Francesco Brembati is a freelance international photojournalist.
Despite a recent cease-fire between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the effects of the conflict over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh are still felt. The region had, since the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, been disputed over and eventually controlled by ethnic Armenians, but located inside the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan. After three decades of simmering tensions, fighting was reignited during the summer. On Sept. 27, pro-Armenian officials governing the region introduced martial law and total mobilization of its male population.
Authorities estimated 90,000 of 150,000 inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh fled during the war, many traveling to Armenia to shelter in hotels, schools and apartments. Now, as Armenians protest the cease-fire deal — which allows Azerbaijan to hold on to the territory — refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh are stuck in limbo. Many women are now raising children as single mothers or finding themselves facing a life full of unknowns.
Photojournalist Francesco Brembati has been reporting in Armenia in the aftermath, focusing on the women affected by the conflict. Here are a few of their stories.
Serpuhi Ghulian, 70
Ghulian, from the village of Illis in Askeran, is photographed here at Etchmiadzin Cathderal near Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, where she’s living. She has two sons who fought in the war and were wounded, but her family’s losses go deeper than that.
“This year, one of my grandsons died on the front line during the very first days of the war,” she says. “We were still in our village and we wanted to have a funeral, but his body was completely destroyed. In the end, we had to just have a symbolic funeral with an empty casket. Then we had to leave because the situation was getting too dangerous.”
Ghulian says she’s “grateful for all the help” she’s receiving in Armenia; she’s living with her daughter and grandson. “They are making us feel at home,” she says. “But we are not home, and I miss my home and the peace and the tranquility we had there. I miss my sons most of all.”
Irina Israyelyan, 37
Israyelyan is originally from Stepanakert, the de facto capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. She is now living at the Goris Hotel in Goris, Armenia.
“We are so happy and grateful for how the people from this hotel treated us, but soon I will go back to Stepanakert,” she says. “I’m afraid of going back because we are surrounded by enemies.”
Israyelyan says that an unexploded bomb fell on her house, destroying her kitchen. Her husband was a volunteer in the army but will soon return home with the rest of the family. “I’m afraid to go back,” Israyelyan says, “but I have to. I can’t just stay here.”
Anushik Movsisyan, 33
Movsisyan is pictured here with her daughters, Marta, 7, and Mery, 5. Originally from Hadrut, they are living at the Mirhav Hotel in Goris. While Movsisyan’s husband was fighting on the front lines, she, her daughters and her mother-in-law fled to Armenia, where things were safer than in Nagorno-Karabakh.
“On a typical day, the kids play on the swings or in our room with some toys that people gave to us to keep them busy,” she says. “As a mother, my responsibility is to keep an eye on them. I feel very protective of my daughters.”
Arpine Harulyunyan, 26
Harulyunyan is a programmer originally from Stepanakert. She’d been living in the city with her sister when they heard of the war on Sept. 27. Here she is, three months later, also living at the Mirhav Hotel.
“My sister and I had been living in Stepanakert while my mother still lived in our village,” Harulyunyan says. “As soon as he heard about the conflict, my older brother left to be a volunteer on the front lines, but he called us to tell us to leave the city and to travel to the village to be safer. On the 12th of October he called us again to tell us that staying there wasn’t safe either anymore and we moved to Goris.”
Harulyunyan says that her employer told her about the Mirhav Hotel, where “people could stay here and would be safe.” Her two brothers are in the military now, and she says she talks to them every day.
“Here in Goris, in this hotel, everything is good and we feel safe. But I don’t care about my safety. All I really care about is the safety of my brothers,” she says.
Venera Avetisyan, 61
Avetisyan is originally from Martowni. She is living at the Noy Hotel in Goris with her husband. Her son and grandson are in “in Karabakh helping with the emergency services,” she says, while her daughter and grandchildren are in Yerevan.
“During the day, I help to cook in the hotel, but for the rest of the time we don’t have anything to do except talk to each other about the situation,” she says. “We feel safe here in Goris, in this hotel.”
Avetisyan continues: “We are not really worried about the pandemic, only the war scares us. Most of all we miss our children. We don’t know what is going to happen now.”
Marta, pictured here with her daughter Mane, 3, is originally from Shushi. They are now living at Etchmiadzin Cathedral. Marta says she was displaced as a child in 1988, during the first conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.
“The fact that my children have to go through all this too makes me really sad,” she says. “I used to teach Russian, my husband and my brothers had their jobs, we were all living our life peacefully. Now they are on the front line, and my children and I are homeless.”
She has hope that once she goes back, she’ll be able to teach again and things will go back to normal.
As Marta puts it: “My dad and my uncles fought for our land. Even if we would be better off somewhere else and I know that by staying my sons will become soldiers and will probably fight again, it is worth it because this is our land.”