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The exodus from Azerbaijan's ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh continues


An exodus continues from a self-proclaimed republic in Azerbaijan.


That's because government troops recently seized control of the breakaway area of the country, which is by the Caspian Sea. More than 68,000 people - roughly half the population - have fled. They are ethnic Armenians, and they are fleeing a place they consider their homeland. Some are moving toward the nearby country of Armenia.

INSKEEP: NPR's Philip Reeves has covered this story for decades. It stretches back into the past century, in fact. Philip, welcome.


INSKEEP: What are you hearing?

REEVES: Well, people are continuing this morning to come down that road, just as they have been for the last four days, in cars, buses, even garbage trucks and tractors. A few good days ago, a fuel depot in Nagorno-Karabakh exploded, killing more than 60 people. And that's created a shortage of gas. So some people are just walking. They're bringing their farm animals - chickens, goats and so on. Now, this is usually, by car, a journey of five or six hours, but the road's been jammed, and so it's taken far longer than that. And these people, Steve, are leaving their lives behind. They've abandoned their villages in the mountains, their homes, their towns. And there's really no - they see no prospect of returning.

INSKEEP: When you say going down that road - we had a description of it on the program on NPR's MORNING EDITION just yesterday. It was described as a single road going westward to Armenia. It goes through the mountains. This has got to be an arduous journey, especially for those who, as you said, are on foot.

REEVES: Yes, indeed. It is tough. And they've been blockaded by Azerbaijan in - for months before now. And so many of them have had to live on what they could grow in their own homes and gardens and so on. And so, you know, they're not in great condition for that reason, also.

INSKEEP: Now, Azerbaijan sent troops to retake control of this breakaway area. People are in fear of the Azerbaijani troops, apparently. Is there evidence that they need to be? Is the government in any way assuring people's safety? Are they endangering people's safety?

REEVES: Steve, Nagorno-Karabakh's been the focus of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan off and on since shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union. They fought several wars. There have been atrocities on both sides. And so Armenians are worried about their safety. They're traumatized.

When the Azerbaijan military seized control the other day, it was very quick. But we're hearing there was bombing. There was fighting. People got hurt. And I think that, yeah, there are assurances from Azerbaijan that their rights will be respected, but, you know, they don't trust those. Azerbaijan says it wants to reintegrate them into their society, but the ethnic Armenians don't speak their language. They're Christians, whereas Azerbaijan is a Muslim-majority country. And one of the big concerns among ethnic Armenians is that their ancient Christian and cultural heritage will now be lost to them.

And they're worried about reprisals, Steve. Azerbaijan's detained one of their most prominent people. He's been accused, according to reports I'm seeing, of illegal residence in Azerbaijan because officially it's part of - Nagorno-Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan. And that's another reason for concern among the residents that remain.

INSKEEP: I guess another factor here, Philip, is that we're talking about Armenia and Azerbaijan, two former Soviet republics. And we heard yesterday that Russia still has military bases in the area, even though they gave up formal control decades ago. What role, if any, is Russia playing here?

REEVES: Well, Russia is one of Armenia's closest allies, and they took on the role of peacekeeping after a war a couple of years ago. Now there's a lot of anger among Armenians that they have failed to protect them. And that's coming out in various ways, not least against the Russian press who are in the area, who are running into a lot of hostility. Armenia's actually openly accused Putin of not doing anything to help. But the Russians have responded by - you know, but it's clear the Russians aren't happy by the way, recently, Armenia has been tilting towards the West. So this is a relationship that's going wrong.

INSKEEP: NPR's Philip Reeves, thanks so much.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.