During the war, a soldier of the Artsakh Defense Forces offers a pomegranate at the entrance to the military hospital in Martakert (photo Gilad Sade)

Israeli Photojournalist Documents Artsakh During War and Peace in New Book

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WATERTOWN — Israeli photojournalist and documentary filmmaker Gilad Sade began visiting Artsakh in 2015, quickly establishing strong friendships with many of its inhabitants living in some of its most remote villages. He was present during various episodes of the 2020 war and its aftermath and is preparing a book which will include photographs from that time as well as of people and places that may no longer exist in the same way after the war. He calls the book project “Portrait of Paradise Lost.”

Sade began to describe his work with the words, “I think Artsakh was for me one of the hardest projects I did, both in the long term but also during the war.” Sade grew up in the West Bank, in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and became a member of the extremist Hilltop Youth Movement. He eventually devoted himself to peace and traveled to many different conflict zones to raise awareness of human rights issues. He issued his first book of travel photos in 2021, Travel Warning Photobook, in a limited edition of 100.

In the summer of 2015, Sade was working as a mountain tour guide in the Republic of Georgia and decided to go next to Armenia with the goal of visiting Karabakh for the first time. He said, “I was a bit anxious and not sure how it would be. I imagined basically that I am going to a place where everyone is in the street with Kalashnikovs and camouflage. This was the kind of information that was available on the Internet about Nagorno Karabakh. But I made a friend in Yerevan, and this girl, she was telling me, you know, ‘I am from Artsakh.’ She started to share information with me – how nice, how welcoming, how beautiful the place is.”

Soldiers of the Artsakh Defense Forces walking towards the bombed entrance of the Martakert military hospital (photo Gilad Sade)

He went with her in her tiny car, he said, to Kelbajar/Karvajar and arrived at the border where there was a checkpoint and a little cabin. He wondered where all the militants were that he was curious about. The men at the checkpoint were curious about him too and invited him to drink vodka and eat food. He said, “We drank I don’t know how many genats’s [toasts] and ate food, and I was at the border and was almost dead drunk already. That was my welcome.”

One month and a half later, he came again for twelve days, and again returned at the end of 2016 to spend New Year and Christmas in a village in Hadrut with new friends. Sade said, “Ever since, I went there really often – so many times. I would come whenever I had free time.” He had one main goal. He said, “I wanted to understand the conflict. I wanted to understand this place because I saw what is in the media and what is the reality, and I wanted to dive into that. By diving into that, I mean I really went to every place possible. I went with people who took me to Aghdam and other cities. I wanted to see and understand what the conflict is, what is the situation, and how people live.”

Gilad together with the Sahakyan family in their home in Tumi village of Hadrut region in the summer of 2015. Gilad has documented the Sahakyan family from 2015 till 2021 (photo Gilad Sade)

He said that because he also grew up in a conflict zone, he understood that the status quo could not continue there. Sade declared, “In a way, I predicted that there will be a war, but I didn’t predict that it would be so early.” Thinking in that way, he decided, “I will go here. I will document the life of the people. I met people in the villages who became my very, very close friends. It was just amazing for me. But also I realized that my footage might be the only footage of some places. If there would be a war, these places might never exist again. I committed to the story of Artsakh.”

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He felt that nobody was interested in these places, not even the majority of Armenians. He exclaimed, “It was really weird for me to see that there were such amazing people living there but at the same time, nobody speaks as their voice. Nobody speaks about it anywhere. You don’t know about Artsakh and that they want independence.”

He did not know Armenian, though he eventually picked up basic terms, and as for Russian, he laughingly said, “It depends on how much tuti oghi [mulberry vodka] I drink.” Apparently more people he encountered knew French than English in Karabakh, so he was able to use those two languages for more complex communications.

When he interviewed people, he said, “I would set up the camera and prepare my questions. I would ask a friend to translate it into proper Russian or Armenian. Then I would ask the person, saying this is one question, and then the next. Sometimes I had no idea what they were talking about, but it gave me something very unique because the people felt so comfortable to talk to the camera. They felt that nobody was judging them. There was no team with a cameraman, soundman and a journalist. It is just one weird guy in orange pants, or very colorful, having piercings, coming to the mountains and joining their celebrations, eating what they eat and drinking what they drink.”

Once he made friends, he said that they saw he was going to places that they had never visited, so they would join him for a few days in village visits and this would help also to facilitate communication. He exclaimed: “I feel in a way that I was blessed because I got to go to a place that not many people care about and the people really opened their hearts. They opened their doors. They gave me everything they didn’t have even, and shared with me their stories in the most honest and open way.”

