In Nagorno-Karabakh, people grapple with war’s aftermath and COVID-19

“It’s dangerous here,” says a nurse working in the battle-scarred region of the southern Caucasus. “We don’t know what will happen next.”

A man grieves at a military cemetery in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. A six-week war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the long-disputed territory left more than 5,000 people dead and displaced tens of thousands.

Two decades ago, Khanum and Volodya Grigoryan planted a pear tree in their new garden as they started over for the second time.

In 1988, they’d fled a violent backlash against ethnic Armenians in Azerbaijan and settled in neighboring Armenia. They waited as a war raged between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, a breakaway region in southwestern Azerbaijan populated primarily by Armenians. The conflict ended with Armenians seizing control of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding Azerbaijani districts, including Kalbajar (known as Karvachar to Armenians). All of Kalbajar’s Azerbaijani inhabitants—some 60,000 people—were expelled, and ethnic Armenians, including Khanum and Volodya, moved in.

(How the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has been shaped by past empires.)

The couple built their house on a former resident’s foundation, gradually adding comforts like electricity and plumbing. The pear tree grew and bore fruit. Khanum filled the shelves of her small kitchen with preserves from the garden, and they painted the walls of their sitting room turquoise. Behind their home, on a rocky hillside jutting toward the sky, the crumbling remains of an abandoned house served as a reminder of the valley’s previous Azerbaijani occupants.

The couple expected to stay there for the rest of their lives. But war broke out again in September 2020, and this time, Azerbaijan prevailed. Under a Russian-mediated ceasefire, Armenia agreed to return territories it seized in the first Nagorno-Karabakh war to Azerbaijan, including Kalbajar. In November, Khanum, 60, and Volodya, 61, packed up their lives once more. All around them, neighbors did the same. Woodcutters swarmed the hillsides, harvesting as much as they could from the land before it changed hands. When they came for the pear tree, Volodya stopped them. He still held on to the hope that he and Khanum might stay. “Forget about it,” his wife told him. “It’s over.”

The couple’s relatives and friends loaded what possessions they could fit into the back of a truck: a worn mustard-colored sofa; the jars Khanum used to pickle cauliflower; the wood-burning stove that heated their home. They dug up her roses, packing the roots into plastic water jugs. She supervised from the doorway, squinting behind her rectangular eyeglasses and barking instructions. When they had finished, she fed them a lunch of bread, cheese, and homemade vodka.

"Let's drink to our heroes," she said, as they all raised their glasses. "They killed so many of our young people in the war. I just want peace. Armenians have always been suffering from this."

Volodya locked the door for the last time. They were homeless once again.

Cycle of conflict

The six-week war between Armenia and Azerbaijan killed more than 5,000 people, displaced tens of thousands more, and, on top of all that, unleashed an uncontrolled outbreak of COVID-19, illustrating what an ugly breeding ground war can be for the virus. And the ceasefire did not even resolve the long-running conflict. While thousands of Azerbaijanis who’d been displaced in the 1990s will now be able to return to what is left of their homes, thousands of Armenians are now being forced from theirs. The Armenians worry about the preservation of their cultural heritage in the territory returned to Azerbaijan—as well as the preservation of their own future in a land where they’ve lived for generations.

The roots of the strife go back more than a century to the end of the Ottoman and Russian empires, but the modern conflict began in the last years of the Soviet Union. Nagorno-Karabakh was an autonomous region of the Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, but in 1988, its majority Armenian population demanded to join the Soviet republic of Armenia instead. As the Communist confederation broke apart, the dispute grew into a war that killed between 20,000 and 30,000 people, and eventually displaced more than a million people, the majority of them Azerbaijanis. Nagorno-Karabakh declared itself an independent republic, a designation Azerbaijan and the rest of the world have never recognized. After a ceasefire in 1994, the conflict remained frozen, flaring up in occasional clashes.

(These teens are fighting a war older than they are.)

When the conflict erupted again on September 27, 2020, the world was distracted and consumed with the COVID pandemic. Azerbaijan crippled Armenia’s defenses with drone attacks, and launched artillery attacks on civilian areas, including Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital. Armenian forces targeted civilian areas in Azerbaijan with rocket attacks.

Within weeks, more than half of Nagorno-Karabakh’s population of 150,000 fled to Armenia. Across Stepanakert, the branches of persimmon trees were heavy with orange fruit that went unharvested. Windows were fortified with sandbags and tape, and the wail of sirens and subsequent booms of shelling became a familiar soundtrack. Those who remained in the city took refuge in the city’s crowded basements. There, they were vulnerable to COVID.

