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Armenia scrambles to absorb the flood of refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The sudden offensive by Azerbaijan that forced more than 100,000 ethnic Armenians to flee to neighboring Armenia has left the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh nearly abandoned. Armenia is scrambling to absorb the flood of refugees, as NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from the Armenian capital, Yerevan.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The dramatic emptying out of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave inside Azerbaijan has plunged Armenia into a humanitarian crisis, one that analyst Tigran Grigoryan says will take some time to deal with.

TIGRAN GRIGORYAN: At this point, the whole society, the entire society and the state as well is focused on solving the humanitarian needs of these people and all the other problems stemming from this catastrophe.

KENYON: Grigoryan heads the Regional Center for Democracy and Security in Yerevan. He says authorities are launching support programs for the refugees, but that doesn't get at the underlying problems.

GRIGORYAN: But, of course, social programs will not address the grievances that this population has because they have been left behind, basically, by the whole world - by the international community, partly by the government of Armenia. So they are very, very angry. And it's very natural that they are angry.

KENYON: History suggests there's plenty of anger on both sides. Two wars have been fought since 1994, leaving tens of thousands killed or displaced. Once Armenia can look beyond the immediate humanitarian demands, there looms the challenge of adding this unexpected spike in the population of 3 million to a far-from-booming economy. As for what comes next, many Armenians say they feel like that's out of their control.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO)

KENYON: A piano plays in the background as the Ilik art cafe and club prepares for customers. Owner Anahit Sahakyan says even though many people were expecting something to happen, the mass flight from the enclave inside Azerbaijan still came as a shock. She says her aunt was among those forced to flee.

ANAHIT SAHAKYAN: Yes. She says it was a real hell. They traveled for 38 hours, and she's a woman of 65. She feels not very well now. She is trying to recover.

KENYON: A few blocks away, the Beatles bar is much quieter on a Monday night than its name would suggest. But behind the bar, Hovhanes Poghosyan says he and his friends mainly want some peace and quiet. But he's not optimistic because the balance of power is so tilted with Turkey firmly on the side of Azerbaijan.

HOVHANES POGHOSYAN: It's very bad, but I knew this will be because there is a big country against a small country. Big brother beat small brother. Yes.

KENYON: People here say this crisis may have rocked Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, but the previous government's tenure was marked by rampant corruption, so Pashinyan can't be counted out. He's leading a deeply polarized country in which the majority of voters don't like either of the two main parties. Analyst Tigran Grigoryan says the last election for Yerevan mayor was a good example. Turnout was a record low 28%. Grigoryan says another Azerbaijani grab for territory is certainly a possibility, especially since the international community showed such a muted response to what he and many Armenians call a case of ethnic cleansing.

GRIGORYAN: It is amazing that an ethnic cleansing happened in the 21st century and there is absolutely no reaction from the international community. If this happened somewhere in Europe, I believe these people would already be on wanted lists - international wanted lists. I mean, the leadership in Azerbaijan.

KENYON: Azerbaijan rejects the charge of ethnic cleansing, but it is moving quickly, changing the names of the cities and switching road signs from Armenian to Azeri.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Yerevan, Armenia.

(SOUNDBITE OF BREAK OF REALITY'S "DRIFT APART") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.