2020 Artsakh War

When Sade learned of the onset of the 2020 Artsakh war, he rushed back. Artsakh Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Armine Aleksanyan had told him when he was on his way, “Don’t come, Gilad. It is a real war.” He said he left his house all of a sudden with no idea of how long he would be away and ended up staying almost four months.

He stayed in Stepanakert, eventually after some difficulties deciding on a hotel as his home base, but traveled to different places in Artsakh every day. He went a lot to Hadrut and Martakert and wrote a long story for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on the military hospital of Martakert that was bombed. He spoke with the head of the hospital, who was an Armenian who had been sent to Syria with one of the humanitarian missions, and with soldiers there.

He said that he reported on Israeli public radio nearly every day from the ground on what he saw. He filmed and photographed and published his articles and photographs in various periodicals.

He recalled, “It was really complicated because nobody knew what was going on.” He received information from friends who were actually in the villages in the mountains but he could not speak about what he learned out of fear for his safety, as well as in order to protect the local civilians from further harm.

During the fall of Hadrut on October 12, he witnessed the retreat of the Armenian military but saw reports that Armenians were spreading that the city is completely under their control. Sade said, “I was living with the villagers for a long time in the Hadrut area. I visited this place so many times with a car, and I walked around with the locals. I literally was in every corner possible. Nobody can tell me I don’t know what I am talking about in this region.”

He said, “That was the moment when I could not share much information anymore. I said okay, instead I will focus on writing my book. I will focus on my documentary so that I can show the story to the world, because right now if I will share some information I will be in danger.” Therefore, in his reports disseminated in Israel, he said that henceforth he only reported about what he personally saw, such as the Azerbaijani bombing.

Sade said that by the end of the war, he was spending nearly every day in Shushi, especially in the hospital there. When he saw sniper casualties and soldiers struck by Kalashnikov bullets, he said he knew the front was getting very close. November 3 was Sade’s birthday and his driver, Sayat, forced him to celebrate and drink in the morning. Sade said he told Sayat that the road is going to be cut soon and the war will be over, so they should drive every day to Goris, stay one hour and then come back just to see what is happening on the road.

On November 4 they went to Shurnukh village in the Goris municipality of Syunik Province of Armenia, where Sade took photographs. Sade said he realized that there would be problems there soon with the new border with Azerbaijan. On the way back to Artsakh that night, they heard gunfire and drove without their lights on to avoid attention. He saw excavating machines digging fresh trenches, and trucks brought young men, some teenagers who jumped into the trenches. Sade said, “It was humid and there was smoke – a lot of wildfires from the forest, there was shelling, gunfire. It was just horrific to understand what is going on. You see young boys jumping inside, and you don’t know what comes next. I didn’t want to take photos. I was afraid to lift the camera because someone would think we are shooting. We were driving and you could smell the soil. They just dug it. You could smell it mixed with the smoke, and in a way you could smell the fear, the going into the unknown. For me, this was one of the hardest moments.” Looking at the orange-red flames of fires burning, he said that he knew this was hell.

A few hours after Sade had passed through there, the Azerbaijanis had captured the road, according to people Sade spoke with, yet the next day, the Karabakh minister of defense said that nobody could drive on this road because it was being cleared of saboteurs.

Sade was in Shushi as Armenians were losing the city and a video on his experience there, including an Azerbaijani ambush, can be seen on his YouTube channel. Though there was initially a debate as to what happened in Shushi, Sade’s reportage confirms that indeed the Azerbaijanis were more advanced than the official Armenian sources were reporting at the time, and at one point in the video, Armenian forces are firing towards Shushi. Sade also took some good pictures of Shushi just after the capitulation of the Armenians while the Russians were setting up their new checkpoints and borders.

Armenian Defense Forces outside Shushi, during one of the attempts to recapture the city on November 7 (photo Gilad Sade)

At the end of the war, Sade said, “We documented all the exodus and escapes, the evacuation from Stepanakert. It was horrific as well. People at one point were running in the streets, just trying to stop cars to get out of the city.”

