Paradise Lost in Nagorno-Karabakh

An armed conflict between Azerbaijan and the Republic of Artsakh.
Words by
© Valery Melnikov

In the autumn of 2020, an armed conflict sparked between Azerbaijan and the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Russian photojournalist Valery Melnikov visited Nagorno-Karabakh twice, in October and November-December 2020, spending a total of six weeks in Karabakh. He made a heartbreaking story about the last Armenians who had to leave their territory and became the World Press Photo of the Year Nominee and the World Press Photo Story of the Year Nominee. Melnikov: “Sometimes I think our whole world is a Paradise Lost.”

Before the conflict arose again in 2020, Valery Melnikov had never been to Karabakh, but his friend talked a lot about this place as something special. They mentioned the beautiful nature and the openness of the locals. “All they said I saw and felt as soon as I arrived in Karabakh. The religious nature of the local residents, ethnic Armenians, attracted attention. Christian faith permeates their entire life; this feeling literally hangs in the air. The contrast between the peaceful nature, the openness of the people, and the devastating consequences of the conflict overwhelmed me. I visited Nagorno-Karabakh twice – in October and November-December 2020.”

Melnikov didn't have much time to prepare for his work in Karabakh, as the conflict resumed unexpectedly and developed rapidly. “Many decisions had to be made on the spot, based on the situation, the possibility of movement and security. The greatest difficulties in the work were in the acute phase of the conflict when the fighting was conducted. After the armistice, it became much easier to work, much safer. In total, I spent six weeks in Karabakh. I met all the heroes of my photos while working in Nagorno-Karabakh. It's a series of random encounters. I witnessed the last days and hours before they left their homes.”

© Valery Melnikov
I witnessed the last days and hours before they left their homes.

© Valery Melnikov

Kalashnikov and rocket

In one photo, an older man, dressed in a battle jacket and looking stern and grim, stands in a pomegranate orchard in the yard of his home, in the village of Ukhtasar, holding a Kalashnikov assault rifle kept from the First Nagorno-Karabakh War. Melnikov says that he still has contact with his family. “Anushavan is an ethnic Armenian. I took the photo in October 2020 when the village of Ukhtasar was still under Armenian control. Later the village came under the control of Azerbaijan. His son found me recently on Facebook and wrote me a message. Anushavan is alive and well, but now he lives in Armenia.”

© Valery Melnikov

Melnikov took portraits of people but also captured silent testimonies of the short war. In one photo, taken on 10 November, the peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan came into effect. We see a rocket in the field, remaining after the shelling of the city of Martuni. “I included this photograph in my story because it combines the stark contrast between the peaceful beauty of nature and the destruction caused by people. In the photo, you see a part of the rocket. I am not a military expert, and I cannot talk about who sent this missile. Residents, of course, said that these were rockets fired by Azerbaijan. The place is located near the town of Martuni. This city now remains under the control of Armenia.”

© Valery Melnikov

After the picture was taken, their children ran away and Azat, his wife with a small child, remained in front of me.

Crying and two cats

The visual story contains some very emotional pictures, like the one with Azat Gevorkyan and his wife Anaik, who are pictured before leaving their home in Lachin, the final district returned to Azerbaijani control. “I got to know Azat Gevorkyan's family in November 2020 before they departed from Lachin. A few days later, I found them in Armenia in a hostel for refugees. They form a large family with nine or ten children. A few minutes before they left their home, I decided to take a last-minute family photo. After the picture was taken, their children ran away and Azat, his wife with a small child, remained in front of me. This dramatic scene just happened, and I just took a few shots and spent a lot of time with them before and after. I know that later Azat returned to Lachin, alone or with his family, I do not know.”

© Valery Melnikov

The same emotional punch comes from another heart-breaking photograph of an old lady who cries at the door of her home in the village of Nerkin Sus. “This is Hasmik Abovyan, 69 years old. She lives with her disabled husband near the town of Lachin. When I arrived there, there was no one but them. All the other people had left. After we met, I was invited into the house. After a while, when we were saying goodbye, Hasmik cried while standing at the door of her house, and there were cats nearby. There were just a lot of cats in Hasmik's house.”

© Valery Melnikov

Chronicler and observer

Melnikov did a lot of reportage on conflicts like the Chechen war and the conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia. Why did he focus on the Armenians in this conflict? “I decided to cover this conflict in Artsakh because I understood that the main events and the main drama would unfold there. There was some kind of intuitive feeling of impending disaster. In addition, from the very beginning, it was clear that Azerbaijan, with the support of Turkey, has a huge military potential compared to Armenia.”

© Valery Melnikov

As a photographer, Valery Melnikov does not want to be a judge but rather a chronicler and an outside observer. “I think there are enough guilty parties in this war on each side. Some Armenians set fire to their houses because they did not want the Azerbaijanis to get their houses. At the same time, I saw many Armenians who, on the contrary, built their houses intact. This is a dramatic and difficult page in this war. You need to understand that the Armenians left Karabakh, most likely forever. For the Armenians of Artsakh, this situation means pain, an uncertain future, abandoned homes, collective and personal trauma. My empathy is completely readable. No attempt is seen to find mitigation for what is going on.  There are two sides to the conflict, and no photographer wants to become the enemy of an entire nation, especially at a time when this nation is waging war.”

