While most Canadians paid it little attention, the brief war between Armenia and Azerbaijan late last year proved to be an extremely deadly and consequential affair. Deemed the ”most intense conflict in Europe or its periphery this century”, over 5,000 soldiers on both sides were killed in just six weeks of fighting – more than the entire U.S. military death toll in Iraq from 2003 to 2019. Azerbaijan’s swift victory was mainly due to adept use of a fleet of Turkish-built drones, a lethal battlefield innovation that Armenia’s aging and now shattered tank force could not answer. This conclusive defeat forced Armenia to relinquish large swaths of its traditional territory, causing an estimated 100,000 civilians to flee their homes.
The war was fought over Nagorno-Karabakh, a remote mountainous region set between Armenia and Azerbaijan. As with the Holy Land in the Middle East and other disputed territories around the world, control of this area has swung back and forth between competing owners for centuries. Following an earlier war that ended in 1994, Nagorno-Karabakh became a protectorate of Armenia known as the Republic of Artsakh. But now Azerbaijan, with assistance from its close ally Turkey and plane-loads of Syrian mercenaries, once again controls the region. After a peace deal brokered by Russia in early November, all that’s left of Artsakh is a wedge-shaped enclave centred on the capital of Stepanakert and separated from the rest of the country by a land bridge no longer under Armenian control.
When war broke out in late September, Canada’s large and vocal Armenian community took to the streets of Canada’s major cities condemning Turkish involvement and demanding the federal government recognize the independence of Artsakh. Having spoken with Armenians at these demonstrations and monitoring the war via social media, I decided I needed to see the situation for myself. In December I flew into Zvartnots International Airport in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, to visit Nagorno-Karabakh. My goal: to observe the aftermath of the war, document the work being done by Canadian volunteers and learn first-hand about Armenia’s politics and culture.
Negotiating a War Zone
As is often the case when travelling to distant parts, many of the biggest challenges I faced in Armenia were logistical rather than mortal threats. The first occurred as soon as I landed in Yerevan. As my visa had not yet been approved, I was quickly hauled into a room with several stern-looking officials who confiscated my passport. That led to a worrisome and uncomfortable night in the terminal eating Cliff bars and sampling Armenian cognac until the bar closed. The twin-crises of the Covid-19 pandemic and the war had Armenia under martial law and conspired to make the visa process much tighter. The next morning, however, after promising to get a Covid-19 test and on the strength of my press credentials from C2C Journal, I was given a visa and allowed to leave the airport.
Driving from the airport into Yerevan, the first notable landmark is Mount Yerablur, the country’s main military graveyard. As my driver noted, the hillside memorial has been the site of numerous daily funerals since the war began; thousands of fresh graves now accompany the graves of those who fought over Nagorno-Karabakh in the 1990s. Then, as we approached the city core, two police officers wielding AK-47 assault rifles were stopping cars and checking trunks – a precaution necessitated by assassination threats against Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.
A former journalist who was imprisoned several times for his criticism of the previous regime – oligarchs who’d controlled Armenia since the breakup of the Soviet Union – Pashinyan came to office in 2018 after a series of mass protests. His party Mystep (or “Way Out”) enjoyed astoundingly high approval ratings prior to the war, but public anger over the peace deal has caused Pashinyan’s support to collapse. Many Armenians feel he gave away too much in the ceasefire negotiations. Armenia’s political future now seems uncertain, with members of the old regime looking to take advantage of this current weakness. And while Pashinyan had tried to edge Armenia away from Russia’s sphere of influence and closer to the European Union, the war has left Armenia more reliant on Russia than ever.
Through my connections with Canada’s Armenian community, I was put in contact with Tamar Kupeyan, who runs Canada4Artsakh, a charity that collects donations for families harmed by the war. A French tutor from Montreal, Kupeyan flew to Armenia just after the war started expecting to join a whole team of volunteers. Instead she ended up creating her own organization. Kupeyan often works with Suren Magakian, a restaurant owner from Los Angeles who operates a similarly-styled U.S. charity. I joined the pair one night as they made their rounds. Sometimes they distribute clothing or groceries donated by the Armenian diaspora in North America; this time it was cash.
