Nagorno Karabakh, The presence of war in everyday life
This material may contain terms, which are not favored by all the parties of the dispute/conflict. Terms used in a material belong to the author and not Chai-Khana.
When the Soviet Union went into meltdown, brewing tensions between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in the mainly Armenian-populated region of Nagorno Karabakh of the then-Socialist Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, exploded into open conflict.
Around 25 years since the 1994 ceasefire that put on hold the bloodshed, the territory has languished in a state of “no war, no peace.” Claimed by Azerbaijan but de-facto independent since the mid-1990s, the landlocked mountainous region remains internationally unrecognized albeit strongly supported by the Republic of Armenia - yet over the last three years the frozen conflict, as the confrontation with Azerbaijan is labelled, has been more about fire than ice.
Today a state of war remains and it permeates the daily life of the 150,000-odd people - posters are plastered on buildings’ wall, mine-warning signs dot the region’s hills, and tanks rattle its roads.
While skirmishes have been common along the heavily militarized administrative border, known as the line of contact, a violent flare-up in April 2016 claimed more than two hundred lives on both sides in just four days, and threatened to destabilize the entire South Caucasus region. A hastened agreement brokered by Moscow averted the risk. For now, war clouds are gathering and analysts maintain that Armenia and Azerbaijan are closer to an open conflict than at any point since the 1994 ceasefire.
A fountain turns into a frontline as children play “fight-fight,” a common game for kids along the streets of Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s main city.
What foreigners consider signs of an ongoing conflict, for locals is just everyday life. Visitors heading to Nagorno Karabakh stop for a snapshot on the road connecting the Armenian capital of Yerevan to Stepanakert. The sign reads “Free Artsakh welcomes you.” Armenians call the region Artsakh, the name of the region during the Kingdom of Armenia between 189 BC and 387 AD.
A war veteran and his medals walks past the military parade along Stepanakert on May 9th. It is a date charged with significance in Nagorno-Karabakh as it marks three key events in the region’s recent history. It commemorates the victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany on May 9, 1945; the liberation of Shushi [read the disclaimer] by the Armenian forces over Azerbaijanis in 1992, and the establishment of the NK’s Army.
Children pose for photos on tanks during the military parade of May 9th. Military machinery and weaponry form part of people’s everyday from a very early age. With a population of roughly 150,000 people, every citizen counts. “Our army counts on 150,000 soldiers, as each of us is a fighter ready to defend our land,” is a routine answer to international journalists enquiring about how many soldiers serve in the NK army.
If military machinery is a daily sight, so are images of the fallen soldiers. Most schools across the region display photos of fighters who died as a result of the conflict, like in this administration building.
Billboards commemorating the events on May 9th coat buildings across the region. They are rarely taken down, hanging on walls for months as a stark reminder of the region’s lingering conflict.
“Peto, 22” reads a black sign hanging over a street in Gishi, in the eastern region of Martuni. Peto is a soldier who was killed in combat in the 1990s at the age of 22. After the conflict, black boards with the names of the war victims hang in the streets where they used to live. Over the decades the tradition has slowly faded, but it is still kept in the village of Gishi.
In the 1990s, at the height of the conflict, 60-year-old violinist Borya Babayan used to visit military positions to play music for the soldiers. Today he regularly visits the cemeteries in Stepanakert and plays a tune at each and every grave of the fallen soldiers. The war in the 1990s claimed an estimated 30,000 lives and left hundreds of thousands displaced. Estimates set the total casualties since the 1994 ceasefire at 3,500, a figure which includes both in-battle and civilians deaths.
War memorials dot the landscape in Nagorno Karabakh. This monument in Martuni commemorates Monte Melkonyan, the most celebrated commander of the 1990s conflict. Born in California in 1957, the Armenian-American Monte traveled first to Iran at the end of the 1970s, then moved to Lebanon, and arrived in then-Soviet Armenia in the 1990s. When the conflict with Azerbaijan broke out, Melkonyan - nom de guerre Avo - became commander-in-charge of the Martuni region. He was killed in 1993.
In Nagorno Karabakh’s green meadows the signs of war go underground. The region has the highest per capita incidence of landmine accidents in the world, and third of the victims are children, according to the Halo Trust, the world’s largest humanitarian mine clearance organization. Since the 1994 ceasefire there have been 370 civilian casualties from landmines and unexploded ordnance devices. Two all-women teams have joined the Halo Trust in NK in 2016.