This is not a story about war. This is the story of what happens after the bullets, missiles, bombs and drones no longer fly through the autumn air. When everything is silent. When the defeat is so profound and the affliction so deep that you bleed out into rivers of shock and sorrow and disbelief.
* * *
We’re on the winding Vardenis-Martakert road. It’s November 12, 2020. Two days after the signing of the trilateral statement that ended the 44-day war. We’re on our way to the ancient Armenian monastery of Dadivank in Karvachar, one of the districts that will be handed over to Azerbaijan in a few days. At least that is what we’ve been told.
“I have never been to Dadivank. I need to go,” I had told my colleague, Roubina Margossian. “Let’s go then,” she said, although she herself is exhausted in every way possible.
We ask our friend Eric Grigorian to come with us. An award-winning photojournalist, he has been with us throughout the harrowing weeks of war. He has captured haunting images of the dead and dying soldiers, of homes and neighborhoods ruined, of women sheltering in bunkers refusing to leave behind their men on the frontlines, offering tea to all those who descend into their darkness.
* * *
We left Yerevan in the morning and headed north to cross into Artsakh via the highway. Completed only three years earlier, this road served as a second lifeline between Armenia and Artsakh. It was made possible thanks to the donations of Armenians from around the world and the governments of the two Armenian republics. With the impending handover, the irony is not lost on us.
We skirt around the shores of Lake Sevan, heading toward Vardenis, and then cross into Karvachar. The road is smooth, winding. Lush forests on either side, the sunlight magnificent as it plays off the colorful leaves of deep autumn. We pass a group of men cutting down trees with axes and chainsaws. My heart sinks. We think it’s a last desperate act of rage, of taking something with them or destroying what they will be forced to abandon, along with their homes and livelihoods.
This is what post-war defeat looks like, I think to myself.
But then we pass another group. And then another. For long stretches, all we hear are the sounds of the chainsaws cutting into trees, large and small. We stop to talk to them and realize these are not the residents of the region. These are men from Armenia who, in the midst of the chaos, have come to raze the forests.
Who does this?
We arrive at Dadivank Monastery. Built in the 9th-12th centuries, it consists of the Cathedral of St. Mary, a chapel and several other buildings. It is perched on the side of a mountain, overlooking a deep valley.
Pilgrims, young and old, from Yerevan and other parts of Armenia have come to see the monastery one last time before it is handed over to Azerbaijani control. I walk around the grounds in a daze. There are journalists from all over the world. I see a few that I know. They look at me with pity in their eyes. It infuriates me. They will return to their countries and “catch” the next story, while we are left gasping for the air that has been ripped from our lungs. But at least they had shown up.
There are small groups of soldiers and volunteer fighters, still in uniform, who have come to the church to light candles and say a final prayer before they return to their families and homes in Armenia.
I feel like I’m walking in circles and figure eights. I go inside the church. There’s a baptism taking place. I don’t know who they are, but I stand in the cool darkness. I listen to the priest's voice, but I don’t hear any of it. They start to sing Hayr Mer, the Lord’s Prayer. I leave and walk out into the sunlight. I move around aimlessly and then come back inside. I don’t know what I’m looking for. I search the faces of the soldiers in earnest. And then I realize the cause of my restlessness. Maybe I will see my son-in-law. He’s been on the front for weeks. He must be making his way back to Armenia, now that the war has ended. I want to see him, tell him how proud I am of him. But most of all, I want him to come home to his wife, his sons… I believe he will appear on the slopes of this mountain that this ancient monastery embraces. But he doesn’t.
The priest has come out of the chapel and is now talking to people that have formed a circle around him. He says they will stay till the end. The stone crosses, thousands of years old, are still here. But they will be removed in a few hours to ensure their survival. As I hear the priest speaking, behind him a plume of smoke is rising from the valley below. I walk toward the edge of the cliff to try and get a better look. I see Roubina and Eric running further down. I catch up to them and there before us, we see it. A house is burning. We run to the car. I slide into the driver’s seat so that Eric and Roubina can capture the images. I drive like a mad woman down the hill, and find the road leading to the burning home. There are other reporters there already. The young man of the house says that they won’t leave anything to the enemy. Two women standing by are weeping quietly. An elderly man sits in front of the burning home, refusing to move.
Roubina is walking around the burning structure. I think she is about to be engulfed in its flames. The sound of crackling wood is unnerving. Dark smoke is billowing and mixing in with the clouds. The beams of the house start collapsing.
