The Last Days of Stepanakert
Photographer: Ricardo Garcia Vilanova
An unresolved decades-old conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mostly ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan near the border between the two countries, flared up on September 27, resulting in the killing of thousands of soldiers and civilians on both sides over the next six weeks.
The latest escalation of violence was the worst seen since the 1990s, turning Stepanakert - the de facto capital of the breakaway state, which calls itself the Republic of Artsakh - into a fading and besieged city.
Civilians bore the brunt of the heavy shelling from the nearby battle front that destroyed some parts of the city. In the final days before the ceasefire, funeral ceremonies, held against the backdrop of loud bomb blasts, had to be shortened to just a matter of a few minutes without the proper Armenian orthodox religious rites. The town’s priests had already been evacuated, along with the women and children, leaving the bereaved without the chance to properly bid farewell to their fallen loved ones.
The few remaining survivors who refused to leave were forced to seek shelter in basements. Families had to share cramped living quarters as the loud shelling got ever closer, while the constant stream of wounded soldiers returning from the battlefront soon overwhelmed the city’s hospital and overburdened medical workers, who were forced into heartbreaking decisions of who to treat based on their survival prospects. Those deemed beyond saving were tragically left to die.
As the city slowly emptied and the conflict hurtled towards a conclusion thanks to an internationally-mediated ceasefire on the midnight of 10 November, the last remaining soldiers and their battered relatives gathered what few belongings they had and abandoned the place they once called home.
Aside from the obvious loss of life and destruction, the less visible casualties of the conflict were the countless children who will grow up scarred by the trauma of six weeks of incessant bomb attacks on their home.