Our visits included a couple whose husband lost a leg in a drone strike fighting near Jabrayil. Married just before the war, the wife pregnant and without income, this poor family is a typical recipient of Canada4Artsakh aid. The next family was a widow and her two daughters grieving the loss their husband and father and crammed into an apartment with her extended family. An adorable 10-month-old baby was the center of the room and Kupeyan and Magakian were so natural with her they could’ve been her parents. Tragically, this child would never remember her father. And while the wound was still fresh for the widow, she tried hard not to show her grief. Tucked away in a corner, however, was an older daughter in a yellow sweater who looked about 9 years-old. Having known the comfort of both parents her entire life, she appeared far more forlorn. Her sad eyes and silent manner conveyed all that needs to be said about the eternal tragedy of war.
Despite the ample supply of human suffering in evidence, Yerevan is a remarkably peaceful and hospitable city. Kupeyan remarked that she feels perfectly safe walking around downtown Yerevan in the middle of the night, something that would be unthinkable in many parts of her hometown of Montreal. Marta Shakhazizian, an Armenian-American volunteer from Portland, Oregon, told me the same thing a week later. I never felt threatened during my time in Yerevan and unlike most other countries in the wider region, Armenia doesn’t suffer from domestic terrorism or high levels of crime.
On Sunday I went to St. Gregory the Illuminator’s Apostolic Church, partly as a journalist and partly as a tourist. St. Gregory is Armenia’s patron saint for his role in converting Tiridates – king of the once-sprawling Armenian Arsacid Dynasty – to Christianity in 300 AD, making Armenia the first officially Christian nation. Christianity today retains a paramount role in Armenian culture. I joined a service and engaged in my own quasi-religious reflection – communal meditation being something few Canadians participate in these days. Looking around, I wondered how many other congregants were grieving the war, whether from the loss of a family member, their home or the devastating defeat suffered by the country itself. As one Armenian explained to me, the country is best thought of as a giant family. It was a quietly profound and spellbinding moment.
Willie Pete’s Terrible Toll
Through a mutual friend, I was introduced to a group of burn surgeons who had come to Armenia to treat wounded soldiers, and in particular injuries caused by white phosphorus. While legal for many military uses, such as obscuring an enemy’s vision or for illumination at night, white phosphorus’ role as an incendiary weapon is complicated and widely misunderstood.
Its use against civilians is prohibited under the United Nations Convention on the Prohibition of Use of Certain Conventional Weapons. The reason is the horrifying injuries it can cause. Nicknamed “Willie Pete” by the American military, which used it extensively in Vietnam (it was also used to devastating effect in the Second World War), white phosphorus burns at 2,760° C. Any bit of human tissue it touches will be incinerated until the substance is fully consumed. And once absorbed by the skin, the chemical can cause horrible long-term effects, including kidney failure and various types of cancer.
Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan has signed the international agreement proscribing its use against civilians. And regardless, the agreement does not specifically outlaw its use against military targets. Turkey has previously been accused of using the chemical extensively against the Kurds in northern Syria. For its part, Azerbaijan denies using white phosphorus as an offensive weapon in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. I did, however, bear witness to its terrible presence.
Dr. Fouad Reda was the first doctor in Armenia to identify white phosphorus as the cause of a massive influx of burn patients among injured Armenian soldiers. Reda is from Lebanon and for two years has been living in Yerevan, where he runs a private practice as an aesthetic reconstructive plastic surgeon. His cosmetic procedures were put on hold when war broke out and he quickly shifted to treating wounded soldiers. Working closely with Reda is Dr. Raffi Barsoumian, an Armenian-American burn surgeon from New Jersey who’d recently flown into Armenia to treat victims. “You wouldn’t find burn surgeons in the United States who have experience with something like this, unless they were assisting other physicians in theatres of war,” Barsoumian told me.
Reda had prior experience treating white phosphorous victims in Lebanon in 2006 and Syria in 2017. Over a kebab lunch, I asked him about the catastrophic explosion that destroyed the port area of Beirut last year. He said he wished he’d been there to help but didn’t envy the fate of many of his colleagues; three hospitals in Beirut were destroyed that day and five nurses killed.
Despite lengthy discussions of white phosphorus and its effects, nothing could have mentally prepared me for the horrors awaiting me at Armenia’s Davtashen National Burn Center the next day, where nearly two dozen patients were being treated for phosphorus burns. Distraught family members wandered the hallways as agonized screams could be heard from every direction. All the patients were soldiers, except for one infant whose cries were inescapably harrowing.