Russian peacekeepers arriving at the new line of contact on the road leading to the lost region of Hadrut (photo Gilad Sade)

When back safely in Yerevan, Sade was walking in the evening with Karlos Zurutuza, a journalist friend from the Basque country, and looking for a place to eat, when he accidently witnessed and documented another historic event, Armenian crowds breaking into the Armenian parliament building out of anger and frustration over the war defeat. He related, “When I saw all the police, I told him [Karlos] that there is something going on. There will be some riot or something. Maybe they lost the war. Maybe they are not happy with the situation. There were so many riot policemen around the building. We finished the food, then we heard a Kalashnikov shot. We ran back to the government building, as the people were breaking its windows.”

Lost in pain: Armenians from Yerevan inside the government building. Hundreds of Armenians stormed the building after Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan signed the ceasefire agreement with President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev (photo Gilad Sade)

Sade’s Take on the Conflict

Sade has a clear interpretation of the Karabakh conflict. “I think that what happened in Karabakh, and this is the main point of my book, that for 30 years the Armenians were dehumanized. For all these three decades they were targeted by massive propaganda to dehumanize the people there, so that when there is bombing nobody would care.”

More than that, he said, “What happened in Hadrut was ethnic cleansing…There was a time for fighting, and a time that people escaped, but at some point, it was ethnic cleansing in Hadrut.” Armenians made the mistake of burning the documentation of ownership of their homes, he said, stating, “There were war crimes and you need the world to understand that there were war crimes.”

While Azerbaijan thinks it won the war, Sade said it did not, as nobody can win such a war. He exclaimed, “How many young boys were killed there — both Armenians and Azeris? They were just boys. If they would meet in Berlin at a party they might become good friends, but they went into a conflict that is older than them, like me, and they had no choice but to fight this war….Why should so many people die, and for what?”

After the war, an Armenian man is visiting his brother’s tomb at the Yerablur military cemetery overlooking Ararat Mountain, the mountain known for its historical importance to the Armenian people which is today in the territory of the Republic of Turkey (photo Gilad Sade)

He pointed to outside powers like Turkey and Russia, and outside interests, such as oil, gas, railways and so forth, as among the underlying causes of the conflict. As for solutions, he said that he speaks from the Israeli-Palestinian perspective. “I think the solution would be, first of all, young people meeting, not only thinking that there are aliens on the other side.” He said that when he grew up, he was taught that even after forty years buried under the ground and dead, Palestinians still cannot be trusted. He was told never to turn his back on a Palestinian because he will stab you, but, he said, “Once I met these people and saw that they are the same as me, I thought, wow, why do I think that all of them are enemies…the majority of people want to have a peaceful life.”

Attacks and Roots

During the war, for the first time, he faced some personal difficulties in Artsakh. He said that before the war, he did not experience any anti-Semitism. At the most, there were occasionally jokes about Jewish people saying that they are rich. However, during the war, there were some very harsh incidents and twice he was almost killed.

One time, he was returning from interviewing Spartak Sahakyan, a man trying to save his house in Tumi village in Hadrut district, whom he had known since 2015. It was October 16, four days after the Armenian retreat in the area, and the whole forest of Hadrut was full of mercenaries, Azerbaijani troops and Armenians, and nobody knew what was going on, Sade related.

An Armenian man sitting at the entrance to the Sahakyan family’s home in Tumi village. This will be the last days of Armenian control over the village (photo Gilad Sade)

All of a sudden, a BMW pulled up on this off road and two Armenian men start to beat him, with karate chops to his head. He said he asked them to let him call someone from the government to prove his accreditation. The problem was, he said, that he had two accreditation papers. Due to the political situation, Armenia could not give accreditation to someone working officially in Artsakh, so on its papers, it was written in large letters, not valid in Artsakh. Sade also had a document from the Artsakh government. The attacker only looked at the first paper and did not listen to him.

Sade said, “At this point, I was one hundred percent sure that I am dead.” The men spoke in Russian at first with him, but eventually he said he did not understand and speaks English. Then they let him call the Artsakh government’s press center, but the person there responded that the center did not allow him to go to the front line. Sade said that the people at the press center did not even know where Tumi was, when he had asked them if he could go there. Finally, Sade called Aleksanyan, who managed to extricate him from this mess.

Looking back on the various incidents he experienced, he said that he understood that Armenian suspicion or hostility was connected primarily to the Israeli weapons delivery to Azerbaijan. However, what upset him most was that he felt some officials in Artsakh in the press center did not want him to go to the front line and talk with soldiers, while his journalist friends were able to do this. He said, “I told the guys, what you are doing is bad for you. How do you want me to push this story to the news if you don’t let me tell your story?”

