Stepanakert is a sleepy town located in Southwestern Azerbaijan. However, the 2015 census concluded that not a single Azerbaijani lives among the town’s 55,000 residents.
Nagorno-Karabakh, the region where Stepanakert lies, is a Christian Armenian enclave within Muslim Azerbaijan. Created by an ill-conceived Soviet land division, it has been fighting for independence from Azerbaijan for three decades. The conflict has cost 30,000 lives, and a few dozen more die every year on the frontline, one of the most militarized zones in Europe, located only 20 miles away from the city.
I traveled to Stepanakert in late 2017 to see how decades of continuous revolution distorts daily life. I wanted to understand this complicated, multi-layered situation through stories of ordinary people – grandparents and grocery store owners, students and soldiers – some of whom have never lived a day of their lives without a deadly conflict just miles from their front door.
Most of the people that I photographed and interviewed don’t have high hopes for a resolution anytime soon, but they acknowledge that losing the region would mean losing Armenia as a country as well. The disputed region holds key water resources for Armenia and is crisscrossed by energy pipelines transporting precious Azerbaijani oil.
Nagorno-Karabakh is the first of many de facto states that I’d like to visit in the coming years. My hope is to learn more about these geopolitical dilemmas, focusing on the people who live in them and their search for identity as citizens of unrecognized regions.
This project would not have been possible without the help of Andrea Biancofiore, Liana Yepremyan, Yeva Zeynalyan, Areg Balayan, Amber Terranova and all of the incredibly generous people of Stepanakert.
Garik is the owner of a small grocery store just a block from where he lives with his wife and son. He bought his bright yellow Zhigouli back in 1983 when it was easily the most popular car on the road. So popular in fact, that one had to wait a long time for their chance to buy one for the going rate of 7,300 USSR Rubles (about $25,784 in today’s US dollar). After waiting a while, Garik was able to skip the line because his father was recognized as the employee of the month, and with that came perks like the possibility to skip the queue to buy a house or a car. In the last 35 years, most people have sold their Zhigoulis. But in Stepanakert you can still find Garik driving his old yellow one, it’s a sort of lucky charm for him. It has never failed him and he’s never had an accident. All the car’s parts are from the factory like the day he bought it. “Why would I deceive a friend of so many years?”
“I can’t say that I love my children less than I love my grandchildren, but I feel something different for my grandkids. I’d do anything to see a smile on those cute little faces. Two months ago my neighbor insisted that if I buy some of his pigeons that my grandchildren would love them. I bought them and it turns out they are terrified of them. So now they’re mine, I guess.” - Zhasmin Ghahramanyan
Most of the walls in Erik’s house are white, except this one of course. After finishing his duty in the army he started working as a contractor. “I would often pass by the store where they sold these murals in smalls sections and I always wanted one for my family. So after receiving my first paycheck, I surprised them with it. I also thought it would be a good service to offer to my customers”. After pushing the idea for less than a year Erik gave up because there wasn’t much demand for it.
Donara is the First Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Nagorno Karabakh. How and when did she develop her sense of style? “I never took inspiration from the movies or books because I truly believe that a sense of style is a gift from above, just like any other talent that a person has.”
Manuk and Suren, childhood friends, are both 21 years old. Suren has plans to get married when he’s 23. He met a girl at college: “I wanted to take a classroom, fill it with balloons and put a flower with a note on each table. Some of the notes would be quotes, the others would tell her what I appreciate most about her. But then someone lied and told her I had a girlfriend, so that messed everything up and I didn’t follow through with my plan. Now I’m just waiting for the right moment to do it.”
There are more than five times as many boys as girls at Syuzanna’s school, and she had to fight to be one of the 17 girls in attendance. Her older brother, who is a graduate of the same school, forbid her to attend. His reason was simple: “The Army is no place for a girl.” After a year of ordinary high school, her brother moved to Yerevan to continue his education. That was her chance to ask her parents instead. Her father, who previously served in the Army and participated in the war of the early 90s, understood her dream of serving the country and allowed her to do as she wished. Someday Syuzanna hopes to become a military doctor.
