Whose Memory?

Nagorno-Karabakh is a “De Facto” Republic located in South Caucasus: it is an independent but not recognised autonomous region and an inactive war zone.

Internationally considered part of Azerbaijan, its existence is the result of the war that started when the population of Nagorno-Karabakh requested to be annexed to Armenia. The struggle ended in 1994 but a ceasefire was never reached.

In the western world we patronisingly call this a forgotten conflict, that is a conflict that makes no headlines in our press. However, it is not forgotten.

This project is about my journey through Armenia to a place that technically does not exist.

Holding the Nagorno-Karabakh flag in Stepanaket - Marco Barbieri - Photography

 

The Language of War

To me, nationalism is a divisive notion that lingers on differences between people to define a so called “identity”.

In Armenia I saw it as the result of two forces. The heavy burden of the 1915 genocide perpetrated by Turkey, when more than one million people died, is one. The tense political relationship with both Turkey and Azerbaijan is another. Together they make common struggles and religion the main motivations for self determination.

War and the memory of it are often apparent through the monumentality of sculptures commemorating past and present conflicts. Mother Armenia is towering over Yerevan, where once a gigantic statue of Stalin was located.

What The West Forgets - Marco - Barbieri - Photography

Mother Armenia Memorial in Yerevan - Marco Barbieri - Photography

Posing in front of tanks in Yerevan - Marco Barbieri - Photography

The Cascade monument in Yerevan - Marco Barbieri - Photography

Posing in front of missiles in Yerevan - Marco Barbieri - Photography

War memorials in Armenia - Marco Barbieri - Photography

Couple and crane in Yerevan - Marco Barbieri - Photography

The Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan - Marco Barbieri - Photography

 

Armenians are proud to be the first nation to embrace Christianity as its official religion more than 1700 years ago. It is what makes it different from its neighbouring countries and what unifies its 3 million inhabitants with the 8 million diaspora Armenians living abroad. It is also one of the reasons that condemned the population to the 1915 genocide.

The only Christian country to share borders with Armenia is Georgia. Armenians like to say that they are the only neighbours they can joke about.

Churches are crowded in Armenia.

Armenian Apostolic Church in Armenia - Marco Barbieri - Photography

Noravank Monastery - Marco Barbieri - Photography

Group of people inside the Tatev Monastery in Armenia - Marco Barbieri - Photography

Girl praying in Armenia - Marco Barbieri - Photography

 

Off the Map

You will not find Nagorno-Karabakh on a map, but you will find its Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The area can only be reached via road from Armenia. The capital airport is currently unused as there has been repeated criticism from other nations that consider the start of commercial flights to Armenia a potential blockage to the peace process with Azerbaijan.

The Airport stands shiny in the distance, but there are no white trails in the sky.

Nagorno-Karabakh - Off the Map

Stepanakert Airport in Nagorno-Karabakh - Marco Barbieri - Photography

 

Access is usually via Gori, the closest Armenian city and usually a stop on the way to Tatev monastery, a main Armenian tourist attraction.

The border with Azerbaijan is closed. Under Azeri laws, entry to Nagorno-Karabakh is strictly prohibited and evidence of a visa on a passport can lead to imprisonment. While Armenia, a UN member, officially does not recognise Nagorno-Karabakh, it is obvious that military and economic help is provided by the government of Yerevan. Armenians have no doubt that this is the missing part of their nation.

The currency in Karabakh is the Armenian Dram.

Gas Station in Armenia on route to Nagorno-Karabakh - Marco Barbieri - Photography

Main square in Gori - Marco Barbieri - Photography

Woman in Gori - Marco Barbieri - Photography

Man in Gori - Marco Barbieri - Photography

Armenian landscape - Marco Barbieri - Photography

 

De Facto

“We had a tourist here last year and she was very happy, she ended up meeting the president three times!”

There is a President, a parliament, a capital called Stepanakert (Xankəndi for Azerbaijan) and an army, but only 150.000 inhabitants located in remote villages in a 4.000 square km area. It’s a micro-nation.

Nagorno-Karabakh is only recognised by 3 nations that share the same “unrecognised” political status: Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria. Just like their conflicts, these autonomous republics are also “forgotten”  by the Western media.

During the Soviet period, Moscow took actions to increase the number of Azeri inhabitants in this area. Nowadays, almost all of the population is ethnically Armenian. The Azeris, who used to represent 20% of the population, moved away during the war that finished in 1994. Depending from what side you look at this, it was either ethnic cleansing or re-appropriation of Armenian territories.

Nationalist murales in Stepanakert - Nagorno-Karabakh - Marco Barbieri - Photography

Main Square in Stepanakert Nagorno-Karabakh - Marco Barbieri - Photography

Traditional dresses in Nagorno-Karabakh - Marco Barbieri - Photography

Child in Nagorno-Karabakh - Marco Barbieri - Photography

Steapanakert market in Nagorno-Karabakh - Marco Barbieri - Photography

The Father and Mother Statue in Nagorno-Karabakh - Marco Barbieri - Photography

New Statues in Nagorno-Karabakh - Marco Barbieri - Photography

Old Man in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Nagorno-Karabakh - Marco Barbieri - Photography

 

A Matter of Threats

“When I see soldiers, I am so happy I cry”

Here soldiers are not seen as the consequence of a problem but rather as the solution to an issue. Just as I recently saw in The “Holy” Land, the presence of weapons on the streets is not considered a threat, but something that makes citizens feel safer.