Assisting Reda and Barsoumian was a team of French doctors starting a week-long assignment in Yerevan. France is one of Armenia’s closest Western allies, the result of a 600,000 strong Armenian diaspora in the country. France is also co-chair of the OSCE Minsk group, a mediating body founded in 1992 to resolve the first Nagorno-Karabakh war and that has provided substantial aid throughout the current conflict.
After seeing several patients at the burn centre, the two doctors gave me a lift to another hospital across town. As Reda drove, Barsoumian went through a checklist of medical supplies needed for upcoming surgeries and whether they had them on hand. One crucial piece of equipment they lacked was a whirlpool to thoroughly clean burn victims. Cleaning burns is important to stop infection – particularly so for someone burned with white phosphorus, due to the dangers if the chemical is absorbed into the body. None of the soldiers we met had been properly washed, although thanks to the efforts of international donors, a burn whirlpool was due to arrive the following week.
The purpose of this visit was to see one particular patient, demonstrating conclusively to an assembled group of journalists the presence of white phosphorus injuries. As we approached the hospital, Barsoumian told me this would be the most important thing I had ever filmed. It was no exaggeration. The man’s right arm, shoulder and part of his pectoral muscle were gone and the wound was open, indicating a recent amputation. The rest of his body was peppered with deep pockmarks and gashes where the incendiary chemical had touched him. The lights in the room then went off and the doctors pulled out black UV flashlights. When exposed to black light, white phosphorus glows bright green – a disturbingly fascinating sight. The soldier was on his side facing the wall as the doctors scanned his body for the bright green particles.
Before we entered the room, we were explicitly told not to film the soldier’s face. That protocol changed immediately when the UV light exposed a green layer of trace phosphorus on his eyebrows. “Guys, make sure you get this,” instructed Barsoumian. I crept close to the face of the young soldier, who looked barely 18-years old, with my camera. It was an awkward and unpleasant moment, his fleshy amputated stub only inches away from my arm. The medical staff seemed shaken after allowing the press to examine the soldier’s half-naked and mutilated body.
In hospitals all around Armenia, this has become the new front line. It was a harrowing and surreal moment – a distressing memory that will likely stay with me my whole life. One of the main reasons for my trip to Armenia was to correct the lack of international media attention paid to this conflict; every Armenian I met shared a palpable sense of anger and incredulity at being ignored by the rest of the world. It was both a privilege and a burden to witness these horrors.
Artsakh is the name given to the breakaway state created following the last war, although Armenians use the term interchangeably with Nagorno-Karabakh. Karabakh, from Turkic and Persian roots, means black vineyard, while Nagorno is a Russian word for mountainous and was added when the Karabakh region was absorbed into the Russian tsarist empire in the 1820s. As its name suggests, Karabakh is a fertile agricultural region, yielding crops such as pomegranates and grapes. In 1923, future Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, in his role as Commissar of Nationalities, controversially awarded Nagorno-Karabakh to the satellite republic of Azerbaijan rather than Armenia, despite the majority of its residents being ethnically Armenian and Christian. It was a fateful decision.
As the Soviet Union began to disintegrate in the late 1980s, residents of the region rose up to demand unification with Armenia to correct Stalin’s historical mistake. Independence was declared in 1991 and civil unrest soon exploded into full-scale armed conflict. In 1994, after an estimated 30,000 casualties and with ample Russian aid, the region completed its separation from Azerbaijan. The self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh has never been an officially-recognized nation, but exists largely as an extension of Armenia. Since its defeat in 1994, regaining this lost territory came to be a national obsession for successive Azeri governments.
After a flare-up of violence last July along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border near a crucial pipeline corridor, and at a distance from Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan launched an all-out attack on Artsakh on September 27 and made rapid gains in the south. Armenia’s aging military equipment proved no match for Azerbaijan’s deadly new drone force, made possible by its ample oil wealth. Further bolstering the Azeri war effort were Turkish military advisors, Syrian mercenaries and advanced technology from Israel.
When Azerbaijan’s forces captured Shushi, a key mountaintop city in the south considered to be the heart of the region, Pashinyan apparently felt he had no choice but to sign a peace deal to prevent the enemy from retaking all of Artsakh, including its capital Stepanakert. While Armenia enjoys a military alliance with Russia, the arrangement didn’t extend to help defending the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
From Russia’s perspective, the November 9 ceasefire arrangement it brokered must be considered a great diplomatic victory. Having kept his country’s military out of the fighting, Russian President Vladimir Putin has now inserted 2,000 peacekeeping troops deep into the region, creating a substantial new military foothold in the south Caucasus. As a result, Putin has greatly strengthened his grip on Armenia’s domestic political affairs. Many Armenians I talked to suspect that Russia allowed the war to happen for this very reason. Russia also gains a new railroad link through Azerbaijan and Armenia into Iran, bypassing a current connection that traverses its traditional enemy Georgia.
