The Beating Heart of Artsakh: A Photo Essay

The Resolute Women Awaiting the Return of their Heroes

In the course of the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which reached a sudden end on November 9, Artsakh was steeped in a humanitarian disaster. The Armenian settlements of Artsakh endured persistent shelling and the imminent threat of Azeri invasion. These dangers forced much of the population to flee to Armenia for safety, especially children and their mothers, while the men fought at the frontlines to defend their land. As a result, the population of Artsakh significantly diminished. 

There is, however, a portion of the Artsakh population which remained in their villages and towns, not budging, ready to fight for their homes and livelihoods, surviving in cellars deep underneath concrete apartment buildings. These tough and determined Armenians included men in their 50s and above; many had seen war before as they fought in the previous conflict in the 1990s. There are women too, hardened as well, not willing to leave their homes, some providing for the men at the front line by baking and making warm clothes, while others would spend time on the contact lines.

These irreducible Armenians turned these gloomy and dark cellars into fully functional clusters, with heating, kitchens, bedrooms and anything necessary to weather a long siege if necessary. For them, there was no turning back as they would fight and die to protect what they see as their ancestral and rightful land. 

Garine (Photo by Jonathan Alpeyrie)

Sixty-five year old Garine lives in Stepanakert with her husband and four children: three daughters and a son. Her son was fighting on the front lines during the war. She has not left the capital both in order to remain near him and because she does not wish to leave her ancestral homeland. “Perhaps for them [Azerbaijan], Artsakh is a piece of land, but for us it is the homeland, and we cannot abandon our homeland,” she said. The lifelong Artsakhtsi is grateful for the support of global Armenian communities like that of France. “Let them lend a hand as much as they can, even [through] moral support,” she expressed. Regardless, she believes in the ultimate triumph of a resilient Artsakh. “Let the whole world know that the tiny Artsakh is fighting against Turkey,” she declared. 

Ludmila Yedzigaryan (Photo by Jonathan Alpeyrie)

Ludmila Yedzigaryan is 59-years old and a resident of Shushi. Her middle son was serving in Artsakh’s Defense Army during the war and visited home from time to time. “We leave the door open,” she explained in anticipation of a possible homecoming. She was constantly fearful during the war, but traveled back and forth between their underground shelter and their home when it was relatively safe to do so. “Why don’t you leave?” she was asked. 

“We have sons and husbands here. Where could we go?” she replied. She had been sheltering since the day after the war began. That Sunday, she happened to be at the majestic Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, which was bombed the following week. Ludmila lamented the high number of casualties among the youth of Artsakh in the devastating war. “We are afraid,” she said. “At the end we think about our sons dying at the frontline. Such young boys are leaving behind entire families and dying to defend us.”

Alona Sharamanyan (Photo by Jonathan Alpeyrie)

Shushi resident Alona Sharamanyan is 33-years old. Her husband, younger brother and father all were fighting at the frontlines during the war. A native of Stepanakert, Alona moved to Shushi after she got married. She believes that both sides suffer as a result of the violence of the war. “What purpose is there in continuing to fight if the number of casualties continues to rise, both on our side and theirs?” she wondered in response to the high numbers of fallen soldiers. Alona has not been blessed with children yet; she said a relative recently told her that God has saved her children from the pain of living through this war. “She gave me her blessing and said that once the war ends, I will have children,” she conveyed with a laugh.

Lucine Saroyan (Photo by Jonathan Alpeyrie)

Lucine Saroyan is an Artsakh native, one of five daughters. She is married with two children. Her daughter is married with one child and lives in Yerevan. Her son was fighting at the front during the war. On the day of this interview, her son was allowed to come home for one day to celebrate his mother’s birthday. “I told him that we will never leave him alone,” she said about remaining in Artsakh. “We must defend our homeland, even with the price of our blood. My husband, son and I remain in Artsakh, and I have no intention of leaving. If necessary, I am prepared to take up arms,” she declared, explaining the stubborn and determined streak of Karabakhtsis. “Whatever happens we are prepared to fight until our last drop of blood.” 

Lucine also emphasized that the struggle is not only against Azerbaijanis, but also Turkish terrorists and others who have joined their fight. She described Russians as allies and brothers, whereas, “Throughout the centuries Armenia has had its enemy, and that enemy is Turkey. I am convinced that Turkey has never been able to conquer the Armenians. Armenians have always triumphed. Armenians have lived, live, and will always live.”

