On a chilly winter day, a HALO risk education team sets out for Karmir Shuka, a village that saw some of the most intense battles in the Second Karabakh War, which ended in November. What used to be a quick half-hour drive from Stepanakert takes triple the time today, as it is unclear whether the most direct route is accessible or safe.
The village, once bustling, is now eerily quiet. Barely a building stands undamaged. Electricity, gas and phone lines are down. Pomegranates and persimmons rot on the trees and litter the ground, alongside shattered glass, artillery shells and unexploded munitions.
As the team walks through the abandoned streets assessing the damage and risk, the smell of freshly baked bread suddenly, surprisingly, wafts through the air. Following their noses, they end up at Karmir Shuka’s communal tonir oven, where Lyudmila Poghosyan is pulling a fresh loaf out of the cylindrical clay oven. By her side, her teenage daughter, Syuzanna, prepares the next loaf.
Lyudmila and Syuzanna warmly greet the HALO team and offer them some still-steaming bread. Soon, other family members trickle in, intrigued by the appearance of the visitors. The Poghosyans invite the team to their house, just down the street, for tea.
Lyudmila and her husband, Arayik, have six children. Syuzanna, their eldest, is seventeen, while their youngest, Areg, is seven. They are among the first of only four families to have returned to Karmir Shuka so far. They have closed off the top floor of their modest home, which was badly damaged by shelling, and are huddled on the ground floor around a wood stove, with cellophane taped in the place of shattered windows. They are happy to be home, but are cognizant of the dangers that still lurk.
HALO’s task ahead - clearing explosive contamination from residential areas like Karmir Shuka and providing residents with risk education - is massive; and it is vital in ensuring the safe return of families like the Poghosyans.
Over tea, HALO risk educator Arayik Arakelyan asks the family what types of ordnance they have seen and gives them flyers with photos and descriptions of some of the unexploded munitions they may come across.
“If you see one of these pink ribbons,” he says to the children, pointing to an image of an M-85 cluster munition, “don’t mistake it for a toy. Don’t touch it or go near it. Just tell your parents, and they will call us.”
Story by Nyree Abrahamian and photography by Scout Tufankjian