“This is my home, and I will not leave.” Resilience and hope in Syunik, Armenia

2 February 2022

This is my home, and I will not leave.” As she says these words, Marusya gazes across to the disputed border between Armenia and Azerbaijan a few hundred metres away. Her eyes are filled with sadness, anxiety and of a lifetime spent in this mountainous village in the Syunik region of southern Armenia.

I am 86-years-old and have lived in this house all my life,” she tells us. “My husband died in 2008, so I live alone here. When the war started in 2020, my house was hit by shrapnel that came through my bathroom roof. The house was hit several times. We used to have cattle, but the Azeris have taken all the grazing lands and when the cattle crossed to them, the Azeris refused to return them. Life is difficult now, and we are afraid the Azeris will attack again. But this is my home, and I will not leave.

We had travelled to Marusya’s village in the Syunik Province of south Armenia via the road between Goris and Kapan that leads to the Iranian border. At several points, the road crosses the disputed border line between Armenia and Azerbaijan, passing Azeri and Armenian checkpoints. Hundreds of Azerbaijani troops are deployed in pockets of territory in Armenia’s Syunik and Gegharkunik provinces. During the 2020 war, the villagers in Marusya’s village endured numerous aerial bombardments, resulting in six deaths and 17 wounded. Almost 100 homes were hit. Frequent Azeri incursions into Armenian territory, attacks on Armenian villages, placement of Azerbaijani armed units in strategic positions, occupation of farmlands, disruption of water supplies and refusal to return grazing livestock that cross the unmarked border, have intensified tensions in the region. On the main road, we passed several convoys of Iranian lorries travelling north – a vital trade route between Iran and Armenia and Georgia. In recent months, the Azeris have frequently closed the road demanding high ‘fees’ to allow passage of Iranian and Armenian vehicles.

On 12 May, 2021, an incursion of over 400 Azerbaijani soldiers several kilometres into Armenian territory, took control of the whole area around Lake Sevan and the commanding heights overlooking the only supply route to Nagorno Karabakh and Syunik Province. After a few days, they withdrew, but had made it clear that they were capable of controlling the Syunik and Lachin corridors which connect Armenia with its southern territory, the Iranian border, and the areas of Nagorno Karabakh under Armenian control.


So what is the significance of Syunik Province?

This small, isolated province represents a vital geopolitical and physical link between Asia and the Mediterranean. Given the importance of Syunik province for land-links between Iran, the Caucasus, southern Russia and Europe, Tehran’s response to Azeri encroachments has been clear. Economic cooperation between Iran and Armenia is vital to these trade links and so any loss of Armenian sovereignty of this area would threaten the national security of Iran and increase the political and economic leverage of Turkey and Azerbaijan. Syunik Province also represents a key link in the proposed corridor between Turkey and Azerbaijan, and therefore of Turkic/Azeri nationalism and power within the region. With the ‘transport link’ to Azerbaijan that is proposed under the 9 November 2020 agreement, there is concern that Azerbaijan will be able to control the trade route between Iran and Armenia in the south and then push for control of the trade route between Armenia and Georgia in the Tavush region in the north, where regular incursions and clashes between Azeri and Armenian forces have also taken place.[1]

So, whilst the major hostilities of the 2020 conflict may have ended in Nagorno Karabakh, dangerous tensions and fears remain.

In the Armenian town of Kapan, just a few miles from the Iranian border, we met the Governor of Syunik Province, Melikset Poghosyan. He spoke of the emerging security crisis in Syunik province and its impact on livelihoods:

There have been big changes since the war of 2020. A lot of land has been occupied by the Azeris. Villagers have lost their grazing land. Their livelihoods are reduced and they fear for their security. We also have many disabled people from the war, but no rehabilitation services. During the war, the Azeris bombed the border villages and killed cattle. But now, there is no distance between us and the Azeris and there is  great fear amongst the population. There are 506kms of border with Azerbaijan in the   Syunik region and incursions into Armenian territory along the borderline are frequent. Azeris are controlling the main road to Goris and the rest of Armenia. They use fake maps and fake GPS to claim land that is not theirs.

 Back in Marusya’s village, we met with other villagers who spoke passionately about their situation. One woman said:

Whatever has happened has happened. We just want to live peacefully and have no more war… We want our children to grow up in the village. We will not leave. Please tell the world about our situation.

Of all the ‘trouble-spots’ in the world, this is one of the least known and least covered. But the impact of the war in Armenia and Azerbaijan’s occupation of Nagorno Karabakh could have implications that go far beyond the region and have inter-continental geopolitical consequences.

HART works with an inspiring partner in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno Karabakh, supporting the Lady Cox Disability Rehabilitation Centre – a ‘centre of excellence’ unrivalled anywhere in the region, that provides world-class care for people with disabilities, especially those affected by the long-term conflict. We are also committed to advocacy and enabling the voices of the marginalised to be heard. In the midst of geopolitical conflicts and competing global interests, it is the millions of people like Marusya and her fellow villagers who suffer the most, but who are in fact the lifeblood of the region and who have a right to be heard and to live in peace in their lands.

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