The Gravedigger Who Fears Digging His Own Son’s Grave in Nagorno-Karabakh

Emil Filtenborg, Stefan Weichert
·11-min read
Emil FIltenborg
Emil FIltenborg

The dead soldier’s family drags out a coffin from the back of an electrician’s van. They carry him to the graveyard with hurried steps, passing another 28 graves decorated with plastic flowers. Gravedigger Martin Ghulyan is walking next to them in silence, carrying two shovels in one hand. He puts down the shovels and removes the lid on the coffin.

For five minutes or so, the family takes their last look at a young man in his twenties. He is beautiful, with a symmetrical face, a beard, and golden skin. But he is also a dead man, and because of the war, the living have to say their goodbyes quickly. Everything is rushed, with little time for ceremony. It is crucial to finish the funeral swiftly at the military graveyard because staying too long could attract an Azerbaijani air attack, Ghulyan says.

The funeral is taking place in Stepanakert, the main city in the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The breakaway Republic of Artsakh controls most of the region, which is internationally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>During the first war, gravedigger Martin Ghulyan was close to getting killed many times. Today, he faces yet another war and is worried that he will have to bury his son, who is fighting on the frontline.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Emil Filtenborg</div>

During the first war, gravedigger Martin Ghulyan was close to getting killed many times. Today, he faces yet another war and is worried that he will have to bury his son, who is fighting on the frontline.

Emil Filtenborg

In the early ’90s, a war between Armenians and Azerbaijanis broke out, killing 30,000 people. In the end, the ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh claimed independence to establish the Republic of Artsakh, which has led to several confrontations between Armenians on one side and Azerbaijanis on the other, turning borders into frontlines. The latest burst of fighting was a four-day war in 2016, but in September, a regular war started, as Turkey supplied Azerbaijan with drones, giving them the upper hand.

As Ghulyan walks to the grave, his phone keeps ringing while the family lowers the young man’s coffin into the grave and they say their final goodbyes. This funeral is just one of many today, and Ghulyan is repeatedly requested at other graveyards. Since the war broke out on September 27 between the Republic of Artsakh, supported by Armenia, and Azerbaijan, the 52-year-old Ghulyan has dug around two to seven graves per day. At the military graveyard, Ghulyan has dug four shallow graves that have not found new inhabitants yet. They are dug as a precaution if the front line’s killings outpace his ability to dig new ones.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Gravedigger Martin Ghulyan</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Emil Filtenborg</div>

Gravedigger Martin Ghulyan

Emil Filtenborg

“It is hard to see all these young people die,” Ghulyan says to The Daily Beast, “Of course, I think about my son on the frontline at these funerals like everyone else would. Everybody has someone in the war. A son or a husband. We want peace, our kids to be happy, and the war to end.”

After the funeral, Ghulyan walks back to his car, passing graves from the first devastating war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Many of the tombstones have pictures of the dead, and several of these fallen soldiers died in their early 20s. Many of Ghulyan's friends from the first war are buried here. Today, he buries his friends’ sons next to them and prays that he will not have to bury his own.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>At the military cemetery in Stepanakert, soldiers are lying next to empty graves, already dug for the next ones to arrive.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Emil Filtenborg</div>

At the military cemetery in Stepanakert, soldiers are lying next to empty graves, already dug for the next ones to arrive.

Emil Filtenborg

Ready to Go to War

Ghulyan was a platoon leader during the war almost 30 years ago for a group of 20 soldiers. Armed with an AK-47, he fought for years in the Caucasus mountains for the Republic of Artsakh’s independence. He blames Azerbaijan for starting the new war and claims that they target civilians in Artsakh.

Azerbaijan’s president has said that Nagorno-Karabakh must return to Azerbaijani control and claims that Artsakh started the war. While Artsakh says that Azerbaijan targets civilians, Armenia and Artsakh have been accused of targeting civilians in Azerbaijani cities such as Ganja, where 12 civilians died in an attack. According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is trying to broker a peace deal, 5,000 people have already lost their lives in the current war. Russia is an important player in the war because it has a defense pact with Armenia and sells weapons to both Armenia and Azerbaijan.

