Balconies still had clothes. Someone’s duvet was drying on another, yet there was nothing to be heard.
Some window sills had plants, perhaps watered by the rain the night before. A few cats and dogs with collars occasionally passed us by.
As we walked through the empty streets of Stepanakert, there was little sign of the 100,000 souls who just days ago counted the city as their home.
The entire population of mostly ethnic Armenians had left at the drop of a hat following Azerbaijan’s lightning invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh a few weeks ago.
Fearing ethnic cleansing, they clambered into cars, buses and vans with everything they could take with them. We were the first to gain access and see what was left behind.
What I’d seen in photos ahead of coming here was a place brimming with people and life.
It was now a desolate, empty space between the revival square and the presidential palace.
It was strewn with chairs, strollers, wheelchairs, blankets, half-open pieces of luggage, half-eaten pieces of bread, half-empty cups of tea. One could feel the urgency in how people just got up and left in haste. An exodus.
Eerie silence awaited as the sound of our car caught the attention of the animals who roamed the streets. As we covered more ground, we finally reached the renaissance square or Veratsnound. It looked like a scene from an apocalyptic movie.
We finally came across human life when we met a Red Cross (ICRC) patrol, going through the city, looking for those left behind.
“We are searching for the elderly, the vulnerable, people who didn’t have relatives or neighbours to help them,” I was told by Marco Succi who had just arrived to lead the ICRC’s rapid deployment team.
We followed them to a staging point where some elderly and disabled people were being helped by the Red Cross.
“Even the morgue staff is gone,” Mr Succi told me as his team was making arrangements to repatriate the dead as well.
“We have worked with Azerbaijani authorities and look forward to working with them so we can provide relief,” he added when I asked him about the new administrators in town. Road signs are already being replaced.
Water and electricity were still running when we were there. Aid workers are concerned about the coming winter and lack of access to rural areas because of security concerns. Armenian activists asked us not to film them as they wished to get out as well and did not want their faces on camera.
But we managed to have a quick conversation with two elderly gentlemen with contrasting views.
The first one was angry and said: “This is my Artsakh, our lands. They will never be theirs.”
The other man said to our team member: “I want to live here with everyone, I have Azerbaijani friends who tell me I shouldn’t leave so I am staying here.”
Some puppies came to us, perhaps hungry. A few dogs sat between my legs, but I wasn’t their human.
They couldn’t smell what they longed for. Close to Russian peacekeepers, one dog kept going around one particular chair. I think that’s where its owner last sat down. They too were as abandoned as the apartments, businesses and homes of this city.
The hooves of a stud walking its team broke the quiet in the square. These magnificent horses had a few German shepherds and a couple of huskies for company. But there seemed a code among the animals: make no sounds. Perhaps they too were scared like the humans of Stepanakert (called Khankendi in Azerbaijan), who had left fearing persecution.
Multiple assurances from Azerbaijan couldn’t convince people to stay.
“For the last 30 years, Azerbaijan has suffered from the occupation. Around one million Azerbaijani population have become refugees and IDPs and left this region,” Aykhan Hajizada later told me.
We heard a gunshot, only to find out later that a joint Russian-Azerbaijani patrol was shot at from a window. Before the sun went down we said goodbye to the city.
Soon after we arrived in Shusha, police came looking for us for “illegally” entering Khankendi without permission. They told us that we endangered lives by going into an area which is an unknown.
And after so much violence and the discovery of caches of weapons, we were “foolish” to report from and enter this zone. We were asked to leave the hotel and go to the police station and, after a few hours, a police vehicle escorted us out of not just the city, but the Karabakh region.
I’ve met many Azerbaijanis who want to return to their homes after being displaced 30 years ago when Armenian forces took this territory.
So, if this is the end of the road for tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians, it might just be the beginning for hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis.
I’d like to return to this city, this region. Hopefully then bustling with life again, and no longer a ghost town.
Osama Javaid is a correspondent for Al-Jazeera.
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