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Borderlands Under Fire

Exploring non-violent resistance in response to state-sponsored aggression.

Borderlands exposes the world of a frozen conflict and the effects of state-sponsored violence 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 in 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.

Azerbaijan, an oil rich country with an autocratic government, is notorious for human rights violations, including the ethnic cleansing of its Armenian population in the early 1990s. This provocation of ethnic hatred spawned the twenty-five-year long terror campaign that the government continues to run against the 18 villages along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. From safe places on mountaintops or tucked away in villages, the Azeri posts attack Tavush, a tiny province of less than 150,000 people.

Faced with a much larger, wealthier and more powerful enemy, Armenia's government forbids its soldiers to fire back in order to avoid civilian casualties. But the people of Tavush see their homes and farms decimated, potential businesses fleeing at first sight of the violence and the OSCE's continued silence on the conflict, which has left many despairing while Azerbaijan looms threateningly over Armenia.

“People here could tell you stories for hours,” said the mayor of one village. “But there is no one to listen, no one to hear us.”

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.

Borderlands Under Fire investigates the people of Tavush’s efforts to defend their human rights through nonviolent resistance, and the ways in which they have kept their communities alive through twenty-five years of attacks. 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.

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

No Place For A Cradle

No Place For A Cradle

The baby’s bedroom is left empty after Azeri bullets pierced its windows. Tragedy was averted by the sheer luck that the baby was up from a nap, but the skeleton of the crib stays as a haunting reminder. The remaining windows have bullet holes, and the glass from the broken window lies where baby used to sleep.

“If you ask any villager here, they could tell you stories for hours,” said the mayor of one of the villages, “But there is no one to listen, no one to hear us.”

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.   

Self Defense

Self Defense

In Armenia, children learn self defense starting in grade 8. Graduating high schoolers have weapons training, and a range of self-defense skills. In the border villages, the children pay extra close attention, painfully aware that they must be ready to defend their homes in the event of another all-out attack.

Anahit

Anahit

Anahit is 13.  She is a good soldier, and has won the rank of sergeant in self-defense class.  Since losing her father, she has become a champion sharpshooter. She is resolved to stay in the village, and is ready to defend her family at a moment’s notice.

Milena

Milena

Milena is 12.  Her favorite subjects are History and English. Despite losing her father, who was killed by enemy fire while guarding the border, she wants to stay in her village.  Life is hard, but she faces it with determination by studying and helping her mother.  

Girlhood Interrupted

Girlhood Interrupted

Anahit and Milena’s small shoes remind us that although the violence of war has ripped through their family, tearing their father away, they are still children.

Main Street, Borderlands

Main Street, Borderlands

On a typical Main Street, the residents repair damaged homes with repurposed materials. Walking to the end of this street, we were warned to be careful crossing the next, more open one. It was situated right in the line of sight of the nearest Azeri post, making anyone walking there an immediate target.    

“We don’t hate the Azeri villagers, though,” said one man, “We know they don’t want this war either.”

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 gunfire. The state-sponsored violence has infiltrated the most intimate aspects of the family’s daily lives.  For them, the gunshots are background noise.

Trapped

Trapped

The people of Armenia’s border villages are trapped just like this bullet fired into the window frame of a dining room. They want to protect the land their families have lived on and loved for centuries, but the gunfire leaves them unable to work in the fields and factories.

They Target The Kindergarten to Frighten Us

They Target The Kindergarten to Frighten Us

Watching the kindergarteners dance and recite traditional Armenian poetry, it was difficult to think of grown men following orders to fire on four and five year olds. Did they think of their own children at school that day?

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. In the next room, the kindergarteners learn and play despite the gunshots.

Brave Words

Brave Words

“The main aim is to frighten the children,” a local school administrator told us.  “But they have learned to live with fear.  After a night of shooting, the children return to school and keep on with their work.  Their creativity and hard work are how they respond, so they can show Azerbaijan that they can never have an impact.”

Unemployed

Unemployed

This factory, where Armenians and Azeris used to work together, has been an empty shell since the fall of the Soviet Union.  “We have lots of plans to restart the factories here,” the mayor of one border village said, “And I’ve brought many investors here to see our village. But they always leave as soon as they hear the shooting.”

Yet War Was In His Heart

Yet War Was In His Heart

Domestic violence often follows war and poverty.  Children bear witness to horrific acts and families are destroyed. Another casualty of the violence, this grandfather became the sole caregiver for his ailing wife and grandchildren, now that they have lost their parents.

They Are So Very Close

They Are So Very Close

“The Azeri villagers don’t want this either, but they are being forced to stay in their villages just across the border from us.  The snipers and gunners dig into tiny holes among the hills in the villages.  In this way, our government does not want to fire back so as not to kill innocent Azerbaijani civilians.”

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.”

Nara

Nara

Nara, our guide in Nerkin Karmir Aghbyur, tells the story of the bullet holes in 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.”

Every Fourth Day They Shoot For Sure

Every Fourth Day They Shoot For Sure

“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.”

Out Of The Shadow

Out Of The Shadow

Finally stepping out of the shadow of her sisters, Armine speaks shyly.  She loves math, but won’t say more.  Her mother says she is focused on getting an education for her children. The children can’t play in the yard, she tells us pointing to the bullet holes in the porch roof, and Armine nods in agreement.

One Woman's Vision

One Woman's Vision

The regional director of an NGO whose local program is dedicated to breaking the cycle of poverty on the border inspects a greenhouse project.  “Our goal is to change old ways of thinking, to break old habits, to work towards the future.” Resistance takes many forms.

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

Offerings

Offerings

With faith the people hold fast to their beliefs, honoring their God and their traditions.  Thus they have endured over the centuries, and so they believe they will remain on their lands in ages to come.

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.”

 

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