According to Ghulyan, this is not a new war. He says that the old war was simply on hold.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Gravedigger Martin Ghulyan is a war veteran from the war almost 30 years ago. He was flown into Stepanakert back then in a helicopter and had to sneak past Russian soldiers to fight against the Azerbaijani soldiers. Today, he is ready to fight yet again.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Emil Filtenborg</div>

Gravedigger Martin Ghulyan is a war veteran from the war almost 30 years ago. He was flown into Stepanakert back then in a helicopter and had to sneak past Russian soldiers to fight against the Azerbaijani soldiers. Today, he is ready to fight yet again.

Emil Filtenborg

“We don’t trust the Azerbaijani. We never believed in this peace,” says Ghulyan, “We have been ready for this forever, and we are prepared. I don’t know if there can ever be peace.”

Azerbaijan has access to superior military equipment such as Turkish-made striker drones, which is taking a brutal toll on the Artsakh defenses. It is a problem, Ghulyan says, but he is sure of victory. However, the frontline shows that Artsakh is under heavy pressure and losing territory in the southern part of the region, and supply routes are under threat.

A young soldier, who has just lost his brother, told The Daily Beast at the military graveyard that the battles are fierce with the Armenians being outnumbered. When asked if he might be willing to return for a longer interview later, he says that he does not know how long he will be alive. At times, “one soldier is fighting against three tanks,” the soldier says. Ghulyan, however, is confident of victory because the war is not just about military hardware, he says, but also about the willingness to sacrifice.

“If they come here, I will take my rifle and go to war,” says Ghulyan and smiles. “In the first war, we fought to the last man, and we were ready to spill our last blood. This is not any different.”

According to Ghulyan, the spirit of the ethnic Armenian people is too strong for the Azerbaijani. He tells the story of how he and his friends were fighting with whatever they had back in the ’90s and that their people are accustomed to living during war. He and his wife got married in 1992 during the war, and their first daughter was born in 1994 during shelling. If it were not for Turkish support, Azerbaijan would “not stand a chance” in the current war, Ghulyan claims.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>A soldier looking for unexploded cluster munitions that need to be removed.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Emil Filtenborg</div>

A soldier looking for unexploded cluster munitions that need to be removed.

Emil Filtenborg

‘The Right to Defend Our Life’

However, the war’s impact is visible in Stepanakert, the capital of the Republic of Artsakh, and it paints a different picture. Weeks of drones, missiles, and airplane attacks have wounded the city. Several buildings are in ruins, and most of the civilian population has fled. Only a few civilians remain hiding in basements and bunkers because they refuse to leave.

Some say that they fear genocide if they give up. During and immediately after World War I, around 1.5 million Armenians were eradicated by the Ottoman Empire on territory that now belongs to modern-day Turkey. Turkey supports Azerbaijan, and it creates fear among the locals in Artsakh.

“We are 150,000 people. Of course, we did not start the war against seven million people in Azerbaijan,” says 77-year-old Albert Tonyan to The Daily Beast, as he hides in a bunker. “Azerbaijan started the war, but Turkey has coordinated it.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>77-year-old Albert Tonyan is one of the people who have decided to stay in Stepanakert while his son is fighting on the frontline. He blames Turkey for the war.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Emil Filtenborg</div>

77-year-old Albert Tonyan is one of the people who have decided to stay in Stepanakert while his son is fighting on the frontline. He blames Turkey for the war.

Emil Filtenborg

Archbishop Pargev Martirosyan is known in Artsakh as a war hero for his support during the '90s. He wishes peace for both “the Armenian and Azerbaijani people” but says that Artsakh has the right to defend itself and that it is impossible to all share the land.

“You know as a Christian, we hate wars, but Jesus Christ said that if you don’t have a sword, you can sell your cloak and buy one,” the archbishop says to The Daily Beast, “That means that we have the right to defend our life, our freedom, relations, and our family.”

“The war is different this time because of the new weapons,” he says, “War is a bad thing for the world because it brings disabled people, orphans, and deaths, but we need to defend ourselves. We cannot live together, because they want the land for themselves.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Archbishop Pargev Martirosyan travels around Nagorno-Karabakh to instill hope into soldiers and civilians. He says that hope is founded in people here, which makes them strong.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Emil Filtenborg</div>

Archbishop Pargev Martirosyan travels around Nagorno-Karabakh to instill hope into soldiers and civilians. He says that hope is founded in people here, which makes them strong.

