There are 340 kilometers of curves and snow-white mountains on the only path that connects the capital of Armenia with Artsakh – as Armenians call the Nagorno-Karabakh region, the scene of a historic dispute with the ‘Neighboring Azerbaijan.
After a six-hour drive from Yerevan, numerous emails and phone calls exchanged with the Foreign Ministries of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, I still did not know if I would get an entry visa. It didn’t help that he had his passport confiscated on arrival in the country due to a stamp from a trip to Istanbul in 2019.
Leaving several Ladas behind, the border was finally ahead. On the side of the road, the tent with the Armenian soldiers and the red, blue and apricot flag; on the other, soldiers sent by Vladimir Poutine under the Russian flag, also tricolor.
At the first of many checkpoints, the Russian peacekeepers – present since the ceasefire signed between Azerbaijan and Armenia with the mediation of Putin last November, were in position, in the cold of 6 ° below zero.
At the last checkpoint, it was the Armenian military who asked for visa papers, passports and credentials from the press and announced that we had arrived in Stepanakert, the capital of the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh.
The driver showed an Azerbaijani flag flying on top of a mountain, appearing in the fog of a winter day in the Caucasus. “You can’t take pictures! No! Azeris! He said, imitating the plans. I just risked the click with my cell phone.
After six weeks of war, the Armenians who inhabit this small mountainous enclave lost control of two-thirds of the land they occupied.
Everyone there also lost a family member in the war – dead or missing, whom many still hope to find, as happened in the first phase of the conflict, between the late 1980s and the mid-1990s.
It is said that women do not lock the doors of their homes in the hope of one day seeing their children, husbands and brothers again, even almost 30 years later.
Three months after the end of the new war, with thousands of refugees in Armenia and elsewhere, many still hope to return to the lands they had to return and recover the bodies of those who could not be buried – estimates indicate at least 5,000 dead on both sides.
‘Everything, absolutely everything, is a border’
Susanna Petrosyan, 40, tour guide
When asked if she considers the conflict to be over, Susanna Petrosyan, 40, who has served as a guide in the area for 24 years, was blunt. “Didn’t say.” I need to believe that something is going to change in order to keep on living. “
With her head still down and her eyes sad, she saves words as she walks through Martuni, one of the worst-hit towns, on the line that separates Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan.
The scenario is that of destroyed schools, burnt houses and the remains of recent bombings.
“Now we are surrounded by them [azeris]. Everything, absolutely everything, is a border ”.
On the morning of September 27, when bombs started falling near her home in Martakert, in the northern part of the disputed region, Susanna woke up three of her children, aged 7, 11 and 15, put them in the car and went by car. at her sister’s house in Yerevan.
The eldest son, Valery, 19, was serving in the military in another town.
The next day, Susanna returned to pick up her nephews and sister-in-law – her brother had also been sent to the front line.
Ten days later, she took the winding and risky path again, now to see the son who had been injured in the war.
She hugged him and returned to Yerevan.
Valery lost many friends, but he recovered and he still has six months left as a soldier before returning to finish his studies in technology at Artsakh State University.
Susanna likes to make plans to come back. “Next time you come, I want to welcome you to my home, with my children. I’m sorry if this time some things were out of my control. I’m shocked. Looks like I got stuck that day 27. “
‘Everyone will die one day’
Davit (not her real name), 30, army lieutenant
In the makeshift shelter of an almost abandoned mansion in the Machkalashen region, Davit (names changed at the request of those interviewed), 30, insists he is not afraid. “Everyone will die one day. We serve our homeland, it is our duty,” said the soldier, with Kalashnikov rifles lying on the ground.
The house serves as a base for those not in the main station – in the basement, an environment that acts as a magazine, warehouse and bathroom, finished on the muddy ground and lit by lanterns, a flag of the Republic of Artsakh floated – tricolor like Armenia, but with a white triangle on the right side.
We entered a small room with a radiator, smoked by endless cigarettes. One soldier brought tea and a bottle of brandy, another arrived with chocolates and more brandy.
The coronavirus does not appear to exist there – or it is further away for these soldiers than it is for the enemy across the border.
