Thursday

18th Jan 2018

Interview

The Armenia-Azerbaijan war: a refugee's story

  • Karen Matevosyan and his wife Ani at home in Stepanakert (Photo: EUobserver)

“I saw a naked girl running through the field. She was acting crazy, like dancing or something. The men surrounded her and started beating her, punching and kicking her. They pulled back and then they came at her again. They came back and forth, back and forth. They kept kicking her even after she was dead. I think she was dead. I saw this with my own eyes.”

Karen Matevosyan, a retired policeman, clenched and unclenched his fists and made kicking motions with his ankles as he spoke to EUobserver in his home in Stepanakert in the unrecognised Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh on Monday (20 February).

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now for a 30 day free trial.

  1. €150 per year
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

  • Matevosyan: "At this time of my life, my granddaughter is everything to me" (Photo: EUobserver)

The incident occurred 29 years ago, on 28 February 1988, in the town of Sumgait, on the Caspian Sea coast, in what was then the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic.

It was one of many in the anti-Armenian pogroms that took place after the local parliament in the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh voted, on 20 February, to split from Azerbaijan and join Armenia.

The four-year war that followed, amid the break-up of the Soviet Union, cost up to 30,000 lives and displaced more than 1 million people.

Full hostilities ended in 1994, but the so-called frozen conflict still goes on, with everyday exchanges of fire on the line of contact. It also threatens to escalate, destabilising the South Caucasus and drawing in regional powers Iran, Russia, and Turkey.

The lynching of the naked woman is a central image in Matevosyan’s memory of what he called “three days of hell” and gives an insight into why reconciliation remains so hard.

“I can’t forgive and forget what they did,” he said.

“The April war showed that the situation hasn’t changed. They [Azeris] are still killers and animals,” he added, referring to fighting between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh last April, which claimed hundreds of lives on both sides.

Matevosyan paused to wipe his tears with a napkin before telling the rest of his story.

He said he later learned from neighbours that the woman had lived in an apartment block close to his own.

“She was 25 and she was a newlywed. When the pogroms began, she wanted to leave, but her husband, who was an [Armenian] athlete, said he would protect her, that he was the man of the house and that no harm would come to her. The bandits came to their flat and beat him and left him for dead, but he wasn’t dead. They raped her and then they dragged her by her hair down the stairs from the fifth floor to the ground floor and chased her through the streets,” he said.

Three days of hell

Matevosyan witnessed the lynching from his own fourth-floor flat while hiding with his wife, Ani, and their one-year old son, Arkady.

Two days earlier, everything had been normal. He was working in a local electrical plant and had “good relations” with his Azeri friends and neighbours, but on 26 February, he said, “everything changed”.

He said “groups of bandits” appeared on the streets chanting: “Death to Armenians!”.

He said the men and boys, some as young as 15, appeared to be drunk or on drugs and used rocks and clubs to smash cars and windows.

“They must have been given lists because they knew exactly where we [Armenian people] lived. It was prepared in advance. They beat people in the street. They threw their belongings out of the windows into the courtyards and set them on fire,” he said.

“We were hiding at home waiting to die. We couldn’t call for help because the phone lines had been cut. I had to hold my son’s mouth closed to stop him from crying because we were afraid that if he made a noise then they would find us,” he said.

On 29 February, a mob entered his building and began attacking residents on the second and third floors, but the attackers ran away when Russian soldiers appeared in the street to stop the violence.

“That day, I was two minutes away from losing my life,” Matevosyan said.

He said the Russian convoy, composed of tanks and armoured vehicles, “looked like something from a movie”.

The Russian forces let him take some baby clothes and food and drove him and his family to a makeshift camp outside town where they stayed until 8 March.

Lieutenant-general Krayev

He vividly remembers the words and face of a Russian officer, lieutenant-general Krayev, who told him: “As a soldier, I’m instructed to tell you that the situation is calm and that you can go back home, but as a man, after seeing all that blood on the asphalt, I must tell you that I wouldn’t stay here a minute longer because the situation could change.”

Matevosyan, Ani, and Arkady left by train shortly afterward from Baku to Stepanakert, where he was born.

Six months later he returned to his flat in Sumgait one last time.

“I went back to the room where I had grown up as a boy. I was a man now, but I sat down on the floor and I started to cry because I knew this was the last time I would ever be there. I cried because all of this happened just because the blood in my veins was Armenian,” he said.

He worked as a labourer in Stepanakert, building houses in the refugee quarter where he still lives, before joining the police force.

Despite sporadic fighting on the line of contact about an hour's drive away, his daily life is quite normal.

He watches Real Madrid and Manchester United play football on TV and spends time with his two-year old granddaughter, Elena.

“I hate Barcelona [Real Madrid’s rivals in the Spanish league],” he joked.

Asked if he felt pity for Azeri civilians who also lost their lives in the events of 30 years ago, he said: “Of course I feel pity. It’s only human, but that day when I escaped my only thought whenever I saw an Azeri person was that I wanted to kill them.”

’Do what you want’

Matevosyan, who served as a soldier in the 1990s war, said that one day Armenian troops captured 10 Azeri fighters.

“They brought them to me, because they knew I was from Sumgait, and they said I could do whatever I wanted to them, but when I looked at them, I understood I couldn’t do anything,” he said.

He said the war was never a war “between peoples”.

“In Soviet times, we were friends and allies. I don’t think Azeri people ever wanted a war and I don’t think they need Nagorno-Karabakh,” he said.

