Land Debate: Loss of “unimportant” territory makes life in Karabakh village unsafe

Photo: Sara Khojoyan/

As the debate about whether the territories lost by the Armenian military in the brief war with Azerbaijan in Nagorno Karabakh in early April goes on in Armenia, hundreds of displaced residents of a village situated close to the restive line of contact in the northeastern direction cannot return to their homes because of the altered military positions.

Only military men are now left in the once thriving village of Talish, which was the scene of some of the fiercest battles between defending Armenians and attacking Azerbaijanis in the April 2-5 clashes. Practically none of the 500 or so residents of the community who fled the hostilities last month have returned to their homes where they no longer feel safe.

Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan admitted earlier this month that Karabakh lost 800 out of 800,000 hectares of its “security zone” in clashes with Azerbaijan in April. The high ground over Talish is one of the areas from where Armenians withdrew under the Azeri onslaught. The Azeri positions are now only within a kilometer from the village, making the local school and some recently built houses soft targets.

Sos Petrosyan / Photo: Sara Khojoyan/
Sos Petrosyan / Photo: Sara Khojoyan/

The locals are now hesitating as to whether they should restore what was damaged in the military operations or even return to their homes at all. “The fate of the village is uncertain. It’ll be bad if it turns out that April 2 was the last day in the history of a 100-year-old village,” says Sos Petrosyan, a 43-year-old resident of Talish.

Petrosyan, a former serviceman who worked as a mathematics and physics teacher at Talish’s school during the last six years, says he took his wife and sons to his mother-in-law’s place in Armenia before deciding to return. What he found upon return, however, was an abandoned community.

“Restoring Talish won’t be hard if the authorities decide and ensure security at the borders. There will be both money and people who will want to participate in this rehabilitation work,” says Petrosyan. “But no one cares about what is going to happen to these people.”

Many people in Karabakh these days are also angered by the attitude of some politicians in Armenia, including President Sargsyan, who argue that the territories lost in the war are of no “strategic and tactical importance”. They think that such statements make meaningless the deaths of more than 100 people for that land.

Defense Minister Seyran Ohanyan tried to do some damage control, stating in Yerevan on Monday that the land lost by Armenians in early April is part of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic’s territory under the country’s Constitution. “These territories cannot be forgotten as we do not forget about all our historical territories,” he said, stopping short of describing the lost territories as “strategically unimportant”.

Yerevan-based political analyst Levon Shirinyan believes that, on the contrary, the territories lost to Azerbaijan are really important.

“Now I want to ask again our Defense Ministry: if the Azeris start military operations again, won’t it be easier for them to move forward because, for example, the Lele Tepe high ground is in their hands?” the analyst queried at a press conference on Monday.

In his May 17 interview to several Armenian TV channels on his way back from an internationally mediated meeting with Azerbaijan’s leader in Vienna, Austria, President Sargsyan argued against attempting to recapture the lands, saying that it would have entailed heavy casualties. Opposition hardliners have dismissed his statement as a pseudo-argument.

For the Unity party, which was recently established by former Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian and is likely to become the Sargsyan-led ruling Republican Party’s main competitor in next year’s parliamentary elections, it is also unacceptable that Sargsyan presents the issue of lost territories only as a dilemma of land versus human lives.

“This is a very bad message to our people and our army, the mediators and especially our adversary,” the party said in a statement late last week.

Meanwhile, people from Talish are waiting for an opportunity to return to their village. Marine Sahakyan, 28, says, however, that they will need security guarantees for that. “Everything is possible otherwise,” she says. “Who would have thought that 20 years after the end of hostilities we would again be attacked?”