Amid the scars of the 2020 war, Nagorno-Karabakh tries to heal

In Nagorno Karabakh, life is returning to normal after the 44-day war between September and November last year that killed 5,000 and created thousands of displaced people and refugees.

But some things are still far from what they used to be in the self-declared Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh), a territory mostly home to ethnic Armenians that the Soviets allocated to Azerbaijan in 1921. It is recognised as Azerbaijani by the international community.

Soldiers stranded in abandoned military positions, schools housing orphans and the children of refugees, villagers in need of aid and the evident scars of a war that has brought 2,000 Russian peacekeepers to monitor the ceasefire agreed in the middle of the night on 10 November are now part of the landscape in this troubled region.

Armenian soldiers Erik and Vahan pay tribute to a comrade before his grave at the Military Heroes’ Cemetery in Yerevan, Armenia


The face of a soldier who died aged 20 during the Karabakh war is engraved in a tombstone at the cemetery


Relatives lay flowers at the cemetery in Yerevan every day where hundreds come at sunset for ceremonies that last for a few hours to pay tribute to the fallen in the war


A group of relatives and friends of a killed soldier pray and listen to the words of a priest. People attending cemetery ceremonies leave flowers and hold red candles. Red is an important colour for Armenians, it is used to remember the genocide of 1915


Months after the end of the war Nagorno-Karabakh is no longer in the headlines but a visit to the military cemeteries in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, where entire families mourn their dead, wandering among recently filled graves, is enough to learn about the impact of the conflict that ravaged the area.

Vahan and Erik, two young soldiers in uniform, pay tribute to their fallen comrade Parkev Kasparian, 19. Facing the tomb, they tell the story of how he died during a tank battle in Mardakert, tearfully asking him for forgiveness. Nearby, sitting on a grave, Katia, cries for a 20-year-old friend who was killed in Djibrail on the southern front. His portrait is engraved on the headstone.

Two months after the end of hostilities, empty graves are still open, waiting to receive the bodies still coming from the front.

Soldier Hamlet (R) and a comrade next to a trench near the eastern city of Martuni


Armenian soldiers wait at a military control point in a north-eastern city, Martakert, in the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Morale is low and in some of the military positions the traditional hard discipline has now relaxed


Passengers sit in a bus at a bus station in Stepanakert, de facto capital of Nagorno Karabakh. The conflict pushed some 70,000 people out of the territory into Armenia during the conflict


A stray dog with a cattle leg at a soldier’s front position near Martuni. The soldiers only leave their positions to refill water tanks and get food from villagers


Abandoned Army

Much of the Karabakh army has all but abandoned the area. Until recently, journalists could not access these positions, but now the officers have left. Near Martuni, an eastern city of Nagorno-Karabakh, Hamlet and his soldier comrades are delighted to have guests as they wait for word on when they will finally be relieved. Their superiors do not tell them anything, they say. Their only visitors are stray dogs and the boy from the next farm along. In the ditches which serve as their trenches, Hamlet says that many comrades fell under the drones’ shelling. The Armenians had not anticipated that kind of weapon and technology. The ruins of the surrounding buildings are a testament to his words.

Hratchik Avakian, a retired grocer, stands in his house in Martuni destroyed by shelling on 27 September


Children play in Martuni in the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. The Monte Melkonian school has already repaired its roof and director Narine Kevorkian has been welcoming its students


People light candles during a Sunday Mass at the Gandzasar monastery in Martakert province. Nagorno-Karabakh has dozens of monasteries and churches built in the 10th century. Some of the temples are now under control of Azerbaijani authorities


Teenagers sit near the We are our Mountains monument (Dadik u Papik in Armenian) in Stepanakert, capital of Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. The agreement negotiated by Russia has yet to show how the normalisation of relations between Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia and Azerbaijan would be possible and most people are frightened of a resumption of the conflict



People who have lived through war know well that you cannot rebuild a house with tears. In Martuni, one of the most affected towns by the shelling, men are busy at work, erasing the wounds of war. A two-storey house on the corner of a residential street belongs to Hratchik Avakian, a retired grocer. His home was one of 800 others that were destroyed in shelling on 27 September. It will be rebuilt, like the others, he insists.

Across town at the Monte Melkonian school, which has already repaired its roof, director Narine Kevorkian has been welcoming students for a few days.

She takes special care of those who have lost a father or a brother as well as their house, which is now on the other side of the separation line. Thirty children are refugees from territory that was lost and 20 of them are orphans or have lost relatives.

An elderly woman asks a soldier to escort her to her house in Shurnukh, Syunik province, Armenia. A road splits Shurnukh in two parts, one on the Armenian side and another one in Nagorno-Karabakh. With the Azerbaijani control of Nagorno-Karabakh the villagers need a permit from the Russian peacekeepers and escort of local militaries to move across the village


A girl and her mother spin a ball of wool in a house in Martuni. Both are refugees from Hadrut, Khojavend District of Azerbaijan and like many other families found a shelter in the city


A long queue of exhausted refugees forms outside the Red Cross Aid Distribution Centre in Stepanakert. They had tried to find refuge in neighbouring Armenia but now they are coming back home after the Yerevan government promised to help pay for their return.

According to Hayk Khanumyan, of the Social Affairs Ministry, 10,000 families lost their homes and fled the combat zones.

In Karabakh political tensions are on the rise. Some want answers, and there are voices demanding that those responsible for the bloodshed be punished and a complete change of the failing leadership.

Despite the resentment, people are mostly frightened of a resumption of the conflict.



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