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Photographer Scout Tufankjian was glued to her screens like Armenians around the world following news of developments in Artsakh. After the ceasefire was announced, she decided to rush to the region, which she’s visited numerous times before, to document the handover of territories to Azerbaijani forces. It was an emotional trip but one she knew she wanted to make.

Best known for her photo book Yes We Can: Barack Obama’s History Making Presidential Campaign, Tufankjian also created what was once the internet’s most popular photo (it was of the Obamas). She stopped by our Brooklyn studio to share her insights and reflections from her experience in November and December. The podcast was recorded on January 19, 2021, the 14th anniversary of the assassination of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink.

The music in this episode is by Mary Kouyoumdjian and is titled “This Should Feel Like Home” (2013), which was commissioned by Carnegie Hall for Hotel Elefant.

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After the war in Karabakh, Armenians from all over the world were driven to protect and safeguard beloved Armenian monuments that were soon to be turned over to the Azerbaijani government, which does not, to put it lightly, have a strong record of protecting Armenian artifacts. While these individual efforts succeeded in protecting some artifacts, it is impossible to remove and protect the ways in which we have lived in that land: the smells of the incense wafting through the church, the spray of a waterfall, the crunch of a leaf, the quiet chants of the priest as he baptizes a young family, the flicker of the candle, the weight of a pomegranate in one’s hand. The soil itself is now, as Ghukas Sirunyan wrote in his poem about the first Karabakh War “suddenly treasured the way the gods once were worshipped.”

And yet — at the same time we lose access to these villages and ancient monasteries — new monuments spring up, almost accidentally, involuntarily, standing testament to a loss so raw that it can’t yet be addressed head on. Here and there are flowers memorializing a beloved man killed while trying to save a friend on the very last day of the war, a Smerch rocket launcher embedded in a once fertile field, a spiral left dancing across the ground by the explosion of a cluster munition, a map of what once was this small self-described nation, a collection of bullets, a shard of a missile or drone echoing the shape of the beloved pomegranate. All are temporary, ephemeral monuments to a war that has not yet quite ended. 

Scout Tufankjian

Kashatagh, Nagorno-Karabakh (March 17, 2016) —  A tree grows out of an empty home in Kashatagh region. When Armenians gained control of the region during the 1990s war, Azerbaijani and Kurdish residents fled the area. Now that it is back under Azerbaijani control, Armenian families have been forced to flee (all photographs by Scout Tufankjian)
Dadivank, Nagorno-Karabakh (November 17, 2020) —  The medieval monastery of Dadivank stands nestled in the hills of Kelbajar. With a minor delay in the handover of the region, thousands of Armenians flocked to Dadivank, one of the most beloved monasteries in all of Karabakh and Armenia, to bid it a final, painful farewell. 
Dadivank,  Nagorno-Karabakh (November 17, 2020) —  An Armenian woman pauses in reflection as she lights a candle in the medieval monastery of Dadivank.
Kelbajar, Nagorno-Karabakh, (November 17, 2020) — A young Armenian soldier walks up the steps after a last visit to Dadivank.
Taken on November 18, 2020 by photographer Scout Tufankjian, this image captures the moment a family in Martakert, Artsakh, returned home after the war to find this canister, which explosive ordnance disposal experts described as a pressure bottle from a guided missile or drone, in their garden. (photography courtesy Scout Tufankjian)
Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh, (November 19, 2020) —  Spirals splash across a sidewalk after the explosion of a cluster munition in the center of the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh capital of Stepanakert.
Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh, (November 20, 2020)  —  These flowers were left outside the home of Boris Kasparyan in Stepanakert during his funeral. He was killed just outside of Shushi during the last days of the war while trying to rescue a wounded friend.
Agyestan, Nagorno-Karabakh, (November 21, 2020) —  A map showing the pre-war borders of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh hangs askew in a war-damaged classroom. The entire village of Agyestan sustained severe damage when Azerbaijani forces destroyed a nearby military ammunition depot early in the war, scattering unexploded weapons from bullets to warheads across the village and rendering the school unusable.
Aygestan, Nagorno-Karabakh, (November 25, 2020) —  Nine-year-old Alex displays his bullet collection on a table in the yard of his home in Aygestan village. Aygestan is close to a massive ammunition depot that was destroyed in an Azerbaijani strike early on in the war. Almost every family has returned to find UXO in their backyards — from bullets and grad rockets to cannon rounds and fuses. 
Khnadzakh, Nagorno-Karabakh, (November 30, 2020) —  Both Shushi and Stepanakert can be seen from a rise in Khnadzakh Village. There has not yet been a full accounting of all that was lost when the Karabakh Armenians lost control of Shushi in the final days of the war.   
Martuni, Nagorno-Karabakh, (December 1, 2020) —  Surp Astvadsamor Havana Cathedral is reflected in the mirror of a car in downtown Stepanakert.
Dadivank, Nagorno-Karabakh, (November 17, 2020) —  Only days before the formerly Armenian-held region of Kelbajar is ceded to Azerbaijan, Father Hovhannes Hovhannesyan, abbot of the medieval monastery of Dadivank, performs an impromptu family baptism, anointing the children’s foreheads, palms, and knees with chrism. Dadivank stands as a symbol for all that is being lost.   and offers something resembling comfort.
Hunot, Nagorno-Karabakh, (May 22, 2016) —  A forester walks by the Zontik Waterfall in Hunot Canyon just underneath the city of Shushi. There has not yet been a full accounting of all that was lost when Armenians lost Shushi in the final days of the war, but it is clear that Hunot Canyon, a place that holds a deep importance for many Armenians, is no longer safe to visit.

Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.