It is difficult not to empathise with these guys during the military parade for the anniversary of the Nagorno-Karabakh independence. They are funny, they are 18, they want to be my friends on Facebook and they wear incredibly big hats.

Soldiers in Nagorno-Karabakh - Marco Barbieri - Photography

Independence Anniversary in Nagorno-Karabakh - Marco Barbieri - Photography

Tomb of Dead soldier in Nagorno-Karabakh - Marco Barbieri - Photography

 

Independence

The anniversary of the Nagorno-Karabakh independence is held on the 2nd of September.

On that day a number of activities take place in the capital: from children colouring artefacts in the national colours in the main square to a night concert under the National Assembly building.

In the morning I find myself walking around Stepanakert with a flower in my hand. It is for the commemorations of the fighters who died during the war. People come and pay their respects under the monument dedicated to the war.

Dead soldiers rest in the cemetery behind the monument.

Independence Billboard in Nagorno-Karabakh - Marco Barbieri - Photography

Kids with Nagorno-Karabakh at Independence celebration in Stepanakert - Marco Barbieri - Photography

Kids with Nagorno-Karabakh at Independence celebration in Stepanakert - Marco Barbieri - Photography

Nagorno-Karabakh Independence celebration in Stepanakert - Marco Barbieri - Photography

Soldiers holding hands in Nagorno-Karabakh - Marco Barbieri - Photography

Military parade in Nagorno-Karabakh - Marco Barbieri - Photography

Nagorno-Karabkh Cemetery in Stepanakert - Marco Barbieri - Photography

 

A Micro Society

There is a lavish concert on the first night of celebrations. Given the size of the area, the happening resembles a small town festival with one difference: both the presidents of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh are sitting in the front row. There is a strangely elitarian feel to it.

The second day is dedicated to a pop festival for everyone else. The visuals on the two screens around the stage are mainly related to war and religious themes: soldiers and Jesus Christ feature heavily. There is an incredible video featuring a child popstar singing in the midst of a visually gruesome battle.

It all ends with an almost surreal crowd of children waving the Nagorno-Karabakh flag on stage.

Public Television truck in Nagorno-Karabakh - Marco Barbieri - Photography

Empty stage in Nagorno-Karabakh - Marco Barbieri - Photography

Independence Anniversary concert in Nagorno-Karabakh - Marco Barbieri - Photography

The front row elite at the Independence Anniversary concert in Nagorno-Karabakh - Marco Barbieri - Photography

Soldiers with medals at the Independence Anniversary of Nagorno-Karabakh - Marco Barbieri - Photography

 

The Landscape of War

Stepanakert is not that different from any European small town. It is developed, organised and clean: not exactly what you would expect in a contended territory. On the other hand, the area around it is a close reminder of the fact that peace with Azerbaijan was not reached. Ceasefire was broken on a number of times during the years. Just a couple of weeks after my stay, 4 soldiers were killed on the border.

The town of Shushi was heavily bombed and is now a strange mix of new developments and destroyed mosques and buildings. As usual, the first thing to be rebuilt was the cathedral.

Agdam on the other hand was completely destroyed and is now a waste area on the border with Azerbaijan. The site is used for military exercises and is legally off limits; apparently land mines are still present here.

In one way or another, life goes on as usual.

The ghost city of Agdam in Nagorno-Karabakh - Marco Barbieri - Photography

The landscape of war in Nagorno-Karabakh - Marco Barbieri - Photography

Tigranakert in Nagorno-Karabakh - Marco Barbieri - Photography

Shushi area - Nagorno-Karabak - Marco Barbieri - Photography

The bombed town of Shushi in Nagorno-Karabakh - Marco Barbieri - Photography

Bombed mosque in Nagorno-Karabkh - Marco Barbieri - Photography

Children of Shushi in Nagorno-Karabakh - Marco Barbieri - Photography

Woman walking in front of the bombed mosque of Shushi - Nagorno-Karabakh - Marco Barbieri - Photography

Shushi - Nagorno-Karabakh - Marco Barbieri - Photography

 

While a knowledge of these places is almost non existent for most Europeans, the concept of memory is crucial in this area. It is a part of everyday life. Statues of national heroes in Shushi are covered with flowers while Vank, a little town in the North of Nagorno-Karabakh, has one of the quirkiest and most unsettling monuments I ever saw:

A wall of number plates supposedly owned by Azeri people who escaped the conflict.

Shushi - Nagorno-Karabakh - Marco Barbieri - Photography

Vank - Nagorno-Karabakh - Marco Barbieri - Photography

Azeri plates in Vank - Nagorno-Karabakh - Marco Barbieri - Photography

 

Memory

Forgetting implies the notion of knowledge. In most cases, when it comes to South Caucasus, it is our lack of it that makes things unintelligible.

I met a man on the way to the border between Georgia and South Ossetia, another “De Facto” Republic just like Nagorno-Karabakh. He spoke an unintelligible language while pointing at the inaccessible border: the only words I understood were “South Ossetia, demokracia”.

I have no idea on what side was he standing and what was he trying to say.

Man in Truso Valley - Georgia - Marco Barbieri - Photography

Border between Georgia and South-Ossetia - Marco Barbieri - Photography

 

Other Travel Projects:

The “Holy” Land
Indian Postcards

The Islamic Republic

Burmese Days
Socialist Market
Tokyo Static