Emil Filtenborg

Such a Thing as a Free Lunch

All around Stepanakert, people seem certain that Armenia and Artsakh will win the war. The same goes for Hovig Samra, who is an ethnic Armenian born in Syria and who moved to Stepanakert in 2011 to grow fruit. He owns a restaurant in Stepanakert, where he gives everyone free lunch. It is the only restaurant open in Stepanakert, and he refuses payment.

“I feel bad for the young people dying on both sides,” says Samra, “I believe that we will win. Whether it will be a long war depends on the world. The world can continue to ignore us, like they are doing now, or they can do something and stop the war.”

He refers to the toxic situation unfolding, where the war could quickly evolve into a regional conflagration. While Turkey supports Azerbaijan, Russian has a defense pact with Armenia; and Iran, at the southern border, is also increasingly concerned about the events up north. In Washington, D.C., Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had leaders from both Azerbaijan and Armenia agree to a peace treaty, which broke only a few hours later.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Hovig Samra, an owner of the only open restaurant in Stepanakert, said that he felt the war was coming. Now, he does what he can to help the people who remained.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Emil Filtenborg</div>

Hovig Samra, an owner of the only open restaurant in Stepanakert, said that he felt the war was coming. Now, he does what he can to help the people who remained.

Emil Filtenborg

Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) has, among others, called for an immediate ceasefire and the potential recognition of the Republic of Artsakh.

“Since Azerbaijan continues its attempts to resolve this conflict through the illegal use of military force, the international community will be left with no choice but to move to recognize the independence of the Republic of Artsakh,” said Markey.

Samra says that while the world is still discussing what to do, everyone in the Republic of Artsakh will need to do what they can to help. Every day, his restaurant offers free food and is filled with all kinds of people from Stepanakert, searching for a free home-cooked meal or a sense of normality in a place razed by war and often hit by shelling.

“Not everyone has a gun to fight. The soldier fights with his weapons, the writer with his writing, and the singer by his songs. I try to give a good image of my nation. It is simple,” he says, “But if Azerbaijan comes here, I will, of course, fight for our nation, and my wife will fight too.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Hovig Samra, an owner of the only open restaurant in Stepanakert.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Emil Filtenborg</div>

Hovig Samra, an owner of the only open restaurant in Stepanakert.

Emil Filtenborg

‘We Made a Mistake’

Everyone who speaks to The Daily Beast in Artsakh is sure that the war will end at some point, but while they claim to not hate the Azerbaijani people, they are also not ready to make concessions. Ghulyan, showing The Daily Beast around at the graveyard, is worried that he will soon have to dig the grave for his son, but he says that the new war could only have been avoided by taking more land in the '90s.

“In 1994, Azerbaijan was losing and was begging for peace,” says Ghulyan, who says that Armenian soldiers burned the homes of the Azerbaijani people back in the ’90s to prevent the Azerbaijani population from ever returning. “We made peace but should have progressed farther, and it was our mistake that we did not do that. If we had taken more land, we would be in a better position now.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Because of artillery fire, the local population, who remained in Stepanakert, are forced to stay in a shelter. They now live in basements such as this one under a church.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Emil Filtenborg</div>

Because of artillery fire, the local population, who remained in Stepanakert, are forced to stay in a shelter. They now live in basements such as this one under a church.

Emil Filtenborg

Now, he says, the Artsakh people are again forced to fight. He remembers vividly back in 1991 when he was helicoptered into Stepanakert for the fighting, the intense combat, and the terrible smell of dead people from the first war. To him, death never becomes normal, but that does not mean that he is scared.

“I am not afraid, and let me tell you why. It is war, right?” he asks, “If someone kicks you right now, you are going to fight back and not just lay down. We are not letting them into our homes. We will stand firm—our instincts will kick in, and we will fight.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>The streets of Stepanakert are empty. Most of the population has already fled.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Emil Filtenborg</div>

The streets of Stepanakert are empty. Most of the population has already fled.

Emil Filtenborg

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