The Story of Nagorno-Karabakh Is Incomplete

September 7, 2021
Boys play on a street next to a building destroyed by war more than twenty years earlier on April 18, 2015 in Shushi, Nagorno-Karabakh. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

Early in Ghosts of Karabakh, a documentary about the 2020 Karabakh War, journalist Jake Hanrahan interviews a young Armenian soldier stationed at the frontline. A blasted-out tank and bare winter mountains serve as backdrop while Hanrahan asks the soldier whether he believes a ceasefire with the Azerbaijani army will last. “The war isn’t over yet,” the young man replies. “There’s a big possibility that the enemy won’t stop until they’ve taken over all of [Nagorno-Karabakh] and even Armenia.” Hanrahan’s film moves through territories recently destroyed by war and invites locals including veterans, nurses, refugees, and widows to tell their stories before the camera. This isn’t the full story of Nagorno-Karabakh, but it’s a fair attempt to highlight the experience of those who were on the ground for some of the worst fighting the region has seen in decades.

For the documentary, Hanrahan and his team, who make up the independent platform Popular Front, reported only from the Armenian side; Azerbaijan denied them entry. The Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, too, tried to control the team’s access to fixers and locations, so they relied on cooperative locals to travel to shooting locations. When I asked Hanrahan how he approached reporting without access to both sides, he told me context was key. “The way of balancing it was just to go into detail,” he said. During the war, “a lot of the reporting was accurate, maybe in terms of facts, but facts without context are useless.”

Nagorno-Karabakh is a mountainous enclave in the Caucasus region that is claimed by Azerbaijan but has been inhabited and governed by Armenians. The disputed territory has seen several wars and ethnic cleansing committed by both sides. The most recent fighting began last September and ended with an Azerbaijani victory and ceasefire in November. During that war, the self-determined Artsakh Republic—where Karabakh’s ethnically Armenian population of about 150,000 live—was supported by Armenia. Azerbaijan, meanwhile, received military aid from Turkey. The conflict displaced thousands of Armenians and left a significant portion of Nagorno-Karabakh under Baku’s control. Today, tensions along borders remain high, and skirmishes are frequent. Azerbaijan is still holding dozens of Armenian prisoners of war.

I can attest to this recent war’s devastating impact: I am an Armenian living in Yerevan, and my relatives and friends have served at the frontlines. In forty-four days, more Armenian soldiers were killed than American soldiers during the entire twenty-year invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. For Armenia and Artsakh, whose combined population is just three million, that death toll is equivalent to a lost generation.

During the war, when I looked for coverage of what was happening in the international press, I found mostly misunderstanding or indifference. Through Twitter, I discovered Popular Front, as well as reports from a handful of independent journalists who visited the frontline under great personal risk to collect firsthand experiences of the war. Their work was and is the exception. The international press remained mostly uninterested. As thousands died in a conflict involving major players—Turkey, Russia, France, and the United States—Western news outlets ignored it or engaged in lazy, under-researched storytelling. When Azerbaijan waged an unprecedented drone war against Nagorno-Karabakh, the media silence persisted. The ongoing POW crisis barely appears in the international press. 

In Armenia, we relate to the international press the way one relates to a ghosting love interest. You may not care about us, but we hang on your every word. Global headlines register as decrees because they reflect the attitudes of larger countries that decide our fate. Two days before Azerbaijan launched its attack on Nagorno-Karabakh, Americans within Armenia received a US Embassy alert advising them not to travel to the region. It seems world powers knew what was coming before the first shell hit. The local Armenian press, especially independent and investigative reporting, is limited. During the war, news outlets mostly reiterated statements from the government, which meant that the war’s devastating reality was hidden from Armenians until the moment of capitulation.   

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Because there was so little coverage of the war, every story broaching the topic felt monumental. Armenians fervently collected foreign press articles and shared them on social media. Our collector’s enthusiasm, however, soon gave way to frustration because much of the reporting painted an incomplete picture. Major outlets like the Financial Times made embarrassing errors, publishing photos showing Artsakh’s capital, Stepanakert, alongside headlines about Azerbaijani cities. Many reports hesitated to identify an instigator to the conflict, employing passive voice to say that fighting had merely “erupted.” And most of the press failed to point out the power imbalances between the two sides: Azerbaijan is militarily superior, has roughly three times the population of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia combined, and was backed by Turkey. 

In Armenia, we relate to the international press the way one relates to a ghosting love interest.

The majority of coverage simplified the conflict’s complicated history, tracing it only as far back as the nineties. The New York Times described Nagorno-Karabakh as conquered land, while the Associated Press emphasized the presence of Armenian troops in the region without mentioning that Armenians have lived there for centuries, alongside Azerbaijanis. Nagorno-Karabakh’s population was 94 percent Armenian when the Soviets made it a semi-autonomous part of Azerbaijan in 1923, and roughly 75 percent Armenian when it declared independence in 1991. This act of self-determination led to violence, which turned to war. A ceasefire ended fighting in 1994, when Armenian forces gained control and displaced hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis from districts bordering Nagorno-Karabakh. That territorial gain was aggressive. Still, implying Armenians are occupiers in the region is a willful ignorance of history.

