Three years, thrice displaced: A family flees Nagorno-Karabakh

Adjusting to an uncertain future after displacement.

A family displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh stands in a home in Armenia where they are sheltering.

Armenia 2023 © Arsen Aghasyan/MSF

Mileta pauses often while speaking about her family's former home in Martakert/Aghdara, Nagorno-Karabakh, and the journey they endured fleeing to Armenia. Her family has lost their home due to war three times—first in 2020, then in 2022, and most recently, in 2023. 

Her 13-year-old daughter, Mane, was in school when explosions lit the sky of Karabakh on September 19. That day, all the students were quickly sent home. Mileta knew they would never come back.  

With no phone or internet connection, Mileta had no idea what to do or where to go to find safety, so she and her family locked themselves inside their home, terrified. A few hours later, a neighbor entered the home and urged them to leave, saying that soldiers were already advancing toward their village. Not knowing what to take with them and what to leave behind, Mileta instinctively went for the family albums.  

“I knew I had to take the photos of my family to cherish the memories, as we have nothing else left anymore,” Mileta says. "We have been stripped of our lives, left with nothing.” 

A displaced woman looks at photos in an album she took while fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh.
Mileta looks through the photos she packed in panic when she fled her home in Nagorno-Karabakh in September. Armenia 2023 © Arsen Aghasyan/MSF

On September 19, Azerbaijan launched an attack on various areas in Nagorno-Karabakh, a region that is a self-proclaimed republic internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but has traditionally been home to many ethnic Armenians. After a ceasefire agreement was reached 24 hours later, more than 100,000 people from the region fled to neighboring Armenia. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams in Armenia have been providing aid, including mental health care, to displaced people like Mileta and her family.

Fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh

Before the war erupted, the people of Nagorno-Karabakh endured 10 months of blockade by Azerbaijan. During the last three months, it was becoming increasingly difficult to find food in totally isolated Karabakh, and Mileta's family ate only once each day. She says that pretty much every displaced person she met on the road had stomach problems from months of malnutrition.  

Mileta’s family managed to get to the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh from Martakert/Aghdara with the little gasoline they had. On the way, chaos erupted. There were rumors that civilians would be evacuated. Nobody knew whether the Lachin corridor connecting Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh would be open for them to flee.

The rumors turned out to be false. The vast majority of people ended up sleeping wherever they could while waiting for their next move. Mileta and her children slept in their car in Stepanakert/Khankendi, not knowing where to go or what to do. Finally, Azerbaijan opened Lachin corridor on September 24, and Mileta’s family passed through to Armenia. 

A baby and child sleep in a car while fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh.
It took Mileta's family two days to cross the Lachin corridor, and they witnessed several deaths on the road. Armenia 2023 © Arsen Aghasyan/MSF

The toll of displacement

Mileta recalls how hard her family worked to renovate their home in Martakert/Aghdara over the past few years. They dreamed of turning the ground floor into a dental clinic, so that when her son graduated from university, he could come back to their town and work as a dentist. 

Her family does not know whether they will stay in Armenia, as they would have to start over from scratch. Stress, insomnia, and uncertainty have set in. Mileta still wonders whether they will ever be able to go back to their homeland.  

“Wherever I am, it is not home for me," says Mileta. "I left my father’s cemetery, the church where I used to pray, and my home, which our family built with our own hands."

MSF mental health teams visit a home in Armenia in response to displacement from Nagorno-Karabakh.
Alongside mental health support, MSF teams have been providing vulnerable families with non-food item kits, walking sticks, and wheelchairs. Armenia 2023 © Arsen Aghasyan/MSF

MSF teams have seen a high number of psychosomatic issues among displaced people from Nagorno-Karabakh in the villages of Ararat and Kotayk. Many people we see have been displaced three or four times during the past year, and many continuously experience grief, bereavement, and a feeling of disempowerment. Adults predominantly express fear while in children, the accumulated anxiety has resulted in sleeping disorders and enuresis.  

Anxiety about the future is the dominant theme for almost every person that MSF teams have met and spoken to. “I have to start from zero, and my biggest burden is to take care of my kids,” says Anyuta, another displaced person from Nagorno-Karabakh. “The trauma we went through is unfathomable, after months of blockade and food scarcity. But now we have lost our home on top of it." 

About MSF's response in Armenia

MSF teams are visiting vulnerable families in the Kotayk and Ararat regions of Armenia— including hotels and apartments where displaced people are temporarily living—to offer mental health support and assess the most critical social needs. Since October 2023, MSF has provided 1,655 mental health consultations and distributed more than 200 non-food item kits.