Prologue to Armenia: The Black Garden

Kelbajar © Onnik Krikorian 1999


Why doesn’t Armenia have an army?
— Because everyone wants to be the General.

That was a joke told to me by my father in 1991. It wasn’t very funny, it has to be said, and given that it coincided with the Armenian military engaging neighboring Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh, it also wasn’t particularly factual. Indeed, such prowess did the Armenian military show on the battlefield compared to groups of disorganized units on the other side, usually under the command of warlords more concerned with protecting their financial interests in Baku, that it wasn’t long before Armenia took control of just over 16 percent of what the international community considers sovereign Azerbaijani territory.

Over 25,000 people were killed in the fighting that followed and over a million forced to flee from their homes. Even today, dozens are killed in cross-border skirmishes every year and a lasting peace remains elusive.

True, at the time neither my father or myself knew of the bloody fighting that had broken out in the South Caucasus following the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Yet, just three years later, I was to find myself visiting the region for a British newspaper to document the ceasefire which had just been signed. As a budding young photojournalist it was the perfect opportunity to photograph something of note so, working at the time on the Picture Desk of The Independent in London, when news of a humanitarian flight leaving the UK for Nagorno Karabakh reached me, I jumped at the chance to go with it.

The Independent’s Picture Editor agreed, and in August 1994 I made my first ever trip to Armenia and the South Caucasus. The ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan had been signed just months earlier and some analysts and international observers were warning that a new offensive might start within days or weeks, breaking the fragile armistice. It didn’t, but the journey from Armenia to Karabakh was still perilous at times with the military helicopter carrying us seemingly destined to smash into the side of a mountain at one point when it had no choice but to hug the terrain after warnings of Azerbaijani jets in the vicinity.

Yet, it wasn’t so much the military situation that interested me, but something else.

Yerevan seemed more inhabited then, with the streets more resembling rivers of people when going against the flow than they do now. Electricity was in short supply with the capital descending into darkness when the sun went down. It was then that the mafia ruled the streets, with one business spat resulting in a fatal gunfight close to the hotel I was staying in on Republic Square. Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno Karabakh, was in better shape, however, even if the carcasses of buildings devastated by GRAD missile attacks during the war still reminded visitors of the recent conflict. More significantly though, it was the people on both sides of the conflict, whose hopes for a lasting peace have now been dashed by nearly 18 years of political manipulation and intrigue, that struck me most.

Back then, the military buffer zone was called just that. There was no reference to the territories as ‘liberated’ by the Armenian side, even in interviews we held with the then Armenian Defense Minister, the late Vazgen Sargsyan, who was assassinated in 1999. Then, just as they remain on the official level today, they were seen simply as a bargaining chip in ongoing negotiations to determine the final status of the disputed territory. Back then, there was actually hope that a negotiated settlement could be reached, ushering in a new period of peace and stability for Armenians and Azerbaijanis in the South Caucasus.

Yet, accompanied as we were for some of the trip by the Armenian writer Zori Balayan, one of the main nationalist agitators in Armenia and Karabakh, another line was also spun: that of Armenians and Azerbaijanis being destined to remain enemies without any common ground forever. However, when two journalists from Time magazine and myself heard that Azerbaijani Prisoners of War (PoWs) were being held on the floor of a hospital in the Karabakh capital we successfully managed to escape the organized press tour and stumbled upon something remarkable.

In addition to the PoWs, who like many of their Armenian counterparts had been conscripted against their will, Azerbaijani civilians were also being held for exchange with Armenians taken hostage by the other side. Among them were children. Many, in fact, or at least until we discovered that not all of them were Azerbaijanis. They also included Armenians who had been allowed to play with the captives in an otherwise free environment. Until this day I remember being unable to tell them apart, and usually when I find myself observing the interaction between Armenians and Azerbaijanis at events held in Georgia and elsewhere.

And it’s true. Ethnic Armenians and Azeris are able to coexist together in countries outside the conflict zone, and they share much in common. While in Nagorno Karabakh in 1994, for example, I photographed an Armenian wedding, but the most recent marriage I shot was in 2009 in the ethnic Azeri village of Karajala in Georgia. Both, as well as every Armenian wedding in between, has been pretty much identical – from the food right down to the music.

That’s not to ignore the pain and suffering experienced by both sides in the conflict, but simply to say that in the years since the 1994 ceasefire it’s become more and more difficult for me to view the conflict as an ethnic one. Instead, and while nationalists and politicians on both sides appear to manipulate the conflict by insisting that it is, my main problem still remains being unable to tell most Armenians and Azerbaijanis apart. This is especially true for the children, which leads me on to my personal favorite photograph taken in Karabakh in 1994.

It was of a little girl, Gayaneh, close to Aghdam in the village of Khrmort. Aged well beyond her years with an expression scarred by the horrors of war, she broke into a smile only when I stuck my tongue out at her from behind the camera. As she did so it was then that I found myself hoping that a lasting peace would come to the region. Needless to say, and unfortunately for Gayaneh and myself, as well as new generations in Armenia and Azerbaijan who are unable to remember the time when both sides did live peacefully together, we’re both still waiting. That feeling, however, was not reflected in responses to my photographs when they were exhibited in the London-Armenian Community upon my return.

“It’s a pity the war is over, I want to kill some Turks,” said one young Armenian, referring to Azerbaijanis and obviously not willing to take up arms when the war was actually being waged. At the same time, invited to a private reception for Baroness Caroline Cox, a British peer seemingly obsessed with siding with Christians in any conflict zone where Moslems are the adversary, the reaction from the moneyed Armenian Diaspora present was just as shocking. “We’ve heard you just went to Karabakh,” one said. “Tell us it isn’t true,” she continued, referring to a film on the conflict by a Bulgarian film-maker shown in the community a week earlier.

“She showed wounded Armenian children having their injuries dressed with dirty bandages,” the Diasporan, dressed in fur and laden with expensive jewelry continued. “Tell us it isn’t true. What will people think Armenians are?”

And with that I decided not to have anything to do with the London-Armenian community ever again and to move on to Kurdish issues in Turkey. In fact, I didn’t return to Armenian issues until June 1998 when I was commissioned to write a report on the Yezidi minority in Armenia for a human rights group in London. That return visit the same month was to set in motion my eventual move to Yerevan in October the same year. It was then that, after witnessing the petty power plays between Armenians in all walks of life, including much of civil society as well as government and business, I finally understood the meaning of my father’s joke.

And that’s where this blog will really begin with its first real post in January 2012.

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3 thoughts on “Prologue to Armenia: The Black Garden

  1. ‘Ethnic Armenians and Azeris are able to coexist together in countries outside the conflict zone, and they share much in common.’
    That is true. I am an Azeri student studying abroad, and living on the same floor in the dorm with an Armenian girl. We spend most of our time together apart from our classes, and we are having lots of talks, and I see how similar we are. I have an Azeri friend who has lost her father in the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and now I have an Armenian friend who too has lost her father in the same war. I feel bad for both.
    Although, she,my Armenian friend, and me, both, were told that we are enemies, however, I am really happy that we, both, are able to see the truth behind all the regulations going on in our countries.

  2. onewmphoto says:

    Sabina, thanks very much for the comment and also your own personal experience. Hoping that others will experience the same.

  3. reader_in_baku says:

    great one. felt like watching a film. this is the kind of a narrative both sides need.
    you should do more audio podcasts.

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