These Teens Are Fighting a War Older Than They Are

Along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, 150,000 people in an unrecognized republic live in military limbo.

Life on the border of Armenia and Azerbaijan has been fraught for decades. But in April of 2016, the two countries battled for four days over a disputed region in the middle, the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic that’s officially a part of Azerbaijan but currently occupied by Armenian rebels. A cease fire in 1996 had cooled tempers, but reports of repeated violations on both sides led to full out war for four days in 2016.

Locked in perpetual dispute, the 150,000 people of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic live in a state of military limbo. Much like the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians, the Armenian-Azerbaijan tension is long simmering, and long ago became part of everyday life.

Photographer Emanuele Amighetti visited the region last year to capture the aftermath of the four-day conflict and the psychological effects of decades at war. Permanent readiness for battle means compulsory military service, and soldiers as young as 13 trained to fight. After school and sometimes before, young people conduct drills on marching and combat, as daily a part of their lives as doing math homework. “Their dedication and profoundness was something I had never seen before,” says Amighetti. “I felt obliged to humanize these young boys and girls.”

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A view of the border between Armenia and Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The constant preparedness can have degrading impacts on the country’s economy. Young people who might otherwise pursue advanced education tend to be enveloped into an all-hands-on-deck mentality. On the front lines in the province of Martakert, Amighetti met a young soldier, perhaps 18 or 19, who interrupted his studies in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, and was sent to Nagorno-Karabakh for training. He was fascinated by journalism and, as Amighetti photographed, he marveled at the first time he had seen a foreign photographer take interest in the crippling stiffness of a mostly unknown region.

Despite the looming threat of war, the overarching sentiment in Amighetti’s images and in his conversations wasn’t anger or resentment. On the front lines, while both sides have dug new trenches and bought new weapons, urban streets elsewhere in the region seemed to be filled with a sense of ordinariness, in supermarkets and in restaurants. One benefit of a decades-long standoff seemed to be that eventually, new generations start to forget, the grievances become more distant and less relevant. At least a teenager, preparing for battle in a war that predates him, can hope.

See more of Emanuele Amighetti's work on his website and follow him on Instagram.