Covering the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and war as a foreign journalist

Covering the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and war as a foreign journalist

Neil Hauer is a Canadian freelance journalist, analyst and researcher writing on the North and South Caucasus. His stories were published on CNN, Guardian, Foreign Policy and AlJazeera. He has years of experience living and reporting on the ground from all over the region. He has covered the conflicts in Syria and Chechnya. More recently, Neil has been reporting live from the frontlines in Nagorno-Karabakh. Neil was one of the few foreign journalists, who has been covering the war and its aftermath while being on the ground almost all the time.

Interview : Viktorya Muradyan    Photo : Areg Balayan  

          


You’ve been covering the South Caucasus for a long time. What is the most fascinating thing about our region?

I got into the region many years ago, in the middle of my undergraduate degree, because I was always interested in the former Soviet Union and the South Caucasus was the most interesting corner of the Soviet Union. It’s just this intersection of so much history, culture, diversity, different languages going back thousands of years and the amount of diversity and richness in a fairly geographically small area that captivated me. Even after living here for 3.5 years for now, I am not nearly anywhere close to having seen everything I want to see. It’s just a region that keeps on giving and I find it intellectually stimulating in a lot of ways.

 

How well do you know the region and have you covered many conflicts and wars since you’ve moved here?

This is actually my first war covering on the ground because I have never had the idea of being a war correspondent. I am just a Caucasus-focused journalist and researcher. I travelled to Chechnya about once a year in the North Caucasus but that's largely during a post-war era. I have not been to Syria, I am just covering the events, especially the Russian foreign policy there analytically. But when this conflict happened of course I had to come here, because this is the biggest event in the South Caucasus since at least 2008 Russia-Georgia war. There was no way I thought I could do it without covering from Karabakh and Armenia. 

Alexander Melnikov from WarGonzo

 

The new Ad Hoc report of the Armenian Ombudsman says that there were 390 journalists from 90 different countries who covered the fighting from the Armenian side. Yet still, there’s a feeling and maybe even more than a feeling that the conflict and the war have been overlooked by many international media outlets. Do you have any explanation for this?

I think in European media the conflict was fairly well covered and widespread although I don’t follow many local or national media outlets. I met for example one Dutch journalist who came here only in mid-November after the ceasefire agreement was signed. She was the first Dutch journalist to come here so I guess the coverage was not the same everywhere anyways. However, American media outlets were largely disinterested. I tried to pitch pieces to a large number of big American outlets that I had worked with before and they all just passed. The reasons are a few. Firstly, the pandemic and the US elections did not allow much to get into the US coverage. Even major US outlets like CNN and Washington Post didn't send anyone here and didn't commission any reporter on the ground. 
Secondly, journalism is being considered as a “dying industry”. Major outlets have shed staff and funding and they are limited with the number of employees they have and the topics they can cover. Finally, although this was a destructive war happening on the borders of the European continent, it didn’t have that big selling point, the sexy angle of the Russian involvement for example. We know that everyone loves the Russian evil mastermind story.
Someone did an analysis of New York Times coverage of the 2008 Russia-Georgia war and the Second Nagorno-Karabakh war. They found out that there was literally 20 times more coverage of the former despite the latter lasting much longer and being more destructive. I was shocked to see that there was that much disparity. 

Checzh war photographer and filmmaker Jana Andert

 

Armenian-American filmmaker Emily Mkrtichian

 

Do you think that as a foreign journalist you have received necessary support and guidance from the authorities in Armenia and Artsakh?

Broadly speaking there weren't any restrictions that were beyond the pale. Every day the regulations were changing, a lot of things were being done on the fly and there was a lot of confusion. The 1st time I tried to get into Artsakh we were unable to because that day the bridge near Lachin had been hit by an Azerbaijani missile. The next day Stepanakert was being shelled so heavily that I don’t think it was really unjustifiable that the authorities didn’t want people going in there. Even while being in Karabakh, we didn’t have much access frankly: we could go around in Stepanakert, go to Shushi, or sometimes to Martakert and Martuni. Some journalists with clever fixers managed to get to the South, where the real action took place. At the same time, during this war, for the entire time Azeris had full control of the sky. Military and military-looking vehicles were being struck all across Karabakh. It was a very big risk to send people anywhere close to the actual frontlines of fighting so I have a hard time faulting the authorities for that, although it would be nicer to have a little bit more freedom to move around. Some Armenian journalists had privileged access. Now there is a privileged treatment only for Russian journalists, which is a different story.

