How the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh caused decades of misery for older people

With tensions still high – and further conflict still possible – both Armenian and Azerbaijani authorities need to make clear and firm commitments to prioritise the protection of older people.

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh has caused decades of misery for older people, Amnesty International has claimed in two major new reports. 

The conflict – first fought from 1988 to 1994, and then during another escalation in late 2020 – saw older people unlawfully killed, tortured, and forcibly displaced; abuses which have marked their lives ever since. 

One report, Last to Flee: Older People’s Experience of War Crimes and Displacement in the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, documents how older ethnic Armenians were disproportionately subjected to violence in the recent conflict, including war crimes such as extrajudicial executions, as well as torture and other ill-treatment while in Azerbaijani detention.

The other report, Life in a Box: Older People’s Experiences of Displacement and Prospects for Return in Azerbaijan, details the suffering experienced by older Azerbaijanis who were forced from their homes in Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts during the first conflict.

“The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh highlights the unique risks that older people face in armed conflicts. Often the last to flee, they also suffer the consequences of war for decades on end,” says Laura Mills, researcher on older people with Amnesty International’s Crisis Response team.

“In both Armenia and Azerbaijan, older people have struggled to rebuild their lives in displacement – yet their loss of independence and dignity is treated as inevitable or irrelevant.

“With tensions high – and further conflict still possible – both Armenian and Azerbaijani authorities should make clear and firm commitments to prioritise the protection of older people, and ensure their human rights, including rights to housing and health, are protected.”

Last to flee

When active fighting broke out in Nagorno-Karabakh in September 2020, older people in ethnic Armenian communities were almost invariably last to flee their homes, and were disproportionately impacted by violence as a result.

During the early stages of the conflict, men aged between 18 and 55 were typically mobilised to fight or to serve the war effort as volunteers. By the time Azerbaijani forces advanced on ethnic Armenian villages and towns, the only people remaining were often older people, and particularly older men.

Many older people encountered obstacles while trying to leave. Physical disabilities and health problems made it difficult for some to flee. In other cases, some older people with psychosocial disabilities or dementia found it difficult to comprehend the necessity or urgency of leaving. Others chose not to leave because they had strong attachments to their homes, or were reluctant to abandon land or livestock. 

Older people who fled their homes have languished in displacement in the years since. They reported a lack of access to adequate housing and a loss of livelihoods, which further entrenched feelings of helplessness and isolation. They also suffer due to an extreme lack of mental health or psychosocial support services.

On the ethnic Armenian side, more than half of civilian deaths were among older people. Many interviewees told Amnesty International of extrajudicial executions by Azerbaijani forces. They described killings where victims were beheaded or shot at point-blank range, constituting the war crime of wilful killing. Some appeared to have been tortured prior to their deaths, and some corpses were mutilated afterwards. 

Life in a box

During the initial conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh from 1988 to 1994, more than half-a-million ethnic Azeri civilians from the region and seven surrounding districts were forcibly displaced. Many civilians, including older Azeri civilians, were unlawfully killed and subjected to other violence. Those who were displaced have lived in other parts of Azerbaijan ever since.

For decades, many lived in overcrowded tent camps, dormitories and schools, or abandoned railway cars, sheds, or buildings. They shared toilets and showers with dozens of people, and sometimes lived without electricity, heat, or running water. They struggled to meet their basic needs, or pay for food and medication.

In 2020, Azerbaijan reclaimed much of the territory lost in the initial conflict, and there are plans to resettle potentially hundreds of thousands of displaced persons. However, there are significant barriers to doing so: Armenian forces laid anti-personnel landmines on a massive scale, and also committed and oversaw the widespread destruction and seizure of property.

Many older people raised concerns about returning permanently to their home regions. One 72-year-old man told Amnesty International: “I have huge security concerns when it comes to living close to Armenians. There is lots of trauma between our two nations. I know lots of people who were killed.”

Despite significant progress in recent years, it is estimated that as many as 100,000 displaced people still live in difficult conditions in informal housing in Azerbaijan. These residences are overcrowded and often difficult to physically access, meaning that older people are forced to rely on assistance from relatives or others simply to leave their homes. 

Meaningful inclusion

Amnesty International is calling on the Azerbaijani government to ensure any process of return fully respects the rights and needs of a diverse range of older people, including older women, older people with disabilities, and that all older people are meaningfully included in decisions related to returns and provided information transparently and accessibly, so that they can make informed, voluntary decisions.

“All displaced persons have the right to return to their original homes in conditions of dignity and security, and the unique risks to older people must be taken into consideration. The Azerbaijani authorities must ensure they have access to appropriate housing and can earn a living on an equal basis with others,” says Mills.

“The Armenian forces’ destruction of civilian objects and seizure of civilian property, as well as their widespread use of landmines, violate international humanitarian law. Not only do these violations continue to undermine the right to return of displaced people, they pose a serious obstacle for Azerbaijan’s efforts to resettle displaced populations in conflict-affected regions.”

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