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Life along closed borders Armenian photographer Lilit Danielyan chronicles how the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh has transformed Armenian villages nearest to the country’s borders
Lilit Danielyan was born in Armenia in 1992, and both the First and Second Nagorno-Karabakh Wars took place in her lifetime. After the second war, the photographer traveled to Armenian villages and settlements along the country’s borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey to capture how the conflict was transforming rural life there. The photo series, which she titled “Along the Closed Borders,” took shape in 2021. Meduza is publishing these photographs and Danielyan’s commentary in the wake of Azerbaijan’s most recent military offensive on the unrecognized Artsakh Republic in Nagorno-Karabakh. The terms of the ceasefire forced Armenia to commit to withdrawing its remaining troops from the region and compelled the dissolution of Artsakh’s government.
I was born in Armenia during the First Nagorno-Karabakh War. Now I live in Portugal. As a child, I often visited the village where my grandmothers lived. I played in courtyards with the other neighborhood children, picked flowers, and climbed the mountains to look down at our village from above. There, beyond the mountains, was the closed border with Azerbaijan. On the other side of it was Artsvashen — my father’s home village, occupied by Azerbaijan in 1992, two days after I was born.
The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War broke out on September 27, 2020. It lasted 44 days, claiming thousands of lives. Even more people became refugees. After that war, I started to hear the words “border” and “border zone” everywhere: in the media and in conversations with my family.
In December 2022, Azerbaijan blocked the Lachin corridor, leaving residents of the Republic of Artsakh without food, gas, medical supplies, or basic necessities. And mere days ago, the Azerbaijani military attacked Stepanakert, the capital of Artsakh. Armenians began fleeing their homes, afraid of ethnic cleansing.
One day, I happened upon the Armenia Tree Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to planting trees across Armenia. I learned that in the village of Chinari in the Armenian Tavush Province (located near the border with Azerbaijan) there was a cemetery, along the side of which the Armenia Tree Project had planted young poplar trees. This cemetery is within sight of an Azerbaijani military post. The non-profit’s coordinator Alexander Mirzoyan said in an interview that after the recent war, Chinari residents were forced to bury relatives at night for fear of daytime gunfire from the Azerbaijani side. Young, still fragile poplars, planted in one long row, came to symbolize protection — a kind of shield for the cemetery. After learning about this project, I began to think about the meaning of borders.
When I came to Armenia after the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, I made myself an itinerary: I would cross Armenia from its western border with Turkey to another border with Azerbaijan in the east of the country, making my way from Bagaran to Chinari and documenting life in Armenian villages along the closed borders.
While traveling, I didn’t meet a single family without dead relatives or acquaintances. Every conversation with locals invariably touched on the war. The family of my cousin, who worked as a doctor in the very epicenter of the war, talked about the horror of waiting for news. On my mother’s side of the family, a cousin died on the very last day of the war. Now, many of the survivors suffer from post-traumatic stress, and there aren’t enough psychologists or resources to help with their trauma.
Living close to the border is cause for daily anxiety and worry. Even the youngest Chinari and Aygedzor residents feel it in one way or another. Cement fences are built around the schools and some of the windows are bricked up. Portraits of dead soldiers, most of them eighteen-year-old boys, hang in the hallways.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the closure of local factories, unemployment has been high in rural Armenia. A large percentage of the population lives in poverty. Men often have to leave to earn money in neighboring countries. After serving in the army, many young men often end up working at military posts because it’s one of the few paid jobs in the border regions.
The proximity of the border also affects local life. I’ve often seen neighbors support and care for one another, especially after the war. Men often help build memorials for families that lost a loved one.
As I am writing this today, the first refugees from Artsakh have begun arriving in Armenia. I reached out to my relatives and the people I photographed in the border regions in 2021. They responded almost immediately; I imagine them keeping their phones nearby, constantly reading the news.
Deeply upset and concerned about the state of Artsakh and Armenia, they talked about the threat of another war. “Things seem quiet right now on the borders, but it can change at any moment during these uncertain times,” said my aunt, who lives in a border village.
“We hurt, but we are trying to keep ourselves busy with daily chores,” my other aunt replied.
Nobody spoke of leaving. I hung up the phone and pictured the mountains in my grandmother’s village. It gives me a glimpse of hope as I anxiously wait for more news from home.
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