Meline BalasanyanNagorno Karabakh Armenia Azerbaijan
Meline Balasanyan. All photos: Ed Ram

The Young People Trapped In a Frozen War On the Edge of Europe

Those who remain in Nagorno-Karabakh are either made to fight or hide in cramped underground bunkers
November 5, 2020, 5:47pm

As the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh appears to tilt in Azerbaijan's favour, the lives and futures of tens of thousands of young people from the disputed region are on the line.

Right in the centre of Stepanakert, the capital city in the heart of the disputed enclave of the Republic of Artsakh, is a clearing surrounded by grand Soviet government buildings and housing blocks with shattered windows. Meline Balasanyan, 18, is meeting up with her boyfriend. 

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All over the city, civilian homes and buildings have been reduced to rubble from intense bouts of shelling. Around half of Nagorno-Karabakh’s 145,000 residents have fled, seeking refuge in Armenia. Those who remain are either fighting or are hiding in cramped underground bunkers, many just wanting to be with their family and friends. 

“I want to stay with him, that’s why I’m still here,” she says. Balasanyan’s parents passed away before the start of war. Nobody knows how many people have died since the start of the war but Russia's President Vladimir Putin has recently said that 5,000 people, including soldiers and civilians, have lost their lives.

When Stepanakert isn't being hit by powerful long range missiles, the distant rumble of outgoing and incoming artillery rounds mixes with the occasional screech of car tyres as they speed round the corners of empty streets.

Balasanyan’s boyfriend, who requested anonymity, wants to be on the frontline with his peers, but he can’t, he tells VICE News, for health reasons. Still, like all other men between 18 and 55, he’s been asked to remain in the region during the conflict in case the military needs him.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a mountainous region that’s internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but governed by its ethnic Armenian residents, who want self-determination for the territory. Azerbaijan is fighting for control of the land it sees as its own.

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The dispute over the region was frozen in 1994 but not resolved after a three-year war claimed around 30,000 lives. Four days of fighting also broke out in 2016.

Armenian authorities say more than 1,100 servicemen have died in action, the majority of whom are under the age of 20. Azerbaijan does not release details of its military casualties but it says 91 civilians have been killed and there are reports of numerous fresh graves and funerals at military cemeteries

“We were sleeping in the morning and one of the first bombs landed about five metres away from our house in Stepanakert,” Balasanyan says. “The house is damaged and we are now sleeping in a bunker underground.”

She continues: “I’m not scared. If we were scared of the war then why would there be young soldiers fighting on the front line? I’m staying here with them.”

Balasanyan, a trained hairdresser, plans to study psychology next year at a university right here in Stepanakert. “I will study here,” she says defiantly. “There are no worries for me.” 

In a heavily militarised land where the prospect of war is a constant, marching and combat drills are a normal part of life for young people. Two years of military service is compulsory for young men, with some training in their early teens if they want to.

As winter encroaches upon the battleground, yellow leaves litter gardens and hundreds of tons of pomegranates rot on branches in abandoned fields. 

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Azerbaijan is on the front foot and continues to recapture swathes of territory from Armenian control, aided by the Turkish military and highly sophisticated drone technology. Azerbaijan is looking to take control of the strategically crucial Lachin corridor that links Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh.

Around 25 miles east from the Stepanakert, as mountains slope down towards the front line, the burnt carcass of a shot down Soviet-era An-2 biplane lies in a field next to its unexplored bomb, wedged into the soil. Armenian forces say that these aircrafts are “kamikaze drones”, modified to fly unmanned, dropping explosives then crashing into a target.

From the left: Hyak, Arman, Laert, and Artak,

From the left: Hyak, Arman, Laert, and Artak.

Not far from the fighting, a group of four soldiers, who would only give their first names, say they were prepared and always knew there was going to be a war. “I’m not scared, it’s more like concern,” says Artak, a 26-year-old agricultural worker, who signed up to volunteer as soon as the war started.

Steps dug into the soil lead down into trenches lined with boards, dotted with cramped bunkers. Arma, 27, a hotel worker, says he had just heard that a friend of his had been killed in battle. 

Artak

Artak

“We don’t believe in politicians," says 31-year-old banker Hayk, who wants peace but doesn't see a political solution coming. “Our call is to Armenians all over the world to come here and help us to solve this – we can’t solve this by ourselves.”

There are believed to be 11 million Armenians globally but only three million who live on Armenian soil. “We need to support not only on the internet but in the real situation.” 

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Huge missiles on the back of trucks and artillery guns mounted on wheels roar past towards the battle. Over the past six weeks of war, Russian, then French, then US-brokered peace deals have been broken within hours. On Saturday, Nikol Pashinyan, the Armenian Prime Minister, formally wrote to Putin asking to begin “urgent” consultations on security assistance. Russia said it would provide "necessary" assistance to Yerevan if fighting reached Armenian territory. Russia has good relations with both Azerbaijan and Armenia and has said that it will only send peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh with the approval of both countries. 

Military analysts believe Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev is planning a military advance on Nagorno-Karabakh's main cities before winter weather hampers fighting in the mountainous region. 

