Nagorno-Karabakh: Life after War
Photographer: Christophe Petit Tesson
In Nagorno Karabakh, life is returning to normal after the 44-day war between September and November last year that left more than 5,000 killed and thousands of displaced people and refugees.
But some things are still far from what they used to be in the self declared Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh), a territory mostly home to ethnic Armenians that the Soviets allocated to Azerbaijan in 1921 and is recognized as Azerbaijani by the international community.
Soldiers stranded in abandoned military positions, schools housing orphans and the children of refugees, villagers in need of aid, and the evident scars of a war that has brought 2,000 Russian peacekeepers to monitor the ceasefire agreed in the middle of the night on November the 10th are now part of the landscape in this troubled region.
Months after the end of the war Nagorno-Karabakh is no longer in the headlines, but a visit to the military cemeteries in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, where entire families mourn their dead, wandering among recently filled graves, is enough to learn about the impact of the conflict that ravaged the area.
Vahan and Erik, two young soldiers in uniform, pay tribute to their fallen comrade Parkev Kasparian,19. Facing the tomb, they tell the story of how he died during a tank battle in Mardakert, tearfully asking him for forgiveness. Nearby, sitting on a grave, Katia, cries for a 20-year-old friend who was killed in Djibrail on the southern front. His portrait is engraved on the headstone.
Two months after the end of hostilities, empty graves are still open, waiting to receive the bodies still coming from the front.
Much of the Karabakh army has all but abandoned the area. Until recently, journalists could not access these positions, but now the officers have left. Near Martuni, an eastern city of Nagorno-Karabakh, Hamlet and his soldier comrades are delighted to have guests as they wait for word on when they will finally be relieved. Their superiors do not tell them anything, they say. Their only visitors are stray dogs and the boy from the next farm over. In the ditches which serve as their trenches, Hamlet says that many comrades fell under the drones' shelling. The Armenians had not anticipated that kind of weapon and technology. The ruins of the surrounding buildings are a testament to his words.
People who have lived through war know well that you cannot rebuild a house with tears. In Martuni, one of the most affected towns by the shelling, men are busy at work, erasing the wounds of war. A two-storey house on the corner of a residential street belongs to Hratchik Avakian, a retired grocer. His home was one of 800 others that were destroyed in shelling on September 27. It will be rebuilt, like the others, he insists.
Across town at the 'Monte Melkonian' school which has already repaired its roof, director Narine Kevorkian has been welcoming students for a few days.
She takes special care of those who have lost a father or a brother as well as their house, which is now on the other side of the separation line. Thirty children are refugees from territory that was lost, and 20 of them are orphans or have lost relatives.
A long queue of exhausted refugees forms outside the Red Cross Aid Distribution Center in Stepanakert. They had tried to find refuge in neighboring Armenia but now they are coming back home after the Yerevan government promised to help pay for their return.
According to Hayk Khanumyan, of the Social Affairs Ministry, 10,000 families lost their homes and fled the combat zones.
In Karabakh political tensions are on the rise. Some want answers, and there are voices demanding that those responsible for the bloodshed be punished and a complete change of the failing leadership.
Despite the resentment, people are mostly frightened of a resumption of the conflict.