GORIS, Armenia – Armenia said on Wednesday that nearly half of Nagorno-Karabakh’s population has fled the enclave since Azerbaijan crushed the rebels’ decades-long fight for an independent state last week.
Yerevan’s attempts to absorb the sea of homeless and hungry ethnic Armenians come with officials still trying to identify the whereabouts of more than 100 people reported missing in a fuel depot blast on Monday that claimed 68 lives.
The fireball erupted as refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh were stocking up on fuel for the long drive along the lone mountain road leading to Armenia.
The Armenian government said more than 53,000 people had left since Azerbaijan lifted its nine-month blockade on the enclave on Sunday.
Some of the families at the border told AFP that they were urged to leave by the separatists.
The updated refugee number accounts for nearly half of the region’s 120,000 population and marks a fundamental shift in ethnic control of lands disputed by mostly Christian Armenians and predominantly Muslim Azerbaijanis for the past century.
It also adds to the economic strains of Armenia – a landlocked Caucasus country with few natural resources and emerging problems with longstanding ally Russia.
Pensioner Alekhan Hambardzyumyan was one of hundreds of people trying to survive on the streets of Armenia’s mountaintop village of Goris after fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh this week.
Goris has become the main destination point for the families fleeing their hometowns in beat up Soviet-era Ladas and farm vehicles.
The 72-year-old was spending nights in a shelled-out van and grieving the loss of his son in last week’s fighting.
“I want to go to Yerevan,” Mr Hambardzyumyan told AFP. “But I don’t know what the state can offer me.”
‘They come and go’
The Armenian government said it had prepared living arrangements for 40,000 families after last week’s fighting broke out.
But Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s spokeswoman said late on Tuesday that the government had so far been able to find housing for just 2,850 people.
“There are thousands of (refugees) staying in Goris at the moment,” deputy mayor Irina Yolian told AFP.
“It’s impossible to give the exact figure. They come and go every day.”
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