Shifting front lines

Before the war started, Nagorno-Karabakh had managed to keep the virus in check with border controls, contact tracing, and strict isolation of cases, even while the numbers rose in neighboring Armenia. Gayane Mkrtchyan, a nurse at the Republican Medical Center, Stepanakert’s main hospital, received special training for caring for COVID patients in the summer. She wore full protective gear to treat them: mask, visor, gloves, goggles, and coveralls. After leaving the ward, she would shower. In July, health officials opened a new lab to test samples in Stepanakert, rather than sending them to Armenia.

But when the war began, preventive efforts such as contact tracing suddenly ceased, even as people crowded into basements. Testing became difficult, and doctors abandoned protocols as they struggled to deal with the wounded. Medical and military volunteers from Armenia, where cases increased eight-fold in the two months after the war’s start, surged across the border, bringing the virus with them. It spread like wildfire through the hospital, and through the population. “I’ve had COVID, all the doctors have had COVID, all the nurses have had COVID,” says Mher Musayelyan, the hospital’s director. Overwhelmed medical staff kept treating patients even when they were infected. About a week after the fighting started, Mkrtchyan had a fever and a cough. She didn’t take a COVID test, but she suspects she contracted the virus. “We couldn’t even lay down to sleep. We didn’t have enough people, so we had to keep working,” she says.

On a late afternoon in early November, Mkrtchyan was making the rounds to check on her patients in the city’s infectious disease clinic, which had become a makeshift COVID hospital when the main hospital was damaged in an Azerbaijani rocket attack. All the patients were elderly: Too old or too stubborn to flee, they were also some of the most vulnerable to COVID. Mkrtchyan shone like a beacon as she moved through the gloomy building in her powder-blue protective gown. Gone was the visor and the goggles. Sometimes she didn’t even wear a mask. “We don’t pay attention to procedures now,” she says. “Because we see all these horrible things, and we’re so stressed, we really consider [COVID] as a secondary concern.”

It was a mild fall day, and Mkrtchyan stepped outside for a break with two fellow nurses. Arina Sarkisyan, a tiny, bird-like woman, brought small cups of thick, dark coffee. Another handed out persimmons. The women shared a close bond—all three had sent their children to Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, as soon as the war began, and all three had husbands fighting on the front lines. They lived at the hospital, working almost nonstop and taking turns sleeping on small cots in a tiny room. They spoke of the hospital as their own front line. Mkrtchyan told her two daughters, whom she hadn’t seen since the war began, that if she or their father doesn’t come back, “You shouldn’t cry. You should be proud of us because you should know that your parents are heroes.”

Suddenly vulnerable

Just a week later, Mkrtchyan and Sarkisyan had to evacuate the clinic with 10 minutes’ notice. Azerbaijani forces had entered Şuşa, known to Armenians as Shushi, the mountain city overlooking the capital, and residents fled Stepanakert in a panicked rush. Sarkisyan had no time to take any of her belongings. She rode in an ambulance with five wounded soldiers, treating their injuries on the road.

Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan soon agreed to a Russian-mediated ceasefire, with terms that so enraged the Armenian populace they flooded the streets of Yerevan in protest. Azerbaijan would keep the territory in Nagorno-Karabakh it gained in the conflict, and Armenia would return the surrounding Azerbaijani districts, like Kalbajar, that its forces had captured in the 1990s. Russian troops quickly rolled in to enforce the accord.

Like many Armenians, Sarkisyan saw the deal as a surrender. “If Pashinyan was going to give up the land, he should have done it from the beginning, without killing our men in battle,” she says. Losing the surrounding Armenian-occupied districts made her feel vulnerable as they had provided a defensive buffer against Azerbaijan. With the memory of the Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Empire a century ago still potent, Turkey’s support of Azerbaijan stoked her fears, as did gruesome videos circulating on Telegram, a cloud-based messaging platform, purporting to show Azerbaijani soldiers beheading Armenians, mutilating corpses, and abusing captured soldiers. Amnesty International authenticated some of the videos, as well as others depicting Armenian forces engaged in abuses against Azerbaijanis. Rights groups accused forces on both sides of committing war crimes.

