Caught in Between: Armenian Refugees from Azerbaijan

A view of Lake Sevan from Jil, home to about 600 Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan.

Chai Khana

They came by group in trucks; a few people owned one, but most rented them.

“Some villagers would rent one truck and offer to transport their neighbors’ belongings,” recalls Michael Gharibyan, 48. “A few Azerbaijanis helped us get to Armenia, so that we were safe on the way here.”

As tensions over Nagorno Karabakh broke into a full-fledged conflict in the late 1980s, Armenians living in Azerbaijan fled to Armenia while Azerbaijanis in Armenia moved to Azerbaijan. Many families exchanged houses and properties.

Originally from Mirzik, Azerbaijan, Gharibyan left in 1988 and resettled a few miles away, just over the administrative border with Armenia, in Jil. As he headed west, hundreds of Azerbaijanis from Jil headed east to Azerbaijan. Neither the Armenians nor the Azerbaijanis ever returned to their original homes.

Jil sits on the northeastern bank of Lake Sevan, in a narrow strip of land squeezed between the water and the Sevan mountains.. Until 1988, Jil was mainly a village populated by Azerbaijanis. The Armenians who settled there were mostly from Azerbaijan’s Dashkasan, Shamkhir, and Khanlar (now Goygol) regions.

Amenities are few. For lack of cash and a proper store, villagers barter dairy products for clothes and fruit.

Many did not manage to adapt to the new environment and left. Twenty-nine years later there are only 600 people in the village.

Those who stayed, like Gharibyan, who acts as the village’s head of government, are still in limbo. They are unable to return to their homes in Azerbaijan, and Jil, though located not far from the Sevan-Vardenis highway, lacks a basic road connection to the rest of Armenia.

The border with Azerbaijan is a mere 3.5 kilometers away. About 60 villagers work as contractors for the army in defending that borderline.

“It was tense during last year’s April war,” explains Arthur Hovhannisyan, one of the servicemen. “We thought that there might be an attack on this side, as there are less than 10 kilometers between the lake and the border. If [the Azerbaijani army] took the road, five to six villages would be totally surrounded.”

That did not happen. Compared to the northeast of Armenia, shootings in Jil do not occur daily since the Armenian army holds higher ground here.