Nagorno-Karabakh: Ethnic Armenians prepare to give up homes

Kelbajar, Azerbaijan – A small congregation gathered around the apse of the church. The priest sang the traditional hymn, in classical Armenian, as he raised a small cross to the heads of the two women in front of him. He flicked holy water onto their foreheads, completing the ritual.

“My sister and I had never been baptised,” said Lucie Hayrabedyan, 32. “We live in Yerevan, but we are from Artsakh,” she said, using the Armenian name for the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

“When we heard it would be given to [Azerbaijan], we decided to come while we still could,” she added.

This was the scene on Thursday at the Dadivank monastery, a millennium-old religious complex in the mountains of northern Nagorno-Karabakh.

Under the terms of a ceasefire agreement signed between Armenia and Azerbaijan on Tuesday, several ethnic Armenian-dominated regions would be handed back to Azerbaijan.

Kelbajar region, including Dadivank, would be the first – returned by Sunday, November 15.

Kelbajar is located in the northwest of Nagorno-Karabakh, the region that is inside Azerbaijan’s borders but has been run by ethnic Armenians following the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The Dadivank monastery is a millennium-old religious complex in the mountains of northern Nagorno-Karabakh [Neil Hauer/Al Jazeera]While the core of Nagorno-Karabakh was dominated by ethnic Armenians, Kelbajar was an overwhelmingly Azerbaijani-populated area. It was captured by Armenian forces in April 1993, the local population expelled.

Dozens had arrived from Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, to pay what might be their last respects to the church before it comes under Azerbaijani control.

It was a sombre scene, with worshippers wiping away tears after making the sign of the cross on their chest and forehead. Many fear for the church’s continued existence.

“Of course they will destroy it,” said Vahram, 35, who had fought on the front lines of the latest conflict, a 44-day affair that saw scores of civilians killed on both sides.

“They are erasing our history,” he said. “You know what they did to Julfa,” he added, referencing a medieval cemetery of thousands of ornate Armenian khachkars – finely-carved gravestones.

In the late nineties, Armenia accused Azerbaijan of destroying khachkars, a claim Baku denied.

Dadivank’s clergy are insistent they will protect their church.

“We will not allow them to destroy [this church],” said Father Hovhannes, the head priest of the complex.

He has served at Dadivank for a quarter-century. He gained fame on the first day of the new war, September 27, when an official Armenian government Twitter account posted a picture of him holding a cross and a rifle, above the caption “Faith & Power!”

By the time of publishing, Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry had not responded to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

Elsewhere in the area, civilians prepared for the exodus.

Karine Chakhalyan, 54, was packing up her house in the town of Kelbajar, known by ethnic Armenians as Karvachar.

“They called us from Yerevan [on Tuesday] and said, ‘You have five days [to leave]’,” she said. “Five days. What are we going to do? Where are we going to go?”

Chakalyan has lived in Kelbajar for 26 years. Her family moved to the town from their original home in Sumgait, after anti-Armenian riots in 1998.

“I remember [the violence] like it was yesterday,” she said. “My grandparents were killed, my brother was killed, my sister, too. I left with my parents, to Yerevan.”

After a few years there, she relocated to Kelbajar.

“[The government] gave us a house in Kelbajar,” she said, “but it was almost ruined. It didn’t even have a roof. We built this all with our own hands.”

Some of her six sons, who recently returned from the front line, filter in and out of the house, packing bags with Kalashnikovs slung over their backs.

“I have 10 children,” says Chakalyan. “All six of my sons served in the army. One of them didn’t come back. I don’t even know where his grave is.”

While Azerbaijanis were forced to leave Kelbajar during the war in the nineties, which saw both sides commit atrocities, Armenians were slowly settled there over the following decades.

Exact statistics are hard to come by but more than 3,000 people reportedly live in the Kelbajar region.

It remains unclear exactly what will happen to Armenian civilians in Kelbajar. The official text of the tripartite deal signed by the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia makes no mention of whether civilians need to vacate the area or not.

Meanwhile, some residents are hedging their bets.

“Right now, we are only taking the things that can be stolen,” said Nikolai, a 34-year old Kelbajar resident as he loaded a sack onto his truck.

“We don’t want to leave here. We are hoping to come back.”

Local officials also seem uncertain on what will occur on Sunday.

Nikolai said the mayor of Kelbajar called him the previous day, telling him not to burn his house and that they would be able to stay.

In other areas of Kelbajar, ethnic Armenians are burning their homes in anger, so that any future residents cannot use them.

In the village of Dadivank, just below the monastery, one villager was filmed by the BBC as he burned his home before leaving for Armenia.

Father Hovhannes intends to stay at the monastery.

“I cannot predict what will happen [on November 15], but I will stay with my parish,” he said. “I will stay at my church.”

For Chakhalyan, the seemingly imminent exodus is just the latest in the cycle of her life.

“Sumgait was not enough for them,” she said. “My sister and brother were not enough for them.

“Now [the Azerbaijanis] are driving us out from here, too. Like cattle.”