Turkey comes out another clear victor. The peace deal requires the construction of a new highway corridor passing through Armenia’s southern Syunik Province. This will connect Turkey and the western portion of Azerbaijan called Nakhchivan with the rest of Azerbaijan. Until now, Armenia had blocked Turkey’s long-dreamed-of seamless transportation route through Azerbaijan to the Caspian Sea and beyond to the ethnically Turkic countries of Central Asia. Furthermore, the new road will greatly shorten Turkey’s connection to China’s expansive Belt and Road Initiative, allowing Turkey to benefit from Beijing’s increasing trade and influence along Asia’s “New Silk Road”. The price of this breakthrough, however, is that rival Russia will police all the traffic along the route.
Because the ceasefire agreement also required Armenia to give up control of an existing highway in the northern Nagorno-Karabakh province of Kelbajar, the only remaining point of access into what’s left of Artsakh is a 5 km wide, 80 km long stretch of difficult mountain road known as the Lachin Corridor. Under the peace deal, this has become an ambiguous jurisdiction – a No Man’s Land of sorts – patrolled by Russian peacekeepers and passing through newly-captured Azeri territory.
To make the journey, I needed press accreditation and a special visa for the region. After clearing those hurdles, I asked my contact in Artsakh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs if I could accompany a group of refugees returning home from Yerevan to Stepanakert with a Russian military escort. Armen Kaprelian, a government economist, offered to make the trip with me and his perfect English made him an indispensable companion.
Unfortunately, the government gave us bad information about the convoy’s departure, and we eventually decided to find our own way to Stepanakert. Our driver (who asked that his name be omitted) had been making this treacherous, winding journey along the Lachin Corridor since the beginning of the war. When the war was at its peak, he drove the route with his lights out to avoid drone strikes. In somewhat less perilous times with his lights on, the cost of our journey was 40,000 Armenian Dram, or about $100.
Russian combat engineers had swept most of the war debris off the road by the time we made our trip. And negotiating the Russian checkpoints proved surprisingly quick and painless. But navigating the long stretches of steep, icy road in the middle of the night was a nerve-wracking experience. The next morning in Stepanakert, I noticed a group of well-prepared combat journalists loading into a white van with a Russian flag on the hood. I asked a local government official if I could join them, but he said it wasn’t up to him. For all intents and purposes, the city is now under Russian control.
Stepanakert is a beautiful city with a long and colourful history. While Armenian control over the region has waxed and waned over the centuries, Stepanakert is the only city from which Armenians have never been expelled. Besides being the capital, it is also the spiritual centre of Artsakh. Such is its importance that keeping Stepanakert in Armenian hands was likely Pashinyan’s primary motivation in suing for peace and agreeing to give up so much of Artsakh’s other territory to the Azeris. To fully appreciate the city and its experience in the war, we needed a local in the know. We hopped in a cab.
A Journey with Abu
Our cabbie introduced himself as Abu and said he’d fought in the recent war, showing us pictures on his cellphone as proof. He also claimed to have been a member of the Spetsnaz, Russia’s elite special forces unit, and that he’d once guarded former Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s compound, although he didn’t have photographic evidence of those exploits. He was certainly friendly with the Russians, spoke their language fluently and always took the time to chat up any peacekeepers we met. Abu took us on a tour through the parts of the city most damaged by Azeri attacks: a power station, army base and retail district. The front bumper of Abu’s car was missing – the result of a drone strike that destroyed two cars in front of him, he said.
At Stepanakert’s main market I tried Zhingyalov Hats, a mix of pickled herbs in flatbread that is Arksakh’s most famous dish. Then we fell into drinking with a group of Armenian soldiers who’d been expelled from a neighbouring province as a result of the peace deal. Their beverage of choice was homemade vodka, of course. Vodka in Armenia is made with grapes and further distilled from wine, so it’s actually more like brandy. Whatever you call it, the soldiers consuming it were remarkably cheerful given the circumstances.
