Yerevan, Armenia – Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh burn down homes ahead of Azerbaijan handover.

A Russia-brokered peace deal signed last week has ended six weeks of fierce fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh – but this peace hasn’t come without a price.

As part of the deal, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh must return the Aghdam, Kalbajar and Lachin districts to Azerbaijan starting on November 20 2020, with a completion deadline of December 1 2020.

Armenians living in the Kalbajar district, which had been controlled by Armenian forces since the 1990s Nagorno-Karabakh war, are fleeing and setting fire to their homes rather than hand them over to Azerbaijan.

Though Kalbajar’s departing residents are bound for a difficult journey through the mountainous landscape that connects the region with Armenia, most chose to leave few of their belongings behind – and many set their homes on fire to make them unusable for future Azerbaijani residents.

A resident in the town of Karvachar watches his home burn after setting it on fire in the town of Karvachar in Nagorno-Karabakh, Vahe Mkrtchyan watched his home burn down. He set re to it himself after learning that it now lies in a region ceded to Azerbaijan in a ceasefire brokered by Russia to end recent hostilities with Armenia.

Other ethnic-Armenian residents in the town did the same thing, taking what belongings they could manage then setting re to their own homes rather than hand them over to Azerbaijan.

On November 9 2020, Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to cease armed hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh the following day.

As part of the settlement, Azerbaijan gained control over several territories that include the town of Karvachar.

A 13th-century monastery, sacred for Armenians, is also to be handed over as part of the deal. For residents of the region, destruction and loss are things they are too familiar with. It was the site of a bloody war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the 1990s.

At the time, Armenians expelled Azeris from land they claimed as theirs, embarking on a cycle of violence that had continued ever since. Hayrapet Margaryan, a resident of the Armenian capital Yerevan, is a veteran of the violence in the 90s.

For him, the accord may have stopped the war, but will not be enough to bring about peace.

“For peace, we need to have justice,” Hayrapet said. “We live in the 21st century and as Europe talks about justice, honesty and humanism all the time, we also need it here. Only with justice, will people be able to live in peace.”

Armenian Kalbajar residents burn homes before Azerbaijan handover. Residents of Kalbajar region of Nagorno-Karabakh were burning their houses before leaving the region that will be transferred under the control of Azerbaijan.

Kalbajar is situated in the north western part of Nagorno-Karabakh and has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since 1994.

Under the ceasefire agreement signed by Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia, Azerbaijan will regain control of the Kalbajar region from November 15 2020. Garo Dadevusyan and his family have spent 21 years in Kalbajar, raising children there. Now they are collecting their belongings to leave for good. Garo said he will set fire to his house to prevent it from going into the hands of ethnic Azerbaijanians.

“We are homeless now, do not know where to go and where to live. Do not know where to live. It is very hard.” said Garo’s wife through tears looking at the empty house.

“In the end, we will blow up or put a fire (to the house) not to leave anything to Muslims,” Garo said.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have been locked in a conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh for decades. Heavy fighting that flared up on September 27 2020 marked the biggest escalation in over a quarter-century, killing hundreds and possibly thousands of people. The peace agreement calls for Armenian forces to turn over control of some areas it held outside the borders of Nagorno-Karabakh, including the eastern district of Aghdam before December 1 2020.

Azerbaijan authorities announced a plan to gradually return Azerbaijani internally displaced peoples to the settlements they were forced to leave following the war in the 1990s. By the estimates of the United nations around five hundred thousand Azerbaijanis have fled Nagorno-Karabakh since 1994, 60 thousand from the Kalbajar region.