Though Azerbaijanis and Armenians had lived as neighbors in Nagorno-Karabakh until three decades ago, both sides now deny the other’s history and connection to the land. Many Armenians fear the destruction of their cultural heritage in the territory newly controlled by Azerbaijan. The fears are not unfounded: After the first war, Armenian cultural monuments including churches and graveyards were destroyed in Azerbaijan’s exclave Nakhichevan; Azerbaijani mosques and graveyards were damaged in Nagorno-Karabakh; and the entire Azerbaijani city of Aghdam was destroyed after Armenians captured it. During the most recent war, Azerbaijan bombed an Armenian cathedral in Şuşa twice, and videos showed it defaced with graffiti soon after the city’s capture by Azerbaijan.

Many Armenians feared what would happen to one of their most prized historical sites: the medieval monastery of Dadivank. Nestled in the side of a mountain in Kalbajar, the graceful stone churches at Dadivank, built over even older remains, are evidence of Armenians’ historical connection to the region.

On a cold morning in November, days before Kalbajar was to be handed over to Azerbaijan, hundreds of people thronged the monastery for what they feared could be the last time. Worshippers packed into a small, dark cathedral, jostling as they pushed their children toward the priest, who performed baptism after baptism. Outside, a woman ran her hand reverently over the medieval Armenian script carved into the stone. Young people waited in line to take pictures with two massive khachkars, the intricately carved stone crosses used by Armenians since the medieval period as memorials and monuments.

Suddenly, thick grey smoke billowed into the sky above the monastery, and a crowd gathered on the ridge next to the complex. Below, a house was burning. Its owner, the monastery’s guard, sat on a rock and wiped his tears with a blue rag. Like many others in the region, he had set his home alight rather than leave it for Azerbaijanis. But his tears were for the monastery, he said. “We can build new houses, but we cannot build a new Dadivank.”

The abbot, Father Hovhannes, tried to reassure the weeping pilgrims. “We are not going to leave. We are staying here,” he said. “This belongs to us. Never will it be separated from us. The [Azerbaijanis] don’t have the history, so we are not allowed to leave this to them.”

Despite his words, the following day workers were removing whatever they could. Outside the cathedral, a generator’s roar echoed off the stone walls, its cord snaking in through the heavy wood door. The clatter of machinery echoed from inside, where workers said they were removing frescoes. Two empty niches stood where the khachkars had been. The church’s bell sat on a wooden pallet, waiting to be loaded into a truck. Russian peacekeeping troops arrived to safeguard the site, parking their armored vehicles at the entrance to the monastery.

Returning home

As the truck carried the monastery’s treasures to Armenia, it passed dozens of plumes of smoke rising from houses on fire. In a graveyard in Kalbajar town, two graves had been dug up and the bodies removed. The road was clogged with trucks piled high with the belongings of those fleeing.

Heading in the opposite direction were busloads of people returning to Stepanakert, which remained in Armenian hands. The city was quietly coming back to life after the ceasefire went into effect on November 10. Elderly municipal employees raked up leaves grown thick in the center of roundabouts. Residents swept up their broken windows and began clearing the rubble from bombed houses. Mourners brought bright plastic flowers to rows of fresh graves at the military cemetery.

Sarikisyan returned, too. It wasn’t her choice—hospital employees were told to return to work or lose their jobs, she said. COVID cases were rising again as people brought the virus back with them from Armenia, and she was needed at work. She and her children, 11-year-old Narek and 12-year-old Mariam, boarded a bus for home.

Their ground-floor apartment was just as they had left it. A sheltered, west-facing garden caught the winter afternoon sun, and Narek ventured out to inspect the few green peppers that remained on the plants he’d grown from seed. A neighbor girl called down to him from a window and he grinned, happy to be home. But Sarikisyan was not sure how long they would stay. “We left with a happy heart, although it was war, because we thought we were protected,” she says. “But we came back broken, and very sad.”

No longer confident of a future for her children here, she says she will begin looking for a way out—maybe Armenia, or Russia. Many of her friends were doing the same. “It’s dangerous here,” she says. “What’s next? We don’t know what will happen next.”

Kristen Chick is a writer based in the UK. Her work focuses on gender, conflict, and migration. Follow her on Twitter @kristenchick.
Anastasia Taylor-Lind is an English-Swedish photojournalist covering issues relating to women, war and violence. She is a National Geographic photographer, a TED fellow and a 2016 Harvard Nieman fellow. She has previously worked in Nagorno-Karabakh, reporting on the Birth Encouragement Program, which gives cash payments for each baby born in the region, along with additional social support for large families. To see more of her work, follow her on Instagram.
Sara Khojoyan and Aza Andreasyan contributed to this report.
This work was supported in part by the National Geographic Society's COVID-19 Emergency Fund for Journalists.

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