A Basque journalist Pablo Gonzales

 

How would you rate or characterize foreign reporting of this war, considering the fact that you have been here and saw the events flow with your own eyes.

I think it definitely got better during the last four weeks of the war, but early on there was a lot of simplicity or false equivalency in the coverage. The thing that was most glaring to me in the first two weeks was the fact that the strike on Ganja suddenly made headlines everywhere. Meanwhile, two weeks of concerted constant indiscriminate shelling of Stepanakert and every other town in Karabakh was mentioned either in passing or wasn’t brought up and that was justified by the fact that Ganja was a city outside the conflict zone, as if Stepanakert was not well behind the frontlines. 
Even with bigger news outlets I saw a lot of either failure to get certain facts and figures right or failure to contextualise properly. There was also a lot of reporting that failed to differentiate the Karabakh proper (NKAO) from the 7 surrounding regions. If you get that wrong, then you’ve missed the fundamental basis of the conflict. Unfortunately, that was pretty widespread.

 

There were many videos appearing showing the mistreatment, torture, mutilation and execution of the Armenian soldiers and POWs by the Azerbaijani Army and in occasional cases, vice versa. As a journalist, you have to watch all of those videos to report on them. How do you manage the emotional side of it? 

That’s a great question. I would love to know the answer to that, because I found it quite difficult. I analytically covered Syria for years and I’ve seen videos like that before. But it is one thing to see ISIS and an extremist radical Islamist terrorist militia doing those things, and it is another thing to see the Armed forces of a state actor doing it. It hurt to watch the two different videos of Azerbaijani soldiers beheading live civilian captives. I don’t know how to really deal with it. I decided to stop watching and to other people I wanna say just be prepared and know what you’re getting into if you want to do that. I don’t recommend it.

Semen Pegov from WarGonzo telegram channel in a shelter

 

Do you think it is possible to understand the ideology behind the horrible crimes, understand whether they are results of a systemic hatred or just individually perpetrated war crimes?

I think there is a much larger basis for this in Azerbaijan and the Ramil Safarov case is one proof of that. The example is there that if you brutally murder a defenceless Armenian, not only it will be accepted, but also rewarded. I simply don’t see the equivalent of that anywhere on the Armenian side. The equivalency examples that Azeris like to bring up are ASALA, or Soghomon Tehleryan who assassinated Enver Pasha, which is a bit different I think. Obviously in Armenia people by and large do not like Azeris and Turks, but it’s on a different level. The state ideology of anti-arminianism and the image of the external enemy is the classic model used by authoritarian dictatorships to justify their rule. Azerbaijani civil society and opposition were completely in support of Aliyev and what he was doing. This narrative of hatred and dehumanization towards Armenians were at an incredible level.

 

You wrote about the July’s clashes for Foreign Policy. Do you think those skirmishes were a signal of a full-scale war missed by the Armenian Government?

The July clashes were not particularly different from any other skirmishes except for where they took place. The weeks that followed, Turkey announced and held military exercises with Azerbaijan. As we know, they left behind quite a bit of military equipment and officers that helped to coordinate the campaigns during the last few months. I don’t think that those clashes per se were planned or intended as a starting point for this war, but they did end up serving as a starting point for a buildup. 

Armenian and international journalists in a shelter of textile plant in Stepanakert

 

There has been an unprecedented amount of proof of the presence of Syrian mercenaries, Turkish backing, international humanitarian law violations, use of banned cluster munitions. Why do you think the international community has been so silent?