There is nothing to be done. Absolutely nothing. As we drive out of the valley to get back on the highway, we see another abandoned home. The front yard is scattered with the bodies of slaughtered animals. My stomach turns. Even the horse has not been spared.
We continue our journey to Stepanakert in silence.
The weather turns. It starts to rain and a heavy mist descends. Our colleague Heghine from Yerevan calls. She has been trying to make reservations for us. She tells us that she can’t get through to any of the hotels. “I’m sorry, Maria jan, you’ll have to figure it out once you get to Stepanakert,” she says.
By the time we drive into the capital, it’s dark and still raining. I am behind the wheel of Eric’s car. I can barely see where I’m going. There are no street lights. The apartment buildings are dark. It’s as though we’re driving into an abandoned movie set. I lose all sense of direction. Roubina and Eric, who have been in Artsakh several times during the war, guide me. They tell me where to turn, what to look for. We discuss possibilities for accommodation. I suggest we go straight to Armenia Hotel. Not normally the choice we would make, because it’s one of the more expensive hotels. I turn to Roubina and say, “Whatever the cost, it’s probably the safest bet at this point.” She agrees. In retrospect, our naivety is astounding.
We park the car in front of the hotel and get out. We stretch our legs. After hours of driving, we’re hungry and need to use the bathroom. We walk in through the doors of the hotel. There is electricity, but it's very dim inside. The hotel is working off a generator. There’s no one at the reception desk. People are milling about, but nothing makes sense to me. There is a group of men, silent, somber, slumped in chairs in the lobby. They haven’t shaved for days. There’s a heaviness in the way they are sitting. A young man in a military uniform comes in. He has a long dark beard, a bandana on his head and an AK-47 strapped to his back. He looks at us and walks away. The elevators aren’t working, and we see people coming down the stairs with flashlights. We try to find someone, an employee, anyone who can tell us if they have a room at the hotel.
Confused, we decide to use the restroom first and then figure it out. We have to walk through the hotel’s restaurant to get to the washrooms. It’s packed full of people. There are foreign journalists who have pulled several tables together in the center of the room, working on their computers. Once in a while, they look up to see what’s going on and then return to their writing. I hear Western Armenian being spoken from a far corner of the room. And then English and what I catch as German. More groups of huddled men smoking silently, a hollowness in their eyes.
The door to the women’s bathroom is open. The lights are on. There are dirty dishes and cups and utensils on the counters, in the sinks, on the floors. The garbage bin is overflowing. The stalls are open, but it seems there hasn’t been water for days. The toilets are overflowing with human excrement. I am stunned. We walk to the men’s bathroom. The situation is even worse. I can’t speak.
This is what defeat looks like.
We walk out and make our way through the restaurant back to the lobby. We are told there are no rooms. There is no staff in fact. They were evacuated days ago, and this patchwork of people and characters have taken over the hotel.
We walk out into the pitch black night. I can feel my body begin to tremble. We get back in the car and drive down the street to Vallex Hotel. We’ve been told it might be open.
Roubina and I get out and walk into the lobby. Eric waits for us in the car. We see two men sitting on some couches in the far corner of the lobby. One of them is opening a can of preserved meat. The other is methodically cutting into a large loaf of dry bread with a pocket knife. They glance at us, disinterested, and continue their labor. I ask if they have any rooms available. One of the men waves me off. He says there are no rooms, no staff, the building is running on generators and by tomorrow morning there will be no electricity.
“Please, we have nowhere to go,” I say, not recognizing my own voice. “Might you have something for us?”
There’s a young man standing in front of the reception desk. The older man, finally taking pity on us, instructs him to take whatever keys they have left and see if there’s a room for us. Relieved, we follow him to the adjoining building. As we enter, the smell of smoke and dirt hits us. We quietly climb the stairs to the second floor. The young man explains that the staff have left. People have come and stayed in the rooms, and no one has cleaned after them. Resigned to the idea that it was either a dirty room or sleeping in our car, we follow him. Suddenly, I see a closet full of clean linens. Joyous, I tell him to just help us find two rooms, we’ll change the sheets. After several attempts, we find two semi-decent rooms. We bring in the linens and start changing the sheets. I then walk into the bathroom. I am forced to go back to the linen closet to look for cleaning products.
