scorecardresearch Skip to main content

The things they could not carry

More than 100,000 Armenians fled Nagorno-Karabakh last month. For Armenians there and in the diaspora, it was the latest reminder of all that has been left behind.

An eternal military presence in Artsakh, also known as Nagorno-Karabakh. May 1991.Hovannes Armenakian/Project Save Photograph Archives

Since the day I moved to Armenia in early 2014, I wondered: How is this sustainable? By “this,” I meant the survival of Armenians in Artsakh, the historically Armenian region in Azerbaijan otherwise known as Nagorno-Karabakh.

The landscape stretching from Armenia to Artsakh, beguiling and vast, with its jagged mountains and valleys, seemed both of the present and not. Maybe it was because the expansive terrain was dotted with ancient monasteries — almost more of them than people. Wherever I looked, I felt outnumbered by heartbroken ghosts from a vibrant but melancholic past.

General Andranik Ozanian’s commanders in the Zangezur area of Artsakh in 1918. Andranik, as he is known, was one of the leaders of the resistance fighters fending off Turkish and Azeri aggression in Western and Eastern Armenia.Rouben Der Stepanian/Project Save Photograph Archives

I’d been on the road for over six hours, along the narrow, winding “highway” from Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, to Stepanakert, in Artsakh. The cognitive dissonance I’d been experiencing since my arrival in Armenia was amplified with each mile, as though I were headed to the source.

Cut to the past two weeks. Azerbaijani forces seized the self-declared Republic of Artsakh in a short, violent campaign on Sept. 23. Literally overnight, Artsakh’s population was expelled, shrinking from some 120,000 to a few hundred left in a dystopian setting. In an instant, a people indigenous to that region lost everything, again.

Left, Armenian freedom fighters “Katchal Ghazar,” or “Bald Lazarus,” right, and Garegin Njdeh, center, in Zangezur, Eastern Armenia, in 1920. Njdeh, along with General Andranik Ozanian, was one of the pivotal figures during the struggle for Armenian self-determination. Like many others, Njdeh died in a Soviet prison in 1955. Right, three school friends in Shushi, Artsakh, in 1908. All three were killed in the 1920 massacre in Artsakh.Left, Rouben Der Stepanian/Right, H.D. Shabezian/Project Save Photograph Archives

For Armenians, the 19th and 20th centuries were punctuated by periods of massacres and forced displacement, with the Genocide of 1915 being the most pivotal. The Republic of Armenia, established after the First World War, was quickly squeezed to death by Turkish-Azeri aggression on one side and the Bolsheviks on the other. In 1922, after both Armenia and Azerbaijan joined the USSR, Stalin gave Artsakh to Azerbaijan for reasons not hard to guess: Azerbaijan has oil; Armenia does not. Although Artsakh still had autonomous status, the Armenians there and in Azerbaijan suffered under discriminatory policies until they were forced to flee pogroms in 1988. Armenians are Apostolic Christian, and Azeris are largely Muslim.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Armenians fought for and reclaimed Artsakh, but the region and its people remained in geopolitical purgatory. Unable to secure international recognition as an independent state, Artsakh was also never officially joined to Armenia. The region has since hung precariously in the balance.

Left, a mass rally in 1988 near the parliament building in Yerevan, Armenia, in support of the movement in Artsakh to join Armenia. Right, a mass funeral in Yerevan’s Opera Square in 1991 for the Armenian fighters killed in Artsakh. The dead would be among the first of many thousands who would die in armed conflict in the disputed region over the next 30 years.left, Aram Ohanian/right, armen press/Project Save Photograph Archives

Which brings us to the current moment. Azerbaijan has wreaked intense trauma on the Artsakh Armenians who had to frantically pack what they could and leave the only land they’d ever known. This after most of them had already lost loved ones in the previous wars and tragedies.

Children who survived an Azeri rocket attack in Stepanakert, Artsakh, in 1992.Aram Ohanian/Project Save Photograph Archives

Painful images of chaos and sorrow have flooded social media. People around the world, mostly Armenians, are trying to draw attention to what’s happening while also trying to assuage their own feelings of helplessness.

Less ephemeral than social media posts are the artifacts and manuscripts in museums and libraries, and photographs and other relics that have been mostly left behind. Azerbaijan, abetted by Turkey, will seek to demolish or repurpose ancient churches and other historic sites, because it is cultural evidence that subverts historical revisionism and denial. This is why both countries have pursued a systematic and terrifying state policy of inculcating hate, erasing cultural traces of Armenians’ presence, and rewriting history.

Left, an Armenian cemetery in Shushi, Artsakh, desecrated by Azeris in 1995. The systematic destruction of Armenian cultural evidence and heritage has continued to this day. Right, the ninth-century Armenian monastery of Dadivank in the Karvachar region of Artsakh, a site dear to Armenians, was taken over by Azerbaijan in 2020.Aram Ohanian/Wolfgang Rickmann/Project Save Photograph Archives

The vast majority of Armenians forced out of Artsakh did not have time to take their family photographs, old home movies, or other important cultural materials. Imagine that you have fled an atrocity and survived but you had to leave behind all the physical evidence of what your life, your home, your neighborhood, and your country were like. Without it, how much of you has actually survived?

Nov. 8, 1988: Armenians in Yerevan protested October Revolution Day by throwing Soviet flags to the ground in a show of support for Artsakh.Aram Ohanian/Project Save Photograph Archives

For 48 years, Project Save Photograph Archives has been asking that question. As the oldest, largest archive in the world solely dedicated to photographs of the Armenian global experience, it has been at the forefront of understanding that storytelling and cultural preservation through original photography are among the most powerful ways to ensure that the truths of people’s lives and history are not forgotten.

Arto Vaun is the executive director of Project Save Photograph Archives. Follow him on Instagram @arto.vaun and follow the archive @projectsave_archives.