Between sips Davit agreed to take us to a post in the Amaras region, an important village for the Armenians. It was there, in the 5th century, that the monk Mesrop Mashtots created the Armenian alphabet and opened the first literacy school for the people.
The path led to the top of the hill, where soldiers between the ages of 18 and 20 kept guards standing for two hours, waiting for the four hours of sleep they were entitled to.
There were three beds, on which the military took turns, supplies, and a destroyed and dusty room.
“There, there and there is Azerbaijan,” said Lieutenant Babken (name also changed), who asked me not to point the camera because “the Azeris are watching”, offering me his binoculars.
“What if everyone decides to live abroad too?”
Alice Sargsyan, 22, lawyer
At 22, lawyer Alice Sargsyan intended to spend time outside Nagorno-Karabakh.
With the family history marked by the different phases of the war, he changed his mind after the most recent conflict. “Now I ask myself: what if everyone thinks like me? What if I decide to live abroad and everyone else decides too? »She said, taking up Stepanakert’s points.
The 2020 conflict was the third for his father, also a lawyer, who served in the military for 18 years. In the war of the 1990s, he went to the front with seven friends and returned with one.
Between September and November of last year, he contacted his family to make a report, but preferred not to say exactly where he was fighting.
Alice, her mother, her uncle, her 12-year-old sister and her 10-year-old cousin stayed in the Nagorno-Karabakh capital until the beginning of October. His grandparents, who did not want to leave the city, resisted until November, when women, the elderly and children were forced to evacuate.
A veteran of the previous war, his uncle died of a heart attack at the age of 47 ten days ago. “When in this war we lost 70% of our territories, it lost hope and all the suffering of 30 years lost its value,” said Alice, who will remain in the city.
“I understood that this was the dream of the Azeris: all Armenians leaving Karabakh voluntarily.”
For her, leaving the territory would be an injustice to all the soldiers in the country, including her father and her uncle. “Isn’t it unfair to voluntarily give up the right to live here?”
“ I will not tell my daughter about the war, we have to look to the future ”
Narek (not her real name), 29, mountain guide
On September 29, Narek, 29, was invited to report to his Armenian Army battalion.
He had given up his military career two years earlier, after having fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He left his wife at the end of her pregnancy at the Yerevan house – their first daughter was born a few days later, a week before the date set by doctors.
On October 3, he obtained special permission to meet with her, during a 72-hour visit. “The feeling of being held in your arms for a few days and coming back to the front line is very painful. Farewell always has that feeling of being the last time.
The days of war passed without contact with family – communication was (and still is) hampered by destroyed transport lines, increasing the feeling that the land is a landlocked island.
He believes that the Armenian army was not prepared for war. “Not a war against Turkey and Azerbaijan together, with armaments also from Israel. They had been preparing for this attack for 30 years.
Reunited again with his wife and daughter after the ceasefire, he sees no future different from the present and knows he can return to the front lines at any time. “This is how it works. I’m still waiting for a call. “
I asked him what he thought of telling his daughter about this war. “Nothing, you have to look ahead,” he replied.
“ I wish I had brought some of the earth from my husband’s grave ”
Ira Petrosyan, 65, housewife
“The Turks gave me the death of my son as a birthday present,” protests Ira Petrosyan, 65.
Her only son, Antranik, was killed at 27 on November 10 – the day before his mother’s birthday and the day after the ceasefire agreement was signed.
He was buried in the Yerablur military cemetery in Yerevan, along with the other soldiers killed in the Nagorno-Karabakh war.
Ira lived in the town of Hadrut – now controlled by the Azeris – and currently lives in a shelter for displaced people in Stepanakert. He shares a room in a former student residence, marked by the bombings of the 1990s war.
Her husband’s body is buried in Hadrut and she was unable to remove it, as some families did. “I wish I had brought earth from his grave to be with me until I died.
Ira thanks him for his wounds which did not disfigure his son’s face and for having the chance to kiss him before the body was transported to the cemetery – many soldiers saw their bodies practically destroyed by the attacks of drones.
Antranik, who would get married this year, pays tribute on a sort of altar, with medals, a passport, photographs, dried roses and the Armenian flag.