Our hunger reminds us we should go in search of something to eat. Why had we not come better prepared? Roubina and Eric know of a small supermarket which was open during the war. We drive through the dark, wet streets of Stepanakert. In the distance, we can see the lights of the supermarket. Thank goodness. We walk in and find the store’s shelves mostly empty. There’s no bread. We start walking through the aisles, looking for something edible, something other than rice or pasta. We find a jar of eggplant spread and some packaged Chinese noodles. I grab some rice crackers. Roubina walks behind a nearly empty refrigerated counter after she spots a piece of Lori cheese and quickly grabs it. We pay and go back to the hotel.
As we set up our humble dinner table in the hotel room, I remember that I had seen some beer in the linen closet. I go and get a few bottles. Eric opens them, and we drink the warm beer like there’s no tomorrow.
But tomorrow does come.
The following morning, we wake up and thankfully the generators are still working. We decide to drive as close to Shushi as we can. We know the city was lost, but we have taken the road from Stepanakert to this fortress town so many times before. It feels unnatural not to try. We drive until we reach a fork in the road where we must turn right to head up the mountain. There’s a heavily fortified road block being manned by Russian peacekeepers and Armenian servicemen. Roubina and Eric get out of the car to talk to the peacekeepers. I sit in the car and watch them talk. I’m assuming we’ll be told to turn back and return to Stepanakert. The minutes tick by and finally they return to the car.
“Well, clearly we can’t go to Shushi,” Roubina says. “But they said they can’t stop us from going to Karmir Shuka.”
“Then what are we waiting for? Let’s go.”
We move past the roadblock and start driving toward the village of Karmir Shuka.
Shosh and Karmir Shuka
We must first pass through the village of Shosh. During the war, we had been told many times that heated battles were taking place here. As we drive along the road, we see the outline of Shushi across the valley to our right. We see the fortress, several buildings and… a flag of Azerbaijan fluttering in the wind. I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach. We stop the car to collect ourselves. It’s almost impossible to understand what has been lost. We take some pictures and continue our journey.
Along the side of the road, we come across several Armenian soldiers huddled around a fire with their belongings scattered around them. We stop the car and get out. The weather has turned, and a fine mist has covered everything. We are enveloped by a bitter cold, the kind that makes your bones ache. What are they even doing on the side of the road? They explain that they’ve been stationed here and are now waiting for replacements so that they can return home. The Azerbaijanis are a few hundred feet away, down in the valley. All of Artsakh is now a front line, one of them says. A small van stops and another soldier gets out and starts unloading loaves of bread, vacuum-packed meat, cans of food and several cartons of cigarettes. The soldiers invite us to eat with them. We gratefully decline.
We drive into Karmir Shuka. It’s abandoned, but we see a small group of men in front of a store with broken windows. We know that pitched battles took place here as well. Most of the homes on the main street of the village have been damaged. We get out of the car and speak to the men. We want to know where their families are, will they return to their native village? They tell us they’ve returned to salvage what they can. There is no electricity or water. One man says that their house had been destroyed during the First Nagorno-Karabakh War and his father had rebuilt it. Now the home is damaged again, and this time around he will rebuild it. But there’s uncertainty and anxiety in their voices. We are now a frontline village, one of the men says. Another young man tells us he’s come to take some of their belongings back to Yerevan, where his wife and children are sheltering. He invites us in and, although he has lost so much, he insists on giving us dried fruits and shrup, a molasses drink. We try to decline the offerings, but he insists.
We drive along the abandoned main road of the village until we come upon a sign that reads Amaras. Up ahead, there are more Russian peacekeepers. Roubina walks toward them and asks if we can continue our journey. She’s told that they cannot stop us from driving to the ancient monastery.
We drive through abandoned homes and fields and the road starts climbing and winding its way up a mountain. There’s an eerie silence and, for the first time, I sense fear creeping up my spine. We pass an open stretch of grass. There are scattered munitions, military crates, boots strewn about. The debris of war, frozen in time. After driving for about an hour, we see the monastery. We stop the car and, just as we’re getting out, a group of soldiers approach us. They ask what we’re doing there. We tell them we’re journalists, that we would like to enter the monastery. They tell us it isn’t safe and instruct us to park the car near the fortress walls of the complex, to protect it from Azerbaijani fire. At this point in time, borders are still not clear. We’re told Azerbaijani forces are only a few hundred meters away. As we’re speaking to the soldiers, we hear a distant rumbling. Sounds like an explosion. The soldiers look at us unfazed.