David created this museum in his garage after he realized that his collection was so big that it needed some kind of organization. His career as a minesweeper brought him to some interesting places where he began collecting artifacts that he found while searching for mines. Most of his treasures are old weapons like arrowheads and knives, but he also came across various tools like axes and old irons. David worked for the local demining company Halo Trust until 2004 when a mine blew up and he was badly injured. He was offered $4,500 for his injuries.
Yerem was injured during the conflict when a bomb hit the car he was driving. He was moved to Yerevan to treat his burns, but his recovery was slow. His chin had to be separated from his chest and he had problems with both eyes. The doctor managed the separation and one of the eyes, but new patients arrived with severe injuries and the surgeon never finished his second eye. Today Yerem drives a taxi, and he admits that it wasn’t his childhood dream, but it pays the bills.
Lora and Laura are librarians at Stepanakert’s largest school for higher education, Artsakh State University. As they prepare for the future, they have begun digitizing the most important books and discarding old books that are no longer part of the curriculum.
Marat had issues with his vision since the day he was born. Doctors predicted that he would go completely blind, but he has always managed to see shapes and colors if they’re close to his face. When he was young he dreamt of working in a mine or on a farm, but because of his vision, he always knew it would be impossible. Instead, he followed a career in music that he loves. He teaches folk music six days a week and even has a second career as a singer. He acknowledges that his vision could be fixed with the endless advances in medicine, but he adds: “I don't have time to look for a solution to my eyesight. I’m fine the way I am.”
Samvel is the commander of the Central Defense Unit of Republic of Artsakh, based in the center of Stepanakert.
“I’ve had this job for the last 5 years. Before that I had a few other jobs that weren’t as good, and of course I served in the army, too. I’m lucky to have this job and I like it, but it’s nothing compared to the lucky people who get to work in an office.” - Valera Sargysan
Sirvard was the first female journalist to report the war from the line of contact. After three frustrating years working at a desk in Stepanakert, Sirvard was given the status of officer and became her newspaper’s deputy editor in chief. She refers to her work as military service, an accurate description considering the fact that her promotion came from the minister of defense himself. Sirvard served from 1997-2011.
Grisha is a refugee who grew up in Baku, Azerbaijan. When the Karabakh movement began he knew that he and his wife had to leave quickly. His newly renovated 3-room apartment was everything he had, but because of the nature of the conflict, he wasn’t able to sell it. Through friends, he found an Azerbaijani who was being forced out of Stepanakert for the same reason, so they traded homes. Grisha works as a night shift security guard for the Aznavour Cultural Center.
Vazgen Mardanyan answering questions during Mrs. Grigoryan’s world history class. The lecture that day was about how Azerbaijan created the conflict in order to take land that never belonged to them, resulting in Armenia responding by protecting what was theirs to begin with, to essentially defend their territory at all costs. Later, Mrs. Grigoryan admitted that this was not the original lesson plan, but after learning that we were observing and photographing, she decided to work it in.
Armo originally comes from Seysoulan, a village near the line of contact with Azerbaijan that no longer exists. One evening in 1992, Armo and all of his neighbors were abruptly forced to abandon their homes after word of an imminent threat from the enemy. The entire town relocated 50km away from Stepanakert to a place that has since been named New Seysoulan, home to 42 families (180 people). However Armo wasn’t satisfied with the meager dwelling he was given in New Seysoulan. He described it as more of a garage than a home, so he moved to Stepanakert instead.
“The two things that define our culture are Mulberry Vodka and BBQ. Like many people in town, we don’t have a house with a yard, so this is how we grill. Someone came up with the idea about 20 years ago and it just stuck, you can find these all over town, I cook on mine all the time.” - David Abgaryan
Once a week soldiers iron their uniforms at their base in Stepanakert. Like most things in the army, the ironing process is strictly scheduled and enforced.
The passenger terminal at the Stepanakert airport was completed in 2011. Despite the airport’s 50 full-time employees, commercial flights have never departed or landed because of aviation laws and a threat from Azerbaijan to shoot down any planes that illegally enter their airspace. Levon Hambardzumyan, an ex-soldier, is now the airport’s groundskeeper.
Downtown Stepanakert on a warm September evening.