High in the culturally significant city of Shushi, autumn sunlight beams down through a huge hole in the roof of the cathedral, illuminating a large pile of rubble on the floor, next to which a newly married couple pose for photographs. Word spread fast of the wedding, and dozens swarm around the couple, documenting the happy scene. 

Hovhannes Hovsepyan, who serves in the region's military, took two days of leave from the frontline to marry Mariam Sargsyan in Ghazanchetsots Cathedral.

Hovhannes Hovsepyan, who serves in the region's military, took two days of leave from the frontline to marry Mariam Sargsyan in Ghazanchetsots Cathedral.

In recent weeks, Ghazanchetsots Cathedral was hit twice within hours. Locals say the second shell injured civilians and journalists who were working inside after the first blast, deepening suspicions among Armenians that Azerbaijani and Turkish forces are deliberately targeting civilians. 

Just after the wedding, amid the distant sound of artillery fire, Mariam Sargsyan, 26, a journalist herself, insists that the wedding was not just for the media. “The church will always be a unique spiritual centre for us,” she says. “I want to say to couples ‘don’t postpone your wedding’ and I want to tell the world that missiles and bombs don't threaten us.”

Shushi's destroyed cultural centre, that houses a theatre.

Shushi's destroyed cultural centre, that houses a theatre.

When asked if her husband had been fighting on the front line, Sargsyan recoils slightly. “That’s the first time he’s been called my husband,” she laughs. “But yes, I hadn’t seen him since the first day of the war, he was protecting our city,” she says.

Both sides are locked in a bitter online information war, with each side blaming each other for breaking ceasefires and targeting civilians. Azerbaijan says that 21 people were killed and 70 injured in an attack on Barda in the eastern region. Armenia denied carrying out the attack. The Armenian government said 45 civilians have been killed in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, and two within its borders since the war started. The United Nations warned on Monday evening that attacks from both sides “may amount to war crimes.”

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Near a theatre in Shushi that has been completely destroyed by the impact of what locals say is a powerful Russian-made Smerch missile, Lida Mkrtchyan, 61, the deputy head teacher of a school, is concerned that future generations of the region are now facing an existential threat.   

A school badly hit by shelling in Stepanakert.

A school badly hit by shelling in Stepanakert.

“Around 24,000 school children from Nagorno-Karabakh are being deprived of the right to study,” Mkrtchyan, who has three sons on the frontline, says. “For decades I’ve been teaching in the school, and so many of the children are now soldiers. They are all our children.”

She adds: “Every day I read the list of the victims and my heart weeps. Our future has suffered.”

When the war broke out, around 50 percent of Nagorno-Karabakh's population and 90 percent of women and children – making up 70,000 to 75,000 people – fled the violence, according to local authorities, many to seek refuge in Yerevan, the Armenian capital.

“Something has changed now forever,” says Lusine Sarikyan, 16, in a bare kitchen in a suburb of Yerevan.

Sisters Arevik, 17, and Lusine are staying with their mother and two other refugee families. The remember the day the war started and they fled Stepanakert: After hiding from the shelling they fled in a car packed with eight people, and drove in darkness through the mountain pass linking Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia. Police at checkpoints told them to drive as fast as possible with the lights off.

 sisters Arevik Sarikyan, 17 (left) and Lusine Sarikyan, 16 in the house where they have been staying in Yerevan

Sisters Arevik Sarikyan, 17 (left) and Lusine Sarikyan, 16 in the house where they have been staying in Yerevan

Lusine is doing a midwifery course and Arevik was due to start studying pedagogy but they have had to put their studies on hold since the war started, but they are both determined to go back and continue their education in Stepanakert as soon as possible. “Why should I leave?” Lusine asks. “It’s my motherland.”

Armenians have welcomed tens of thousands of refugees across the country, with the state, volunteer groups and charities raising money to distribute food to thousands. While some families have had to rent accommodation, others have been put up in hotel rooms for free, stay with friends or have been donated a room by people who have spare space. 

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Arevik and Lusine’s mother worked in a shop in Stepanakert but now has no form of income. They had a good life and lived in a nice house in the city, but in Yerevan they are struggling to get by. 

Even when the war is over, life in Nagorno-Karabakh isn't going to be the same, they say, especially with the number of victims.

In Stepanakert, Grisha Stepanyan, 21, opens a beer as he sits with a friend on a bench. “It was 7AM and I’d just got to sleep after a party when the war started,” he tells VICE News. “I was still a bit drunk and at first I thought the bombs were fireworks.”

Grisha Stepanyan, 21, (right) and Suren Balasanyan, 29, (left).

Grisha Stepanyan, 21, (right) and Suren Balasanyan, 29, (left).

Stepanyan had come back after initially fleeing to Yerevan with his family. “When I found two of my friends were injured in the fighting I decided to come back to help,” he says. He started working as a fixer and translator, helping journalists with their reporting, but he’s now started documenting the conflict himself. “I’m taking photos for a future on the stories of citizens of Artsakh who stayed here during the war,” he says.

The violence of the conflict is showing little sign of easing, with both sides entrenched in their belief they have a legitimate claim to the territory.

Nearby in the last light of the day, Balasanyan, 18, remains adamant young people from Nagorno-Karabakh will continue to fight for their “motherland”. 

“We must do everything for a great future and for every dead soldier who fought and lost their life,” she says.