He also revealed that he had a personal connection to the Caucasus. His great-grandfather, he said, was from an area of Iranian Azerbaijan, possibly near Urmia, and would say that he was from the borders of the Caucasus mountains. He said, “When I heard about him, and we didn’t know exactly where in the Caucasus, I started to look for Jewish remains in the Caucasus. I wanted to see where my roots are.” Sade said that his great-grandfather’s family was killed during World War I by Assyrians, Armenians and other Christians.

He said that he could have two possible perspectives on this: “I can say, okay, four generations ago, Assyrians, Armenians and other Christians living in the region were the majority of the people who murdered my family and I can say, who cares for these people. They can just bomb them. But I don’t see it like this. For me, I really believe that we can overcome every conflict. It is hard. It is not fun. But it is possible. How many cycles of war do we need?”

The Book

Sade spoke with palpable amazement about all that he had seen, exclaiming: “In a way, I feel sometimes that I can’t believe myself that I as a journalist was witnessing all of this, the fall of Hadrut, the fall of Shushi, the cutting of the road, the excavators and these battles. I took a long cycling trip last summer just to digest everything.”

He had the idea of working on a book on Karabakh before the war but was not sure whether it was the right time. When he took a photograph of Azerbaijani soldiers and the Azerbaijani flag over the fortress of Shushi, while snipers were still shooting, he said, “I was living something like the history scenes a few hundred years ago that I read about. That was the moment I realized that what I have is a piece of history, and I said [to myself], whatever the effort I need, I will share this story in a book with visual [images] and text.”

He understood, he said, that books can have a big impact. “Portrait of Paradise Lost” will be a mix of notes and stories, a sort of diary of travel and quotes from people Sade interviewed. It is approximately 280 pages at present. It has photos of houses that were bombed, and churches that will one day be destroyed, even small ones that were barely known before the war.

Armenian pilgrims of the Republic of Artsakh at Kataro Vank (monastery) in August, 2018, at the top of the third highest mountain in Nagorno Karabakh. Religious rituals were rarely taking place due to the remote location. The monastery became very famous in the Armenian diaspora after the Kataro Winery’s products made their way out to Armenian communities around the world. (photo Gilad Sade)

“The idea,” he said, “is to dive into a story, like a documentary.” There are both photos and notes from various moments, like when he got drunk in the cabin with the policemen at the entrance to Karabakh, or various battles he witnessed. He exclaimed, “This is for the having this proof of history and the existence of the Armenian churches in the villages, the people living there, the khachkars, the places where we had matagh [requiem service with food]– all of this! I want people to know that this was part of history. If a tourist will go to Karabakh in ten years, those places will look different and the churches may not exist.”

The book also presents the perspectives of people who have lived through different conflicts and crises and has implications beyond the Caucasus. For example, he said that though he was taught that Palestinians were his enemies, he was in Artsakh with them. Sade went to Zangelan/Kovsakan with Palestinian friends and describes what happened when they met Syrian Armenians there. Without revealing the full anecdote from the book, he declared, “It was very important for me to see their perspectives on the conflict. And to see how it can be for our [Palestinian-Israeli] conflict. How can we promote something that can help us to solve our conflict?”

At present, Sade is working on the Ukraine crisis, moving between Poland and Germany at the borders, and working on a different documentary, but meanwhile the Karabakh book is almost ready. As English is not Sade’s native language, he is raising funds for copyediting, printing, and shipping of the book and hopes everything will be ready for printing by the end of July at the latest on a special type of uncoated paper. His online fundraising campaign can be found at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/lenabooks/portrait-of-paradise-lost.

He still feels a real connection with Artsakh. He declared, “You see this nice heaven, this beautiful place. I really fell in love with Artsakh. I still have the key from my friend in Khandzadzor village. He said this is your home. You never have to call me again. If I am not here or I am here, it does not matter. You can come here. And I have the key with me still. This is how deep the connection I had with the place.”

“The main message of the book” for him, he said, “is that there are no winners in a war. Secondly, I have a question from a friend of mine from Gaza. Once he wrote to me, ‘Why are we only resting in peace? Why don’t we live in peace.” He concluded, “The first memory in my life is a bombing, a war. My first memory was when I was four years old and I was in a shelter and there was bombing. This is why I committed my life to tell those devastating stories of wars in places like Artsakh that nobody cares about. It is important for me to show this story from the perspective of a foreigner, someone who grew up in a conflict.”

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