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Borderlands Under Fire

Wherever there are borders, there are stories to be told.

Borderlands exposes the world of a frozen conflict and the effects on the daily lives of the people of the frontier villages of Armenia, a tiny country in the South Caucasus.

The project explores of one of the conflicts simmering in the region, mostly unknown to the West. With the frightening potential to explode into an all-out war, it could draw in powerful countries like Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Borderlands asks us to consider the questions that arise when a powerful country attempts to impose its will on its impoverished neighbor without a declaration of war and unacknowledged by the world.

Neighboring Azerbaijan has been prosecuting an undeclared war on Armenia for twenty-five years, attempting to terrorize and depopulate its border territories under the cover of Azerbaijan's war on the ethnically Armenian Nagorno Karabakh Republic nearby.  With more than three times the population of its neighbor and a 2015 military budget of $4.8 billion, oil-rich Azerbaijan looms threateningly over Armenia.  

Even as the people of these border villages suffer violence and privation daily as a result of war, they hold fast to their homeland, preserving their language and culture as part of the world's heritage for future generations.  They do not hate the people on the other side of the border.  They do not wish them harm.  They wish only for the shooting to stop, allowing them to rebuild their lives and pursue their dreams.  But the flow of oil from Baku continues unimpeded by political or economic sanctions from Russia, the U.S., or Europe.   And, caught at the geopolitical crossroads of East and West, the people of the borderlands continue to suffer the mental, emotional, and physical devastation of war.  

Though they confront the grim reality of violence in their everyday lives, the residents are infused with hope. Their stories are suffused with determination, faith, and love, a hopeful model for a positive future, if only someone would listen.

Nara

Nara

A young woman stands by some of the bullet holes on the side of her house.  “We were sitting in our parlor having a coffee when we heard the machine guns firing at us.  Even the tufa wall didn’t save us then.  Now the rain comes through the bullet holes in the roof.”

Welcome To Our Home

Welcome To Our Home

The Mkhtaryan family was recently forced to rebuild much of their home that was destroyed by the shelling.  Open to the elements since the windows were shot out, the damage to the house was extensive.

Armen

Armen

“We would like people to know that we are being shot in our own fields.“ 

Bullets In The Bathroom

Bullets In The Bathroom

The bullet holes in this bathroom, still used by the family out of necessity, bear silent witness to the daily gunfire.   “If you ask any villager here, they could tell you stories for hours,” said the mayor, “But there is no one to listen, no one to hear us.”

Trapped

Trapped

The people of Armenia's border villages are trapped, just like the bullet fired from a nearby Azeri post into the window frame of this family's dining room. Although they must protect their ancestral lands from Azerbaijan’s colonialist ambitions, they are unable to work in the fields and factories.

Under Siege

Under Siege

The window that was shot out has been replaced, but this kindergarten music room was abandoned because it remained in the line of fire.

They Target The Kindergarten to Frighten Us

They Target The Kindergarten to Frighten Us

Watching the kindergarteners, it was difficult to think of grown men following orders to fire on four and five year olds from a nearby position. Did they think of their own children at school on that day?

Main Street, Borderlands

Main Street, Borderlands

On a typical Main Street, the residents repair damaged homes with repurposed materials.  “We don’t hate the Azeri villagers, though,” said one man, “We know they don’t want this war either.”

No Place For A Cradle

No Place For A Cradle

There are bullet holes in the remaining windows of this baby's bedroom.  The empty crib is full of broken glass. It lies under a hole made in the wall by an Azeri shell, a stark reminder of tragedy averted because the baby was up from her nap when the shooting began.

We Are The Real Border Guards

We Are The Real Border Guards

“They talk about soldiers, even walls, but we are the real border guards here,” says Knareg.  “The chickens got out and my son was bringing them back in and suddenly they were firing on him. But our government forbids us to return their fire.  There is no one who cares about us.”

 

Ine And Mariam

Ine And Mariam

“One day they shot into the room where Ine was playing, and I watched in horror as her toy truck was blown up.  Thank God she had just put it down, thank God it was not her.” 

Karen Looks To The Future

Karen Looks To The Future

“I have all the strength in the world to rebuild the house and work to support my family,” Karen said.  “I don’t think I will find a better life than in my village. If we could just build a wall around our home and gardens, if there was only peace we could work our farms.”

Found Objects

Found Objects

Unemployed villagers have no means to repair the homes damaged by the shelling. With creativity stimulated by necessity, they repurpose found materials. Poverty and determination combine in this house creating a beautiful modernist facade.

Davit

Davit

“Often they like to shoot at night.  It is terrifying, the bullets in the dark.  They fire for a good while, then they stop, suddenly, just like they started.” 

 

Unemployed

Unemployed

The empty shell of one of the local factories stands ready to be refurbished.  “We have lots of plans to restart the factories here,” the mayor of one border village said, “But when investors come and hear the shooting, they say no.”

We Make The Future With Our Hands

We Make The Future With Our Hands

In some border areas the women market their handicrafts as a way to earn a living without benefit of traditional means of investment in local economies.  With the donation of a sewing machine, Tatev sells her beautiful linens to help support her family, creating hope with her hands.

The Winter Vineyards Of Tavush Marz

The Winter Vineyards Of Tavush Marz

“Tomorrow is the day.  They will shoot for sure.  We don’t know if their snipers will target anyone, sometimes they shoot our cattle too, or if they will just shoot all around the village so that we are afraid to leave our homes, and afraid to stay.”

Every Fourth Day They Shoot For Sure

Every Fourth Day They Shoot For Sure

“You must go before it gets dark. They shouldn’t shoot tonight, but don’t take any chances.”

The Kingdom Of Heaven Belongs To Such As These

The Kingdom Of Heaven Belongs To Such As These

The joy they find in the life of their new baby is tempered by this family's struggles with the health problems of their other children, and the insecurity of their father's job as a soldier guarding the border at a military post near Chinari, one of the villages hardest hit by the violence.  The baby seems to sense the uncertainty of their situation.   

Miracles

Miracles

That faith and love can work miracles is a reality for many in this tiny country.  Despite the violence on the border, they retain their belief in the essential goodness of humanity, reaching out to help others, often facilitating the miracles people need.

"There had never been a church in the village, but his mother had raised him and his three brothers to be spiritual, and appreciate all of God’s miracles. And this certainly seemed like one of them. But if it was a miracle, or a sign from God, what did it mean?

        Now, here he stood at the place where the khachkar had been found, and sat proudly between the majestic mountains rising up on either side. In front of it, suddenly there began to materialize a small church, made out of the same orange tufa stone as the khachkar. It shimmered for a moment in front of him like a mirage..." from Four Brothers, page 46, Defenders by Cristina Araxie Cass

Our Prayers Rise To Heaven

Our Prayers Rise To Heaven

“We believe in the goodness of people,” she said “ and we know that in the end God will hear our prayers for peace.”