She implored that Armenians around the world join the fight for their homeland. Her birthday wish was for peace for her nation and her people.

“My only wish is to see our country free, independent and peaceful. Let only the doves of peace soar over our heads. Let us wish for peace for the entire world, not only for Artsakh, but also for all countries…Let my birthday be a day of peace in the world, a day of victory. Let our Lord Jesus hear our prayer and wipe his hand over the Armenian nation,” she concluded. 

Nadya Harutyunyan (Photo by Jonathan Alpeyrie)

Seventy-year old Nadya Harutyunyan is from Stepanakert. All the men in her family were fighting in the war in defense of their homeland, including her son, son-in-law and three grandsons. She has lived through three wars, the first one being fought with automatic rifles, and the latest with aerial weapons. “It’s all heavy weapons; that’s how they fight us now. But you know what it is? I see that they want to annihilate Armenians,” she insisted. She believes that the Azeris are attempting another genocide. Nadya explained their desire for peace and for their children to “grow up under blue [peaceful] sky, to play, to read, to achieve their dreams, to create families.” “God protect our young and old fighters. They are fighting well, protecting our Artsakh,” she said.

Larisa (Photo by Jonathan Alpeyrie)

As 57-year old Larisa speaks, there are explosions heard all around where she has been sheltering. She explained that her son, son-in-law and nephew all were fighting in defense of their homeland in the war against attacks with heavy weaponry. Larisa echoed the sentiments of the other women in their desire for peace and a halt to the attacks, explaining that they never wanted this war and that each of the three wars against Artsakh began because they were attacked. The desire for peace is strong. “All of us want peace. We all want for this firing and bombing to stop. We don’t want war. We want peace,” she emphasized. At the same time, she praised the strength and determination of the soldiers serving in defense of the homeland. “Our boys – yes – defend us, they fight, they are spirited, and they are good. They are brave boys, unafraid of anything. But still, I want this war to end,” she said.

Editor’s Note: The interviews conducted by the author were translated by Lillian Avedian and Arevig Caprielian 

Jonathan Alpeyrie
Born in Paris in 1979, Jonathan Alpeyrie moved to the United States in 1993. He graduated from the Lycée Français de New York in 1998 and went on to study medieval history at the University of Chicago, from which he graduated in 2003. Alpeyrie started his career shooting for local Chicago newspapers. He shot his first photo essay in 2001 while traveling the South Caucasus. After graduating, he went to the Congo to work on various essays, which were noticed and picked up by Getty Images, and signed a contributor contract in early 2004. In 2009, Jonathan became a photographer for Polaris images and SIPA press as well. Alpeyrie has worked as a freelancer for various publications and websites, such as the Sunday Times, Le Figaro magazine, ELLE, American Photo, Glamour, Aftenposten, Le Monde, BBC, and today he is a photographer for Polaris Images, with whom he signed in February 2010. Alpeyrie's career spans over a decade and has brought him to over 25 countries, covered 13 conflict zones assignments in the Middle East and North Africa, the South Caucasus, Europe, North America and Central Asia. A future photography book about WWII is in the works. Alpeyrie published a book with Simon and Schuster in October 2017. Alpeyrie has been published in Paris Match, Aftenposten, Times (Europe), Newsweek, Wine Spectator, Boston Globe, Glamour, BBC, VSD, Le Monde, Newsweek, Popular Photography, Vanity Fair, La Stampa, CNN, and Bild Zeit, ELLE magazine, Der Speigel, Le Figaro, Marie Claire, The Guardian, Bild and The Atlantic.
Jonathan Alpeyrie

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  1. These Armenian were betrayed by the CURRENT PASHINYAN ADMINISTRATION AND HIS OBTUSE non direct Armenian involvement in this war. Nothing less.. Traitor!

  2. I feel for these people. I am a fellow Armenian bot in USA. My grandparents came from Armenia.
    I am disappointed with USA and many other countries for doing nothing and aiding these Turks. Horrible !!

  3. I recently interpreted for some ancestrally-Armenian Russians. While waiting for the doctor, much of the discussion turned to the 1915 genocide (the current war with Azerbaijan hadn’t yet started). It probably surprised my client that I knew anything about it.

    “History doesn’t always repeat itself, but often it rhymes.” – Mark Twain

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