The exodus of Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh has begun.
On September 25th in Stepanakert, Armenians were furiously packing, burning, and praying. A heavy rain broke out in the afternoon as people around the city waited in various queues.
"The sky is gloomy, the air is heavy… Nobody knows if he/she will be able to get out alive from here," Meri Asatryan, an assistant to Karabakh's human rights ombudsman, said in a video on Instagram.
On the Armenian side of the border, hundreds of vehicles are entering every hour. Karabakh Armenians have brought as much of their life as possible: livestock, heavy machinery, tables and chairs.
"All night long, Stepanakert seemed to be caught up in flames. There was fire everywhere you go… The city was wide awake. People were burning their entire lives before leaving Artsakh – most probably, forever," said Asatryan, who says that nobody she knows is planning to live under Azerbaijani rule.
"99.9% of our people will leave," Davit Babyan, a senior official from Nagorno-Karabakh told Reuters of the region's population that Armenian sources estimate at 120,000.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan's Interior Ministry said it had begun receiving applications for citizenship from Armenians but it did not say how many.
Throughout the day, cars were backed up on the Goris-Stepanakert highway as they made their way towards Azerbaijan's Lachin checkpoint, on the road that connects Armenia and Karabakh. Local journalist Hayk Harutyunyan was waiting to leave Karabakh via Lachin at the time of writing, "We don't know where to go, we don't have a home there (in Armenia)... We would rather sleep in the streets than live under Azerbaijan," he told Eurasianet.
"They waged war against us four times, invaded my country, they killed my brothers, my friends, our neighbors, our parents, and we cannot live with them."
As of 5pm on September 25th, 6,650 Armenians from Karabakh had fled for Armenia, according to the Armenian government. The governing authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh announced that precious fuel reserves which had been rationed throughout Azerbaijan's 9-month blockade would be given to the population for free, to flee. In the evening, there was an explosion at a fuel depot in Stepanakert as residents hastily refueled, injuring many. Can't catch a break.
On September 22nd, Azerbaijani presidential advisor Hikmet Hajiyev said that members of the local army, the Artsakh Defense Force, who laid down their arms would be granted a general amnesty. "Azerbaijan made it very clear that whoever puts their guns down from the second Karabakh Karabakh war, the 44 days war, and the recent engagements, simply they are free," he told Al Jazeera.
He added that this amnesty did not apply to "selected individuals," mainly affiliated with Karabakh's de facto authorities, who committed "war crimes" against Azerbaijani civilians during the First Karabakh War, which the Armenian side won, in the 1990s.
But virtually all Armenian adult men have participated in military service in some form and many worry that Baku could apply an expansive definition of "war criminal."
In late July, a 68-year-old Karabakhi Armenian man, Vagif Khachatryan, was arrested during a medical evacuation to Armenia for his alleged involvement in a massacre of Azerbaijanis in the village of Meshali in the first war. He did see action in that war, but his family says it was as a driver for the Artsakh Defense Force's commander; they deny his involvement in any atrocities.
So far during the current exodus, Eurasianet has not observed reports of Armenian men being detained while attempting to leave Karabakh, but the fear is pervasive.
"We are very scared and suspicious about [the checkpoints] because we do not know how they will treat men who are connected to the army or the government, and my dad was working for the government for a long time, and he might be on their blacklist… we don't know if he'll be able to pass the checkpoint. We are really really afraid for him," one woman who wishes to remain anonymous told Eurasianet.
She's now living in Yerevan, waiting for the rest of her family who will flee "As soon as it is possible," But says that Yerevan will never be her home.
Just inside the Armenian border, in the town of Goris, refugees are being processed and provided for at a local cultural center. For most, their journey isn't over as they make their way towards Yerevan.
"I have been driving all night," a man from Karabakh tells me. Few were in a speaking mood.
Meri Asatryan, the assistant to the Karabakh human rights ombudsman, in one of her last Instagram dispatches before leaving Karabakh, had bitter words for the Azerbaijanis coming to assert control over her native region:
"How they desecrate my memories. How they mock my values. How they encroach on my heaven. I won't let them get to my happiest place of self," she said, as she burned her office documents.
Fin DePencier is a Canadian freelance journalist and photographer based in Yerevan.