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The Black Garden Revisited

5 December 2011 4 Comments

Nagorno Karabakh © Onnik Krikorian 1994

By Onnik Krikorian

When news of a humanitarian flight leaving the UK for Nagorno Karabakh reached me while working on the Picture Desk of The Independent in London in 1994, I jumped at the chance to request that the newspaper’s Picture Editor send me with it. He agreed, and in August 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 journalists and aid workers seemingly destined to smash into the side of a mountain at one point when it had no choice but to hug the terrain after a radio message warned of Azerbaijani jets in the vicinity. Yet, it wasn’t so much the military situation that interested me, but the people. More significantly, perhaps, it was the people on both sides whose hopes for a lasting peace have been continually dashed by nearly 18 years of political manipulation and intrigue.

Refugee from Nagorno Karabakh, Armenia © Onnik Krikorian 1994

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.

Nagorno Karabakh © Onnik Krikorian 1994

Yet, accompanied as we were for some of the trip by the Armenian writer Zori Balayan, one of the main agitators in Armenia and Karabakh, another line was also spun: that of Armenians and Azerbaijanis being destined to remain enemies without any common ground. However, when two journalists from Time magazine and I 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.

Azerbaijani Prisoner of War (PoW), Nagorno Karabakh © Onnik Krikorian 1994

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 I photographed an Armenian wedding, for example, 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 down to the music. I’ve also been working on documenting those villages in Georgia with a mixed ethnic Armenian and Azeri population and where both speak the other’s language.

Wedding, Nagorno Karabakh © Onnik Krikorian 1994

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, continuation of this conflict adversely affects everyone else. This is especially true for the future of children on both sides, 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 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. 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…

Gayaneh in Khrmort, Nagorno Karabakh © Onnik Krikorian 1994

Onnik Krikorian is a journalist and photographer from the UK based in Yerevan, Armenia. He is also the Caucasus editor for Global Voices Online and his own personal project amplifying alternative narratives on the Nagorno Karabakh conflict is at http://peace.oneworld.am.

This piece was written for BBC Azeri to accompany a larger selection of images and is available in Azerbaijani at Fotojurnal: Qarabağ fotoqrafın gözü ilə.


  • guyzag palandjian said:

    Dear Onnik,
    Praise be upon you for reporting so vividly and now and then cc-ing to me,for which I thank you.The photos too are very telling!!!of that era.I have also been to NK 9yrs ago and then last year again.It has changed and is undergoing change very rapidly.
    what some,mind you,-I do not particularize- do not comprehend as yet that there will be NO solution to NK conflict untill such time as great Turkey is made to understand that KURDS need Independence,Armenians have demand on them as for BLOOD money, real estate/property, businesses,riches, confiscated, churches ,monasteries schools destroyed (latter taken over).Also,Armenians suc h as self have inherited ,(should have rather ) property both in KARIN and Nakhijevan.WE wish tpo have these returned to us. And great turkey ,is comfortably sitting on these lands ,riches and lending only deaf ears to all above.Au contraire- sometimes declaring Armenian rebels did this that.Armenian rebels had all the right to do so..if you have studied euro history, you know that another NATION ,NAMELY ESPAÑA ALSO WAS RULED FOR 600 YRS OR SO BY KHALIPHATES ,THEN A PRINCESS UNITED THE PRINCES, GOT THEM ALL ARMED ,DRIVING THEM O U T,KAPUT!!!YOU HAVE YET TO FOLLOW THE MACHINATIONS THAT PREMIER eRDOGAN IS LATELY EMPLOYING IN ORDER TO BLOW DUST INTO PAREMID(KIND MINDED) NOT TO SAY bARZAMID(SIMPLE MINDED) aRMENIANS AND THE WORLD AT LARGE IN ORDER TO GAIN ACCEPTANCE INTO eu…SO….dO NOT EXPECT ANY REAL truce….IN THAT AREA, GREAT tURKEY HAS THE LAST WORD ON IT AND/OR THE POWERS ALL OF A SUDDEN REALIZE THAT PERSIA(iRAN) IS A LOT MORE RELIABLE STATE IN THE ZONE ,HONEST AT LEAST AS RGDS WHAT IS THEIRS WHAT IS NOT!!!!INDEED SHE MAY HAVE SOME FAULTS TOO, BUT NEVER HAD ON HER TERRITORY SUCH AS THE TALIBANS OR ALKAEDA….SO WHO IS KIDDING WHO.Being Armenian and knowing all above is important my boy…am over 80…and have a lot of expericne (even face to face with ,with turco-azeris) Sometimes they surpass the brits in diplomacy…did you know that?

  • admin said:

    Guyzag, it’s interesting that you say that because there are few here who believe that the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict is in anyway connected to Armenia-Turkey relations. Indeed, almost every civil society organization and political party is trying to keep the two separated even though the Armenia-Turkey border was closed when Armenian forces took control of territory outside of Karabakh.

    Even so, but for different reasons as you no doubt, I tend to view the two issues as parallel and indirectly connected. That is, warming of relations with one can contribute to the warming of relations with the other. The problem is we’re left with a chicken and an egg situation, but that’s a matter for another discussion. Until then, I have to say, I was very encouraged by what I’ve been seeing in Turkey of late.

    Moreover, others are saying the same thing so in a sense I hope that improved relations might one day have a positive effect on Armenia and Azerbaijan. Even being able to fly direct from Yerevan to Istanbul was unthinkable 10 years ago, but now those flights are twice a week and full to capacity. The past few times I’ve flown the route it’s also been mainly a Turkish airline partner rather than just Armavia.

    Anyway, despite relations between Armenia and Turkey being less than ideal on the political level there is significantly more contact on the level of individuals and civil society organizations. That is a situation I’d like to see when it comes to Armenia and Azerbaijan, and consider that to be one of the main obstacles to conflict resolution at present. Would that it could be the same.

    It used to be better, actually, in the 1990s and before 2005 when there were more people to people exchanges between the two countries, and it’s this I’d like to see happen again today. Then I’d feel more positive about the chance for a long overdue peace.

  • Caucasus Conflict Voices » Blog Archive » Nagorno Karabakh: Clearing the Killing Fields said:

    […] assignment for the U.K’s The Independent, it was to cover the immediate aftermath of the cease-fire agreement which put the conflict between […]

  • Onnik Krikorian | Journalist, Photojournalist, Consultant » Archive » The Black Garden Revisited said:

    […] post was first published on Caucasus Conflict Voices and is an amended version of the text accompanying my photo story for the BBC’s Azerbaijani […]

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