For Armenians, the misframed coverage felt personal, as if the world was turning its back. Reporters on the ground, too, noticed errors of omission. “It really seemed as though some journalists hit the Nagorno-Karabakh Wikipedia page before churning out their pieces,” Lindsey Snell, an independent reporter, wrote to me in an email. Peter Liakhov, an editor of the independent Tbilisi-based news platform, OC Media, noticed a pattern of reporting that defined the conflict through imported frameworks. “It takes work to understand what the context is for the conflict geopolitically, nationally,” he said. “They just slot in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorno-Karabakh based on preconceptions… and that’s deeply irresponsible. I think it belies a great lack of respect for what’s actually happening.”

Some of the misunderstanding is surely also due to practical limitations. Covering Nagorno-Karabakh is difficult and dangerous. Azerbaijan and Turkey rank 167 and 153, respectively, on the World Press Freedom Index. Both regimes jail journalists who are critical of their governments. Many reporters who travel to Nagorno-Karabakh find themselves in the line of fire. They spend nights in bomb shelters or face threats from propagandists on social media. For some outlets, the Karabakh conflict is just too remote and too marginal to justify the resources needed to cover it. In its pitching guidelines, Foreign Policy actually names Nagorno-Karabakh as a topic they don’t want to hear about unless it’s “relevant or worth reading by someone in, say, Antananarivo…” 

This method of story selection is reductive at best. In a globalized world, everyone is complicit. If you’re an American citizen, your tax dollars have directly funded Azerbaijan with military aid. If you’re European, your elected officials have been bought by a multi-billion-dollar laundromat set up by Azerbaijan’s ruling elite. If you’re British, your government has lobbied to open mines in territories newly taken by Azerbaijan, and your economy is bolstered by UK companies that are set to develop Shushi, a city Armenians lost during the war, and BP, which is deeply invested in Azerbaijani oil. From a less cynical perspective, the sheer scale of human suffering and the loss of democracy in Karabakh should be enough to garner interest. As Jake Hanrahan puts it: “For me, when kids are dying, it’s important to report it no matter where it is.”

Journalism without context always has consequences. The stakes are especially high with Nagorno-Karabakh, where the erasure of a people’s history is beginning to align with physical erasure. Perhaps the most important context left out of virtually all coverage of the war and that of the POW crisis is the violent state rhetoric of Turkey and Azerbaijan. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, uses phrases such as “remnants of the sword,” which refers to Armenian and other non-Muslim survivors of twentieth-century Ottoman persecution. At a meeting with a German municipal delegation, Hajibala Abutalybov, who was the mayor of Baku for seventeen years and a deputy prime minister until 2019, said: “Our goal is the complete elimination of Armenians. You, Nazis, already eliminated the Jews in the 1930s and 40s, right? You should be able to understand us.” And of course, both states continue to deny the Armenian Genocide, in which Ottoman Turks massacred at least 1.5 million Armenians.

Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan, promotes a systemic Armenophobia that has acquired new fascistic forms in the past year. In April, Aliyev opened a victory park to celebrate Azerbaijan’s gains in Karabakh. The park displays helmets of dead Armenian soldiers and exhibits with mannequins that show Armenians in humiliating poses. Aliyev has said Armenians are being driven out of Karabakh “like dogs.” And he often makes claims on the territory of nearly half the Armenian Republic. Ongoing altercations along Armenia’s borders indicate that these aren’t empty threats.

Any coverage of Nagorno-Karabakh that doesn’t address Erdogan’s and Aliyev’s dangerous rhetoric tacitly endorses it. One month into the recent war, Genocide Watch declared that Azerbaijan’s persecution of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenians had become a genocide emergency. A few days after that report’s release, the New York Times published an article, written by its Istanbul bureau chief, that focused on the shelling of Terter, an Azerbaijani village; it made no mention of the tens of thousands of Armenians who’d fled Nagorno-Karabakh due to nonstop bombardment of major towns and cities.

In painful moments, a nation, like an individual, wants to be seen. While Armenians grapple with the aftermath of war, the loss of life and right to ancestral lands, we turn to the outside, hoping our story might be recognized and told. Yet the international press believes a story is only valuable if it serves market interests or is happening in the more “important” parts of the world. This attitude applies a hierarchy to suffering and inevitably warps the historical record—a history that, for Armenians, has never been set straight.

Lilit Markosian is a writer and journalist based in Yerevan. She completed her undergraduate degree in creative writing at Columbia University.