On 27 September 2020, Azeris began attacking indigenous Armenians in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh Region), waging war indiscriminately on civilian targets. Azerbaijan, a country of 10 million people, was backed by the Turkish Army, used modern weapons such as Bayrakdar drones and loitering munitions abundantly, and enlisted the help of Syrian mercenaries. Only 150,000 Armenians lived in Artsakh before the war, and their army was supported solely by Armenia, a country of 3 million with outdated defenses. According to international law, Artsakh is a part of Azerbaijan—based on an intentionally divisive move by Stalin—which enabled world powers to ignore the war by framing it as a civil conflict similar to Syria.
Though military operations were abundantly represented in the media, there was a dearth of coverage of the civilians who were under constant attack during the 44-day war. I was sufficiently frustrated by this to go and document such suffering myself. What I encountered, however, was much more than suffering—indeed all aspects of humanity intensify during the war, both painful and pleasurable.
During the war, I went to Artsakh with a Civilnet team comprised of Michael Krikorian (journalist), Gevorg Haroyan (videographer), and Arshak Hayryan (driver). The photographs you see were taken about a month into the fighting, with nearly constant shelling. To provide a sense of the setting: the children in the shelter in Stepanakert could differentiate the sounds of various munitions. Many of the soldiers that were newly baptized by Fr. Varazdat died shortly thereafter while defending their ancestral homeland. He barely made it back from the frontline to the capital at times. The Ghazanchetsots cathedral in Shushi, where the wedding was held, was bombed twice in one day. The couple was literally risking their lives to get married in that church—but a wedding date is a wedding date. Hovig’s restaurant and garden could also have been shelled at any moment. And so on . . . .
Armenians are, as a people, Christian, and were persecuted along with other Christian groups (Greeks and Assyrians) under the Ottoman Empire during World War I. In the early 1990s, as the Soviet Union broke apart, Armenians fought for their existence on their ancestral land and today the same genocidal intent continues with the involvement of Turkish military and Syrian mercenaries. While Azeris inculcate hate into their children through formal curricula, Armenians witness to their faith by teaching our children not to hate their enemies—those who torture and murder them—rather to pray for their enemies, even while under attack (also see this article on Public Orthodoxy).
While the fighting has ceased for now, hostilities toward Armenians certainly has not. Azerbaijan continues to hold prisoners of war as domestic terrorist “detainees”, yet they also continue to detain, torture, and kill humanitarian volunteers who were abducted after the ceasefire agreement was signed on 9 November 2020. Also after the “ceasefire”, Azeris proudly shared videos of torturing and killing civilians who could not leave their homes that were handed over to Azerbaijani control. In April 2021, “Trophy Park” opened in Shushi, displaying helmets of fallen Armenian soldiers and manakins of wounded, dying Armenians, celebrating the inculcation of hatred toward Armenians, even in their children. And most recently, in April–May 2021, Ghazanchetsots cathedral is actively being dismantled by Azeris.
By way of confession, I never intended for these photographs to be edited into a book—I was shooting with a more photojournalistic eye—but I felt compelled to honor these people in this way. So I invite you to travel with me into the war zone, to see what I did, and to experience humanity during war.
[Preview is password-protected.
Email foto(at)rezras.com to request access.]
All royalties will be distributed among trustworthy organizations that provide humanitarian and psychological aid
in Artsakh and Armenia to address the sequelae of the war.