Ethnic Armenians continued to flee Syria on Wednesday as heavy fighting intensified in Aleppo, the country’s second largest city and economic and cultural center of its 80,000-strong Armenian community.
About 170 of them arrived in Yerevan on board a Syrian Air aircraft early in the morning. The plane flew back to Aleppo shortly afterwards as Syrian government troops reportedly massed around the city partly controlled by rebels.
News reports citing Syrian opposition sources said that the Syrian army pounded rebel
fighters there with artillery and attack helicopters throughout Tuesday. According to Reuters, the rebels battled government forces by the gates of the historic old city.
“When we reached the airport the situation was very chaotic. There was gunfire,” said Tsovinar Khangikian, an Armenian woman from Aleppo who arrived at Yerevan’s Zvartnots airport together with her sister and their children.
“Until now things were fine. There were some problems around [Aleppo] but things were quiet in the city,” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) before bursting into tears.
“We have fled shelling,” said Khangikian’s tearful sister. “We have come here to take some rest and then return and carry on with our life.”
Both women said they left their husbands behind to look after their properties in Aleppo.
Speaking on camera, other Aleppo Armenians painted less dramatic pictures of the crisis in Syria. “We are having hard but not catastrophic times,” said one man. “Our army is strong.”
Officials from the Armenian Ministry of Diaspora were for the first time on hand to give the arriving Syrian information booklets and asking them to fill out questionnaires on their personal data and the length and purpose of their stay in Armenia.
About 100 other Syrian nationals, virtually all of them ethnic Armenian, boarded Syrian Air’s return flight to Aleppo despite the apparently worsening situation in and around the city. About half of them were young people who travelled to Armenia two weeks ago to participate in a festival organized by the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU), a leading Diaspora charity.
Margarit Avetian, another returning passenger, left Syria early this month to receive Armenian citizenship. “The situation seems to be a bit worse than it was before we came to Armenia,” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Avetian got her Armenian passport after what she described as a bureaucratic hassle in Yerevan. “The bottom line is that I got it. I’m pleased and proud to have a passport,” she said, adding that she and her relatives are increasingly contemplating a permanent move to Armenia.
According to immigration authorities in Yerevan, some 6,000 Syrian Armenians have applied for Armenian citizenship since the start of a popular uprising against President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in early 2011. Some of them are thought to have already taken refuge in their ancestral homeland. There is no government data on the number of such persons, though.
Hampig Shimshirian, a businessman from Damascus, also arrived at Zvartnots on Wednesday. Shimshirian said he owns a clothing factory and two houses in the Syrian capital and is now planning to stay in Armenia with his family for good. “We always wanted to settle in Armenia and the war has accelerated our move,” he explained.
Harut Kakajian, another businessman, imported Chinese toys to Syria and neighboring Lebanon before settling in Yerevan with his family last week. “Business [in Syria] has come to a halt,” he said. “There are goods but nobody buys them.”
Kakajian acknowledged that doing business and finding other work in Armenia is also challenging. “If there were jobs here there would be more people moving here,” he said.
The Armenian government is being increasingly accused by domestic opposition and other groups of providing little assistance to Syria’s Armenian community and especially its members relocating to Armenia. Government officials reject the criticism.
“Relevant government bodies are prepared to provide all kinds of assistance to those Armenians who come to Armenia,” insisted Firdus Zakarian, head of a Ministry of Diaspora task force that was set up recently to deal with the refugee influx.
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service on Tuesday, Zakarian dismissed opposition calls for the government to make contingency plans for evacuating Syrian Armenians en masse. He said such an operation could only spread panic in the community. The situation in Syria still does not warrant an Armenian exodus, the official said.
Still, Zakarian’s ministry did ask the Armavia national airline last week to increase the frequency of its weekly Yerevan-Aleppo flights and lower the price of their tickets. Armavia replied that it is ready to do that if it receives financial support from the government.
Also last week, Diaspora Minister Hranush Hakobian met with representatives of major Diaspora Armenian charities, including the AGBU, to discuss ways of helping the Syrian Armenians. According to Zakarian, they expressed readiness to provide financial and other assistance.