Armenia has begun handing over disputed territory to Azerbaijan as part of a peace accord that ended six weeks of fierce fighting over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Residents of the Kalbajar district, which has been controlled by ethnic Armenians for decades, began a mass exodus from the mountainous province in the days leading up to Sunday, the official withdrawal date.
Residents were seen piling their belongings into vehicles before leaving for Armenia. Some of the departing ethnic-Armenians said they had exhumed graves they feared would be desecrated by Azerbaijanis.
Thick plumes of smoke rose over the valley near the village of Charektar after residents set their homes on fire – preferring to leave devastation in their wake and homes that would be uninhabitable.
A Russian peacekeeping contingent deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh last week set up checkpoints and positions in the region’s administrative centre, Stepanakert, implementing the accord that sees Armenia cede the swaths of territory Azerbaijan’s forces gained in the fighting.
Moscow’s peacekeeping mission, which the military said included soldiers previously stationed in Syria, comprises some 2,000 troops for a renewable five-year mission.
Azerbaijan and Armenia, ex-Soviet rivals, agreed to end hostilities last week after several efforts by Russia, France, and the United States to reach a ceasefire fell through during the nearly two months of clashes.
Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid, reporting from Kalbajar, said the area was mostly abandoned as people loaded belongings onto vehicles and farmers herded livestock away.
“There’s barely any life remaining in Kalbajar. Where these people are going to go, what their future looks like, this is still all up in the air,” she said. “It’s a big defeat, it’s a humiliation, and the people are angry.”
‘They are human beings’
A key part of the peace deal includes Armenia’s return of the districts of Kalbajar and Aghdam by November 20, and the Lachin by December 1. All have been held by Armenians since a devastating war in the 1990s.
Although the ceasefire ends the fighting, it aggravates ethnic animosity.
Fleeing resident Garo Dadevusyan, who spoke as he bid farewell to his home of 21 years, noted the enmity that exists between the two peoples but said it was the governments that were to blame.
“You think that I consider them [Azerbaijani] as only enemies? Yes, they are enemies and have always been enemies during the centuries. But despite that, they are human beings. It is all [the fault] of government,” he said before leaving his home.
Queues of cars and trucks carrying residents jammed the road to Armenia.
“They do not know what they are going to do next. Will they be able to put their children in school? How are they going to live? They do not know. This is what people told us,” said Abdel-Hamid.
Hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis were displaced by the war over Nagorno-Karabakh that ended in 1994, and Armenians moved into the homes they vacated in Kalbajar.
Al Jazeera’s Osama bin Javaid, reporting from the village of Tugana, Azerbaijan, near Kalbajar, said there was frustration over Armenian residents burning their homes as they fled.
“Many people in Azerbaijan say these were their homes, to begin with. They say: ‘First they [Armenians] occupied them and now they are burning them,’” he said.
It is unclear when any civilians might try to settle in the region, but returns could be wrenching, with settlers confronting the burned-out shells of houses – or worse.
Aghdam, which is to be turned over next week, was once a city of about 40,000, but is now a sprawl of buildings destroyed in the first war, or later ruined by people scavenging for building materials.
Armenia conceded on Saturday that 2,317 fighters had been killed in clashes in which both sides accused the other of targeting civilian infrastructure.
Azerbaijan has not revealed its military casualties, and the real death toll after weeks of fighting is expected to be much higher.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday said the number of fatalities on both sides had surpassed 4,000, and tens of thousands of people had been forced to flee their homes.
Kalbajar was almost exclusively populated by ethnic Azerbaijanis who were expelled by ethnic Armenians in the 1990s war following the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the Armenian government controversially subsidised the region’s settlement by ethnic Armenians.
The peace accord with Azerbaijan sparked protests in Armenia where demonstrators and opposition parties are calling for Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to resign.
The former head of Armenia’s national security service, Artur Vanetsyan, was arrested on Saturday on charges of plotting to assassinate Pashinyan and seize power.
Turkey, a key ally of Azerbaijan, was widely accused by Western countries, Russia, and Armenia of dispatching mercenaries from Syria to reinforce Azerbaijan’s army.
Azerbaijan has pushed for Ankara’s involvement in the settlement and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last week his country would jointly supervise the ceasefire with Russia.
But Russia has ruled out Turkey’s direct involvement in the peacekeeping mission and insisted Ankara would monitor the mission from an observation centre on Azerbaijani territory.