One of them calls their commanding officer, who magically appears from the side of the fortress. We tell him who we are and he invites us to come inside the grounds of the monastery. The large wooden doors of the fortress have been sealed. He guides us along one wall of the fortress until we come upon a large hole that has been bored opened. I stand there stupefied, again. He tells us we have to climb through the hole to get in. I take a deep breath and climb up and then through the hole. Several soldiers quickly extend their hands to keep me from falling. As I stand up, I find myself in a cool, dark room. From there, we enter the courtyard and it feels as though we’ve fallen through a rabbit hole. There’s a serenity here. Soldiers are sitting on a bench under a large tree, their weapons lying idle by their sides. They’re from different regions of Artsakh and Armenia. They’re waiting for their orders to return or stay. Everything is uncertain. The commanding officer, a history teacher in peacetime, gives us a tour of the monastery. We walk into the large chapel and light candles. We are no longer journalists. We are witnesses.
After spending about an hour walking around the grounds, taking pictures with the soldiers, we decide it’s time to leave. We climb back out through the hole. We’re accompanied by several of the soldiers. We promise to send them the pictures we’ve taken. The commanding officer then asks Roubina to follow him. He tells Eric and I to stay behind. They walk around the other side of the monastery and disappear. After a few minutes, they return. Once in the car, Roubina says that he wanted to show her where a missile had fallen, unaware that she had already seen her fair share of them during the war.
Back to Stepanakert
We start the journey back to Stepanakert, leaving behind the frontier monastery and its protectors. By the time we arrive, it is dark and silent. Again. Again the hunger. Roubina and Eric suggest we try going to a restaurant owned by Hovig Esmerian, a Syrian-Armenian who had moved to Artsakh well before the war. His small restaurant had been open throughout the hostilities. Maybe he’s still here while everyone else has left. He was, and he even had electricity. We walk in and find a group of reporters who have managed to find bread and some cold cuts. They invite us to join them. For the next two hours, others started arriving. Friends, colleagues, reporters… Areg Balayan and Karen Avetisyan walk in. Their embraces are warm, rough, hard, desperate. Angela Frangyan, who has been there from the very first days of the war, is there. She has changed. Mark Grigoryan comes a while later. Hovig asks people to help him bring the tables and chairs out onto the sidewalk. He demands that we all sit as they serve what little food they had to share. He wires some fairy lights and then turns them on. We are joyful. “Artsakh will live again!” he bellows. After 44 days of darkness, when residents wouldn’t turn their lights on even when there was electricity for fear of being targeted, this small act was deeply symbolic.
By the end of the evening, however, I’m nauseous. I feel like the world is spinning out of control. We return to the hotel. That night, I dream only of darkness.
The next morning, I drag myself out of bed. Just as I’m about to go to wash my face, the electricity shuts off. The generators are done. We gather our belongings and go to the front desk to pay for the rooms. There is no one around. We place the key cards on the counter and leave.
We drive back to Armenia Hotel to see what is going on. When we arrive, we see hundreds of people gathered in front of the President’s office. I see Edik Baghdasaryan, the editor at Hetq. He is still wearing his bullet-proof vest, although the guns are now silent. He’s aged a decade. His family is from Karin Tak, a village just south of Shushi that has also been lost to the Azerbaijanis. I ask him who these people are. He says they’re parents, mostly fathers, who have come from Armenia searching for their sons. Last night, they were taken to the morgue and told to go and look among the bodies to see if their sons might be there. Edik is livid. “What should I do?” he asks angrily. I can’t absorb his anger. There’s no more room left in me.
We drive around the city in daylight. It looks normal until you come upon a neighborhood that has been shelled. It’s strange how the war seems worse when you’re far away. We head north to Martakert to start our journey home.
Back to Dadivank, One Last Time
On our way back to Yerevan, we stop again at Dadivank. As we drive up to the monastery, there are rows of Russian tanks at the entrance. Russian peacekeepers stand guard. It’s November 14. A day before Karvachar is supposed to be handed over to Azerbaijan. At the time, we didn’t know that this deadline would be extended for another 10 days. Neither did the residents of the region.
There are many more people here this time. There’s a truck in the middle of the grounds. Young men and women are loading everything they can from the church—candle holders, pews, crosses. The bells of the church have been removed and placed on a large boulder. The stone crosses are no longer there. They’ve already been removed and sent to Armenia. Again, I start wandering around aimlessly. We need to go, but leaving feels like we’re abandoning this piece of our history and heritage. My thoughts keep taking me back to Western Armenia, to a trip we had taken 17 years earlier. Ani, the city of 1001 churches, Kars, the church of Aghtamar on Lake Van, Mush, Erzerum and all the history and heritage that had been lost over a century ago. And now, I had to bear witness to yet another loss in my lifetime. It is too much to bear. So I keep walking in circles…
After several hours, we get back on the road to take the Vardenis-Martakert highway back to Armenia. As we head down the mountain, I look back one final time and try to seal the image in my memory. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a chance to see Dadivank again in my lifetime…
The Exile Caravan
As we were about to turn on to the highway, we come upon a roadblock. We’re told that more Russian peacekeeping forces are heading into the region and are directed to take the old mountain road back to Armenia. We turn left and embark on the beginning of what would be a hellish 14-hour drive.