Hotel Europe, our residence in downtown Stepanakert, was mostly filled with other journalists and Armenians who’d come to help with humanitarian efforts. In the basement we found a large canvas of Mary and baby Jesus. Curiously out of place and showing obvious signs of damage, it had been rescued from the historic Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in nearby Shushi to prevent it falling into Azeri hands. Shushi, or Susa as it is called in Azerbaijan, has changed hands many times over the centuries, and the church has gone through a series of desecrations and restorations. During the first Nagorno-Karabakh war it was used by Azerbaijan forces to store missiles and other munitions. At night in the smoke-filled hotel lobby – nearly half of Armenians over the age of 15 smoke – Kaprelian and I would camp out for work: he was writing economic reports for his government while I was working remotely on my studies at Toronto’s Ryerson University.
We hired Abu again the next day to drive us to Martuni, the easternmost village Armenia retained under the peace deal and just 10 kilometres from the Azerbaijan border. We took the long way there – another difficult and dangerous route away from Russian outposts and into areas where Azeris had frequently ambushed cars during the war. Artsakh’s countryside is visibly poorer than Armenia. Many buildings still show damage from the last war in the 1990s.
As Abu hadn’t been to Martuni since the war began, we paid a visit to his sister and her family. All the windows in her house had just been replaced after being blown out from the shelling, a common result of artillery attacks. Down the street we saw a cratered-out home that had suffered a direct hit. An excavator was needed to find the body of their neighbour.
Abu’s sister invited us inside for lunch, which again consisted of homemade vodka and assorted Armenian delicacies. The stoicism of the villagers was impressive given the circumstances. Despite the travails of living in a war zone, they remained cheerful and extended a gracious hospitality. I was far from home and in a foreign land, but Abu’s sister’s impeccable generosity made me feel quite comfortable. We drove back to Stepanakert with a gift bottle of homemade wine.
The return trip to Armenia through the Lachin Corridor proved anything but hospitable. We left Stepanakert with clear skies and fine driving conditions, mainly because the mountain city is often above the clouds. But just south of Shushi in the No Man’s Zone, a nondescript van parked at the side of the road pulled out as we passed and began trailing us. There was no reason for it to be parked along this road, and no explanation for why it would be following us. Our driver – the same experienced driver who’d brought us into Artsakh – said they “looked like Turks,” and hit the gas. The other vehicle gained speed as well and continued to tail us a few car-lengths behind.
Luckily, we were just a couple kilometres from a Russian checkpoint. As we approached, the van backed off. Our driver pulled up and told the guard what had happened, demanding he question the driver and prevent any Turks or Azeris from entering Armenia. From behind us, I could see the van approach the checkpoint with its hazard lights flashing and the peacekeeper stepping assertively into the road to confront it. I don’t know what happened next: we took advantage of the extra time and space to get the hell out of there.
Given that we were so close to a Russian checkpoint, a planned attack seems unlikely. But our mysterious followers certainly wanted to announce their presence, and in a decidedly unfriendly manner. The ceasefire agreement requires Azerbaijan to provide safe passageway for Armenians to and from Artsakh through the Lachin Corridor. Perhaps the goal of our followers was to discourage anyone from making the trip regardless of what the peace deal might say.
If successful, such tactics could slowly cut off Artsakh from the rest of Armenia since the survival of what remains of Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh now depends entirely on this one dangerous overland route. A new road has been promised by the peace deal, but it could take years to carve out through the mountainous terrain. After we lost our tail, a heavy snowstorm soon descended and our driver slowed to a crawl, perhaps 20km/h, has he negotiated the tricky curves along cliff-edged roads. By the time we passed the final checkpoint and arrived in the Armenian town of Goris, it felt as if a large weight had been lifted from my shoulders.
By the time you read this, I will be back in Armenia: observing the recovery efforts and monitoring the on-going machinations between Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Russia. With the peace deal already showing signs of deterioration and Azerbaijan recently conducting joint military drills with Turkey, it seems certain this won’t be the final clash over Nagorno-Karabakh.
For now, Armenia – a tiny country that once constituted a mighty kingdom – is at a decided disadvantage. But if there is a silver lining for Armenians at home and abroad, it’s that the recent defeat appears to have inspired a new sense of purpose and civic duty in this fragile country as it prepares for the struggles that lie ahead.
Fin dePencier is a journalist currently on a two-month assignment in Armenia for The Armenian Report. He can be followed on Instagram and Twitter @finlookedintoit