It was mid-afternoon, on September 19th in Yerevan when the news broke. The 2023 Nagorno-Karabakh war had begun. Azerbaijan launched an offensive aimed at establishing full control over the region. People quickly rushed towards the centers of local and international authority in Yerevan: Republic Square, the parliament, UN Headquarters, and the Russian embassy, among others.
By 1:30 pm in Republic Square, protestors were blocking the surrounding roads while the main crowd started gathering near the Government House.
"We're blocking the road to demand the Armenian government take action, as it is [written] in our legislation that Armenia is the guarantor of Artsakh's security," one woman said, using the name Armenians prefer to use for Nagorno-Karabakh. Her friends had dragged a city bench out onto the street, and were prepared to sit there for "as long as it takes."
Traffic yielded before the protestors on Abovyan Street. They didn't honk, they didn't object, but rather idled in solidarity. As did the crowd that started to gather around the main government building. In the early afternoon, there was very little chanting or yelling. Instead, there was an eerie, desperate silence. There was little hope or even anger, just despair.
But as the crowds grew, so did the anger. At 4pm, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan addressed the nation on Facebook live, declaring that "Armenia won't go to war over Nagorno-Karabakh." As the workday expired, Armenians from every corner of the city began pouring into the square. "Nikol, Traitor!" some shouted. Others chose the neutral "Artsakh, Artsakh…!"
Outside the Russian embassy, Armenians had stretched out a massive Nagorno-Karabakh flag and were shouting anti-Russian obscenities.
Their sense of betrayal was palpable, "We're not letting anyone out of the embassy. We're practically causing a blockade so that they feel what the people of Artsakh did for the last 10 months."
Nearby, at the UN headquarters, a much smaller group was meekly blocking the gate. Standing nearby was 18-year-old Knar Khatchatryan, an Armenian from the Martuni district in Karabakh. A few weeks ago, Knar and several other university students were granted permission to travel to Armenia through the Lachin Corridor with the mediation of Russian peacekeepers.
Movement through the Lachin Corridor had been tightly restricted and Nagorno-Karabakh had effectively been under Azerbaijani blockade since December.
When war broke out yesterday, Knar was glued to her phone, reading updates about the war back home, and waiting to hear something back from her family. There was no connection, and so she couldn't reach them.
Seeing her emotional state, Knar's friends confiscated her phone to protect her from the news.
I asked her how she felt about having left Karabakh before the war started.
"I don't know, I want to be with my family. But at the same time, I wish they were with me here, where it's safer. I have no news about my brother, who is at his post."
Knar's brother, Paruyr is 19 years old, in his second year of conscription with the Artsakh Defense Force. The last time she spoke with him was on September 18th. He was in the district of Askeran, as far as she was aware.
Knar was able to speak with some of her friends living in Stepanakert, Karabakh's de facto capital, who were all sheltering underground. But meanwhile in her home village of Kolkhozashen, "They don't have a shelter in our village, so they are staying at home. There are no other places to go, especially now, because there is no gas to move as a result of the blockade."
For over two months, humanitarian aid has been sitting outside the UN building, as activists demand it be sent through the Lachin Corridor. A stubborn group remained.
"For the last 18 days, we've been here around the clock, asking the UN office to react to the blockade of the Lachin Corridor. Right now, we are standing here in front of the gates, blocking the employees of the UN office in Yerevan from coming out and exiting the building. Our demand is that the UN office in Yerevan put pressure on the UN Security Council, which has the legal and military and economic means of stopping Azerbaijan."
As we walked towards Republic Square, the UN General Assembly meeting was playing on the TV in a nearby hotel. Biden was speaking. The sound was off, four men were having drinks and smoking cigarettes, completely uninterested.
At Republic Square, activists had hijacked the steps outside the main government building, pushing the police back towards the door. "Dear people, all of you, who are watching us behind the screen, come and join us. I understand you're tired, disgusted, hurt, but come to give our last fight. We have lived our life as much as possible, we lived with pride, we have kept our land, but today we are losing our country," one man said.
"Today we have left 120,000 people in God's care. How are we better than our comrades in arms, who got injured, even killed in Stepanakert?" asked another.
With nightfall came violence. As protestors tried to push through the building, police in the back line went into the building and then reappeared in full riot gear. After the crowd continued to push and hurl projectiles, police deployed stun grenades, injuring dozens. Three people were later arrested who were found with "cold weapons and knives."
The crowd was dispersed. But over the next hour or so, a group of mostly young men started to regather at a safe distance, waiting for someone to take the lead. On the ground in front of the riot police, I picked up someone's smashed glasses. Other debris lay scattered.
This morning, police were up bright and early to stand guard outside the same building. In the early afternoon, after news broke that the government of Nagorno-Karabakh had agreed to a full surrender, a small group had gathered outside.
Word has spread throughout the city for a protest tonight starting at 7 PM. Tomorrow, September 21st is Armenia's independence day. There will be no celebrations, but there will be crowds.
Fin DePencier is a Canadian freelance journalist and photographer based in Yerevan.