“It’s the state of Azerbaijan that wants this war for some political reason,” he said.

The train tracks from Baku to Stepanakert are still in place, but no trains have used the line for 25 years.

Matevosyan said he had hoped that a peace settlement would come until Azerbaijan launched its attack last April, but that now that hope had been “destroyed”.

’Why is this?’

He switched on his TV and flicked through channels showing Azerbaijani soap operas and music.

“I can watch this, but they [people in Azerbaijan] can’t watch Armenian TV or listen to Armenian music. Why is this?”, he said.

He said he recently traced some school friends on the internet.

Some were Azeri, some Armenian, some Jewish, and others were Russian. Several of them now lived in Russia or in the US and were happy to chat about old times.

“One of them lived in Baku. I found him and we chatted for two days, but then he said: ’Sorry, I can’t stay in touch with you any more because it’s dangerous for me to be talking to an Armenian’,” Matevosyan said.

His wife, Ani, said the same thing happened when she looked up old friends on the internet.

“Why is this?”, she said.

This story is the second in a series of features by EUobserver that will examine the issues and look at the lives of ethnic Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The first part was about a referendum to create a 'Republic of Artsakh' in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Opinion

EU red carpet for Azerbaijan sends wrong message

Deepening engagement with Aliyev’s government, without first securing concrete human rights improvements, tells the world the EU does not care about its own values.

Feature

Armenia-Azerbaijan war: line of contact

“Frontline coffee is the best coffee in the world”, an Armenian soldier told EUobserver, with morale a key asset in the conflict.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Solutions for Sustainable Cities: New Grants Awarded for Branding Projects
  2. Mission of China to the EUTrade Between China, Belt and Road Countries up 15%
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersOresund Inspires Other EU Border Regions to Work Together to Generate Growth
  4. Mission of China to the EUTrade Between China, Belt and Road Countries up 15%
  5. AJC Transatlantic InstituteAJC Calls on EU to Sanction Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Expel Ambassadors
  6. Dialogue PlatformRoundtable on "Political Islam, Civil Islam and The West" 31 January
  7. ILGA EuropeFreedom of Movement and Same-Sex Couples in Romania – Case Update!
  8. EU2017EEEstonia Completes First EU Presidency, Introduced New Topics to the Agenda
  9. Bio-Based IndustriesLeading the Transition Towards a Post-Petroleum Society
  10. ACCAWelcomes the Start of the New Bulgarian Presidency
  11. Mission of China to the EUPremier Li and President Tusk Stress Importance of Ties at ASEM Summit
  12. EU2017EEVAT on Electronic Commerce: New Rules Adopted

Latest News

  1. Next year's EU election at risk of Russian meddling
  2. Hungary to tax NGOs that 'help' migration
  3. Cyprus, Malta, and Russia gang up on whistleblower
  4. 'No backsliding' on Brexit promise, Irish PM warns
  5. Commission and council dig in on GMO opt-outs
  6. Ombudsman asks ECB chief to quit secret bankers group
  7. Polish Nazi-jibe MEP 'spams' EU inboxes
  8. Macron eyes France-UK border agreement

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Jewish CongressChair of EU Parliament Working Group on Antisemitism Condemns Wave of Attacks
  2. Counter BalanceA New Study Challenges the Infrastructure Mega Corridors Agenda
  3. Dialogue PlatformThe Gülen Community: Who to Believe - Politicians or Actions?" by Thomas Michel
  4. Plastics Recyclers Europe65% Plastics Recycling Rate Attainable by 2025 New Study Shows
  5. European Heart NetworkCommissioner Andriukaitis' Address to EHN on the Occasion of Its 25th Anniversary
  6. ACCACFOs Risk Losing Relevance If They Do Not Embrace Technology
  7. UNICEFMake the Digital World Safer for Children & Increase Access for the Most Disadvantaged
  8. European Jewish CongressWelcomes Recognition of Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel and Calls on EU States to Follow Suit
  9. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Boost Innovation Cooperation Under Horizon 2020
  10. European Gaming & Betting AssociationJuncker’s "Political" Commission Leaves Gambling Reforms to the Court
  11. AJC Transatlantic InstituteAJC Applauds U.S. Recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital City
  12. EU2017EEEU Telecom Ministers Reached an Agreement on the 5G Roadmap

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Friends of ArmeniaEU-Armenia Relations in the CEPA Era: What's Next?
  2. Mission of China to the EU16+1 Cooperation Injects New Vigour Into China-EU Ties
  3. EPSUEU Blacklist of Tax Havens Is a Sham
  4. EU2017EERole of Culture in Building Cohesive Societies in Europe
  5. ILGA EuropeCongratulations to Austria - Court Overturns Barriers to Equal Marriage
  6. Centre Maurits CoppietersCelebrating Diversity, Citizenship and the European Project With Fundació Josep Irla
  7. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceUnderstanding the Social Consequences of Obesity
  8. Union for the MediterraneanMediterranean Countries Commit to Strengthening Women's Role in Region
  9. European Heart NetworkThe Time Is Ripe for Simplified Front-Of-Pack Nutrition Labelling
  10. Counter BalanceNew EU External Investment Plan Risks Sidelining Development Objectives
  11. Dialogue PlatformThe Turkey I No Longer Know
  12. World Vision7 Million Children at Risk in the DRC: Donor Meeting to Focus on Saving More Lives