Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Lachin: The Emptying Lands
Landmines, neglect and uncertainty result in an Armenian exodus from strategic corridor.
By Onnik Krikorian
Suarassy, a mine-infested region.
Relics of war, south of Lachin.
Growing up in Ditsmayri, near Zangelan, Kashatagh Region.
What is left of the village of Malibeyli. All photographs by Onnik Krikorian.
The local residents of Suarassy seem oblivious to the hidden danger as they herd cattle down a road known to have been mined during the Armenian-Azerbaijani war of the early Nineties. Despite the mangled military lorry rusting in a ditch to one side, none of their cows have so far detonated seven anti-tank mines still believed to be buried underneath, so they reckon the road is safe.
Less than a metre away is forest and grazing land laden with at least 900 anti-personnel landmines. Yura Sharamanian, operations officer for the HALO Trust, compares the minefield to Cambodia and says that the British de-mining charity considers Lachin to be the most mine-infested region in Karabakh and surrounding regions, which were fought over during the 1991-4 war.
Although considered by the international community to be occupied Azerbaijani land, this territory is now marked on Armenian maps as Kashatagh. Also including the formerly Azerbaijani regions of Kubatly and Zangelan as well as Lachin itself, Kashatagh stretches down to the Iranian border in the south.
This strip of land between Armenia and Karabakh is one of the key points in dispute in the unresolved Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. And it is also home to a few thousand hardy Armenian settlers who have moved here since the 1994 ceasefire.
However, it is not just the danger of landmines that threatens the existence of new settlements in the Kashatagh region. Although a 2005 census put the official population of Kashatagh at 9,800 Armenians, with 2,200 residing in the town of Lachin, the actual figure is now believed to be around fifty per cent less.
Five years ago, Kashatagh’s population was estimated by local officials to be approximately 15,000. Before the Karabakh war, the three Azerbaijani regions of Lachin, Kubatly and Zangelan had 129,000 residents, with over 60,000 Azerbaijanis and ethnic Kurds living in the Lachin region alone.
Officials in the administrative town of Lachin, now renamed Berdzor, are reluctant to admit out loud that these reports are true, but privately confirm that the number of settlers is far below that officially quoted. None estimate the population at over 6,000 and most soon forget to maintain the official line that most of the new settlers are refugees from Azerbaijan. Instead, they admit that most are from Armenia proper.
Zorik Irkoyan, chief specialist at the education department for the new Kashatagh region, for example, is a journalist from Yerevan who was involved in the military operation to take the town. He says that few refugees were among most of the new arrivals in Kashatagh.
"Not many came because they were used to their life in Baku and Sumgait [in Azerbaijan]," he said. "Many now feel safer in Armenia, and like a million other Armenians, some have left for Russia. Some might have moved here because of the social conditions in Armenia although others did not. I can't guarantee that I will always live in Lachin, but there is a connection with this land.”
Some new arrivals are indeed refugees from Azerbaijan and Karabakh, as well as the Diaspora, but most are vulnerable families from Armenia. They were attracted by the promise of land, livestock and social benefits averaging 4,000 Armenian drams (about ten US dollars) per child.
But, since 2004, residents of Lachin say that government money is being reduced and people are moving away. Even Robert Matevosian, head of resettlement for Kashatagh, admits, “Recent reports [highlighting out-migration] are raising various issues and concerns that do exist.”
Samuel Kocharian, director of the AGAPE Children’s Home that accommodates socially vulnerable children, is more open. “The process of resettlement started on a large scale at the beginning because of patriotism,” he said, “but now, with the same enthusiasm and on the same scale, Kashatagh is emptying.” Like others in the region, he estimates the population of the region to be about 5-6,000 people.
The most likely reason is not hard to spot. In the ongoing peace negotiations over the future of Nagorny Karabakh, the Armenian government seems committed to returning almost all of the seven territories surrounding Karabakh currently under Armenian control. In the event of a deal, Lachin is set to remain as the crucial land link between Armenia and Karabakh - but it remains uncertain how wide the “Lachin Corridor” would actually be.
This is bad news for those Armenian nationalists who want to resettle the Kashatagh region - although it will encourage those who support a peace settlement as it means relatively few Armenians will have to make way for returning Azerbaijanis under a future deal.
The region is now administered by the internationally-unrecognised Nagorny Karabakh Republic. Kocharian says the Armenian and Karabakh authorities do not want settlements outside a 20-30 km radius of Lachin and are obviously reluctant to finance any new construction projects, saying that only a small amount of the 750 million drams (around 1.7 million dollars) allocated to the entire region for house construction has actually been spent.
Moreover, while many homes in Lachin proper have been refurbished at the expense of the local authorities, little or nothing has happened in the villages. Sources in the Kashatagh administration speaking to IWPR on condition of anonymity confirm this.
Others also say that initial promises to provide free electricity up to 200 kw per month for two years to new arrivals were broken at the beginning of the year. Gagik Kosakian, deputy governor of the region, does not deny this, saying, “Electricity used to be cheaper than it is today and this allowance was stopped at the beginning of 2006. However, electricity is still cheaper than in Armenia.”
Karegah, three km from Lachin, has been presented to visitors as a model village in the region, but its head, Marine Petoyan, is concerned about its future. Sixty per cent of the village comprising 65 mainly refugee families has no water, and 25 families have already had their electricity cut off because of non-payment of outstanding debts.
“There was also a bus for schoolchildren which was used by others as well, but it’s been six months since it last operated,” she said. “No money for petrol was provided.”
On September 28, Jirair Sefilian, a former military commander from the Karabakh war, called for the resignation of Kashatagh governor Hamlet Khachatrian for alleged mismanagement, saying that 52 villages in the region had neither electricity nor water.
IWPR was detained and prevented from visiting other villages surrounding Lachin by officers of the Nagorny Karabakh National Security Service, NSS. Samvel Kocharian says he believes this was because “conditions were very bad in those villages [in 2001], but you should understand that they don’t even exist now. The further away you get from Berdzor [Lachin] the more they are forgotten and the remotest villages are in a really bad condition. The closest regions of Goris in Armenia and Hadrut in Karabakh have grown and developed in the past ten years, but there’s been no change here.
“When the living conditions are improving there, and when people are lied to for 12 years with promises that a house will be built for them one day, it’s only natural that they want to leave.”
Onnik Krikorian is a British-born freelance journalist living and working in Armenia. He has a blog from Armenia at http://oneworld.blogsome.com with many photographs from Lachin/Kashatagh.
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