He said he had watched the announcement with his aunt in their one-room apartment, as neighbors poured in to congratulate. Many of them, like his family, are from Shusha. He asked that his surname not to be published to preserve the family’s privacy.
“It is the end of longing and living bad times,” he said. “When you are a displaced person, and when you are longing for that place and you cannot visit it, that place becomes more than just a stone or mountain, it becomes like a beloved person. You want to kiss it, and lie down on it and feel the energy from the earth.”
Nearly 1 million people were uprooted by the first war between the two in the 1990s and were resettled in towns and settlements across Azerbaijan. Many of the families still live in cramped apartments in and around Baku, and their happiness at the promise of return was tempered with grief.
“We are so happy, but many of our young died in that place,” Elnare Mamedova, 48, said of the recent fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh. “All the bodies are coming back now.”
She opened a photograph on her phone of her neighbor’s son, a soldier in the hospital with a bullet wound to the head.
“He’s been in a coma for 40 days,” she said.
Another neighbor’s son was missing, she said.
“We don’t know where he is,“ Mamedova said. ”Maybe he is captured.”
It was far from clear when displaced Azerbaijanis would be able to return. Aliyev has promised to rebuild infrastructure and to rid the region of land mines before allowing families to move back.
On Saturday, in the hectic hours before they thought Azerbaijan was set to take control of the Kelbajar district (the deadline to leave was extended for 10 days Sunday), the departing Armenians appeared determined to make resettling the area as difficult as possible. They knocked down power lines and disassembled restaurants and gas stations. Men with chain saws fanned out across the roadside, stuffing freshly cut logs into vans and truck beds.
“Let them die from the cold,” said one man, who had arrived from Armenia, collecting the logs.
In a bank in Kelbajar on Friday, an employee was breaking down the interior walls with a large mallet, while workers carried everything that moved – windows, desks, doors – into a truck. At the police station, officers were having a farewell bottle of vodka, while a 3-foot-tall white cone of burning documents smoldered in the back.
“These were always Armenian lands!” one police officer yelled when asked who had lived in Kelbajar before.
One of the few people staying in the Kelbajar district was Hovhannes Hovhannisyan, the abbott of the Dadivank monastery. When he arrived with the Armenian soldiers who took control of the area in 1993, they found that the graceful mountainside monastery had been converted to a cattle yard, he said.
Hundreds of Armenians crowded the monastery grounds Friday for one last prayer; many brought their children to be baptized. Some of the monastery’s unique, carved-stone steles, known as khachkars, were set on wooden pallets, apparently to be removed. Suddenly, down below, the monastery guard’s home burst into flames.
“I told him not to touch it!” Hovhannisyan exclaimed, referring to the guard, who had apparently ignored his entreaty.
In Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, tensions ran high in recent days as protesters accused Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of treason for acceding to the peace deal. Pashinyan and defense officials said that Armenia, outmatched on the battlefield, had no choice – a statement that came as a shock to a country, and a global diaspora, that had united in patriotic support of the war effort.
“They said we were winning, we were winning, and then suddenly it turned out we weren’t winning,” said Karine Terteryan, 43, crying next to the opera house in central Yerevan after police officers in balaclavas detained scores of protesters. “This is treason.”
On the central Republic Square in Yerevan, a giant screen broadcast cellphone videos shot by Armenian soldiers. One threatened vengeance against Azerbaijanis.
“For every broken window, for every broken house, we will enter your homes,” the soldier said, his voice echoing across the square. “You won’t be able to sleep calmly.”
Nearly 2,000 Russian forces will patrol the line between Azerbaijani- and Armenian-controlled regions for at least five years, under the deal brokered by President Vladimir Putin last week. The deal reasserted Russian influence in the formerly Soviet southern Caucasus, and the Russians’ arrival was largely welcomed by those ethnic Armenians who said they planned to stay in the section of Nagorno-Karabakh that remains under Armenian control.
But even amid the heartbreak, some older Armenians recalled wistfully the days when they lived with Azerbaijanis as friends and neighbors – a still relatively recent past now impossible to imagine for younger generations. Igor Badalyan, 53, an Armenian who fled his hometown, Baku, a quarter-century ago, said it was politicians, not regular people, who were to blame for the conflict.
“The people fight each other like dogs baited against each other,” he said, visiting Dadivank on Friday with his wife and collecting stones and earth in farewell. “It is sad that it happened this way. We didn’t want it to be this way.”