© Valery Melnikov

The photojournalist mentioned that the most significant difficulties in the work were in the acute phase of the conflict when the fighting was conducted. “After the armistice, it became much easier to work and also much safer. The Armenians were rather friendly and hospitable, especially towards the Russians, because our countries are like old neighbours and many Armenians have families and friends in Russia.”

© Valery Melnikov

Modern wars
For Valery Melnikov, covering the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh was not the first experience of working in dire situations. “Before that, I had been documenting the humanitarian consequences of the military conflict in the south-east of Ukraine, in the Donbas, for more than five years. This was the longest experience of working in the conflict zone. It had a great influence on me and my understanding of the essence of modern wars. Similar conflicts in the territories of the former USSR have much in common, although there are enough differences. In all cases, we see armed clashes between the opposing sides and the suffering of ordinary civilians – this is the similarity. The difference is in the reasons for the confrontation and the local characteristics.”

The frozen conflict of the late 20th century exploded like a dormant volcano.

Melnikov briefly explains the historical background of the recent violent clash. “The so-called perestroika initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-80s of the 20th century and the collapse of the USSR resulted in a series of territorial and ethnic conflicts throughout the former Soviet Empire, especially in the South Caucasus. For Nagorno-Karabakh, part of the Azerbaijan Union Republic, perestroika ended in a shootout. Ethnic Armenians in Azerbaijan declared their independence and won a victory during the armed conflict. Most of the territory came under their control. The Azerbaijani population was forced to leave Nagorno-Karabakh.”

In the autumn of 2020, clashes resumed between the armed forces of Azerbaijan and the armed formations of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic with the support of Armenia. “The frozen conflict of the late 20th century exploded like a dormant volcano. The clashes were the longest and bloodiest in the region since the end of the Karabakh War in 1994.”

© Valery Melnikov

Paradise Lost

What is the role of a photographer, and how does Melnikov see the meaning of his work in the context of history? “The general meaning of my work in this war and other conflicts is the humanitarian consequences for the civilian population. Azerbaijan's conquest of Artsakh is commonly seen today in the light of the restoration of justice. Azerbaijan received what it allegedly had a legal right to. However, the main price for this so-called "restoration of justice" was paid by ordinary people. Today, some are ready to dig up the deceased loved ones from the graves and take them to other places. Next time, everyone who is going to "restore justice" in that way should understand that others will pay for it, and they will pay a bitter price.”

The work of the Russian photographer is not a political statement or a search for the guilty. “The search for the perpetrators should be dealt with by international tribunals, not by photographers. My work "Paradise Lost" is primarily a series of documentary photographs about a specific historical situation. And at the same time, I was looking at it through the lens of a biblical myth. My series is about the importance and fragility of the balance of peaceful life. And about how quickly we can lose the world's harmony and how hard it is to restore it. This is the most important meaning of my work, which I want to share with people. Sometimes I think our whole world is a Paradise Lost.”

Technical info
Valery Melnikov uses a Nikon D810 and a pair of lenses, 35mm and 50mm. “My approach is dictated by the traditional technique when a photo reportage includes photos of different plans - general, medium, close-up.  Thus, there is something similar to a cinematic narrative. Since the work took place in the fall and winter, there was often fog or cloud cover, which created good conditions for shooting, emphasizing the overall atmosphere of what was happening. I understood how such light could be used, and I did not miss this opportunity. Because half of the success of a good photo depends on light, and maybe even more, sometimes it happens that the most expressive subject does not become a strong photograph precisely because there was not the right light. Light can not only make a photo beautiful but also convey the mood, atmosphere, and drama. The colour palette was dictated by the time and the year, and the features of the area. Nagorno-Karabakh is a very picturesque place. I just displayed it in the photographs.”

Valery Melnikov is a documentary photographer based in Moscow. He studied journalism in Stavropol, Russia and began his photographic career working for The North Caucasus newspaper. He was a staff photographer for Kommersant publishing house for ten years and since 2009 for international news agency Rossiya Segodnya. Melnikov’s work focuses on documenting societies' political and social life in conflict and includes coverage of the Chechen war, the conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia, the 2006 Lebanese war, the uprising of the Mali Republic and the Syrian civil war.
In 2014, he began documenting war in Eastern Ukraine. This work continues in his current ongoing project, ‘Black days of Ukraine’, about civilians who became participants of the military confrontation against their will.
Melnikov‘s work has been awarded by World Press Photo, Magnum Photography, Pictures of the Year International, Sony World Photography and LensCulture Visual Storytelling. His work has been exhibited in France, Austria, Italy, the United States, Germany, UK and Russia, among other countries. In 2020, his first book Dark Days, was published. This is an independent publication and my personal project. The book Dark Days is a documentary project about the tragic consequences of armed conflict for civilians in the South-East of Ukraine- Donbas. The project consists of three big parts that reveal different sides of this war, but each being a facet of the same tragedy.

LInk to the book Dark Days
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