The condition of the road is terrible. As we drive, we see several homes burning. We try not to look, but there is no escape from the haunting reality of people taking what they can and setting fire to their homes. At first, the traffic moves normally. We see a brand new home along the river that is being dismantled by a small group of men. They are removing the windows, the doors, the roof, every beam is being removed and hauled onto a truck. We stop to talk to the men. One of them tells us that they had completed the house right before the start of the war. Where will they rebuild it, I wonder.
As we drive, we see cars, large and small, carrying everything from suitcases to furniture. Trucks full of the lives and belongings of people who will now be homeless. More trucks carrying cattle. Others are walking with their herds of sheep to try and cross into Armenia on foot. We keep moving and then the traffic grinds to a halt. It is now almost 7 p.m. We are in the middle of a small village. I think it’s probably a temporary thing. I tell Eric and Roubina that I’m going to walk up ahead to see what the commotion is about. It’s probably a bunch of cars caught in an intersection and no one is yielding. My naivety continues to be astounding. I confidently start walking. A few meters, then a dozen, then a hundred… there is no end. I return to the car and get in and wait.
We’re standing alongside a large truck. The driver doesn’t turn off the engine and the fumes from the exhaust are pouring into our car. We can’t move an inch. We begin to feel light-headed as darkness descends. Homes on both sides of the road begin to burn. Eric gets out of the car to go and take photos. I get nervous… What if the traffic starts to move? Our cell phone signals are weak, and we barely have any coverage. In retrospect, there was no need to worry. We would be stuck like this for the next several hours. I finally get a signal and call my husband to tell him not to wait up. In fact, I don’t think we’ll make it out of here till morning. Stuck there in the darkness, with most of the homes along the road burning, I feel like I’m in a dystopian landscape. If the wind shifts, the fires could spread to the cars stranded on the road.
Our friend Sara Anjargolian calls from Yerevan. We tell her we’ve been stuck in this massive traffic jam for hours. We’re not even sure where we are. She makes some calls and tells us it’s just an astronomical volume of cars but has been told that it has started moving. We try to remain hopeful.
Hope, however, is elusive. I’ve turned the engine off to save gas, Roubina is beside me. In the silence, we hear Eric chewing on something. We’re hungry and tired. Eric has found a package of Chinese noodles and has started eating it raw. The crunching noise pushes us over the edge. We ask him to stop.
The traffic begins to move at one point. I begin to drive aggressively to try and get as much ahead as possible, because I fear it might come back to a grinding halt. We drive and stop like this for another several hours. At some point, we reach the top of a mountain. We are stopped by police officers or border guards or soldiers—I’m not sure who they were exactly. We are told to pull over to the side of the road. Hundreds if not thousands of cars pull over. We turn off the engine and the lights. The silence is unbearable. The last thing I remember is closing my eyes.
I am startled by the sounds of engines. We’re about to move! I don’t know how long we’ve been asleep, but we’re thrilled to be moving. I follow the cars ahead of me and drive for about a hundred meters and then turn right. And there in that dark, dark night, we see the bright white lights of thousands of cars that have made a zigzag pattern all the way to the top of the mountain. It is a modern day exodus, the proportions of which we will never fully comprehend. It was breathtaking and heart wrenching.
We slowly inch up the mountain. We look back and see a sea of lights following us. The gravel road is difficult to navigate up the steep mountain. There are sharp turns and the tires are slipping. The car is as exhausted as we are. We finally reach the top of the mountain. Large trucks are stuck on the final turn. I try to find a way to snake through. Some men are out of their cars, helping other drivers make that last final damn turn. My adrenaline kicks in, and I place my foot heavily on the accelerator and zigzag through the stuck cars. One man yells, “Apper [brother], go right!” I follow his instructions. He looks inside and says, “Oh, it isn’t an apper, it’s a kyurik [sister].” We smile as I barely make the turn and drive and drive and drive.
When I get home, I hug my family tight, and I weep for all those mothers who no longer will be able to.