I frankly think that most of it was because especially in the first month of the conflict the actions were taking place not only in de jure recognised territory of Azerbaijan, but in the seven regions surrounding it. A lot of international actors did not understand the nuances of the conflict, mainly the fact that those de jure borders are Soviet-era borders and that Karabakh itself was never under independent Azerbaijan’s control. 
Most of the combat happened in Jabrail, Fizuli and mostly deserted wastelands. There was never any justification for Armenia holding them and I don’t think there was much sympathy for that. Armenians took those regions with the force of their arms, they didn’t return them and it is understandable that no actor, including Russia would help Armenians to keep those territories. The EU has received much criticism, but the EU is institutionally incapable to do much in this type of conflict and no one should have expected that. The US got its own problems. 
This is also a part of a broader issue in the Armenian side. There was always an understanding that those seven regions were going to be returned to Azerbaijan in exchange for a deal. But that changed over time and Karabakh itself was contextualized. The narrative of the buffer zone morphed into “not once inch back”. There was certainly a lack of willingness to engage, especially in terms the one actor that mattered the most. The Russians were never going to fight for Armenia’s right to keep those seven regions and they made the Armenian leadership aware of that. That’s reflective of other people’s attitude towards this as well.
I think that there should be some form of punishment toward Azerbaijan later on, especially for the horrific war crimes they committed in the ethnic Armenian areas.

Alexander Kharchenko from Abkhazian Anna News Agency

 

Do you see any role for the OSCE in the further regulation of the conflict and in the post-war space?

Maybe in the future eventually, but now, frankly, not really. Now the only actor that really matters is Russia. There have not been any concerted efforts by a lot of sides to negotiations for a long time. Many foreign sides spent a lot of political time on this at various points. Some serious efforts were made in the 90s and early 2000s to get things done. The US did it with Key West Peace Talks, which was a big investment of political attention and capital on behalf of the American leadership on a small region far away. Russia obviously had no interest to change the status quo. Other Minsk Group members had other priorities and had already put in a bunch of time.
Not only Aliyev was clear that the OSCE Co-chairs were uninvited when they visited Baku after the signature of the agreement, but Arayik Harutyunyan refused to meet them too when they visited Armenia after. The Minsk Group is a nominal body that I am sure will attach its name to whatever comes next, if and when it does. But it has been a marginal player for years and now it’s essentially done.

 

Human rights organizations have published reports, which have been called as unfair, incomplete and biased. Do you think the Armenian side has been overreacting to these reports, or the false equivalency and obvious bias in favour of Azerbaijan was noticed by third parties too?

I don’t particularly think Amnesty or Human Rights Watch are biased organisations. But the reports they made left a lot to be desired: they were pretty tone-deaf, oblivious and fairly poorly planned out. One of the researchers at Amnesty went on Twitter and explained that the report was not definitive and it came out specifically because those videos of executions by the Azerbaijani army came out. It was a good explainer, but it did not change the fact that the report itself did not mention it. The report by Amnesty did not say that Armenians have committed more war crimes, but it implied it with the choice of the verified crimes, visuals and words used to describe them. And we all know that picture created was not true even though more videos needed to be verified. It’s not surprising that the report has been waved around by a lot of Azerbaijani officials. I don’t think those reports have much value to the author and I don’t understand what was the point of putting it out there when it was incomplete and when the conclusions that it came to made it sound to people who were not closely following the conflict and the war that the Armenian side was much worse in the context of war crimes.

A Brazilian photographer and visual story teller Gabriel Chaim

 

What are the three key actors and developments that you will keep your eye on in the near future?

First one is how well the ceasefire will hold. There’s been a lot of violations after the signature of the deal. I am curious to see whether Russian peacekeepers will manage to put a real end to this or sniping scrimmages across the frontline despite the Russian presence will be the new normal. The second point to keep an eye on is the political scene in Armenia, more specifically if and when Nikol Pashinyan will hold snap elections and what exactly the outcome of that will be. Finally, we are all waiting to see what happens in Azerbaijan. This conflict was always the issue that held everything together. The government used it as a carte blanche to do whatever they wanted. Now when the wartime is over, solidarity is going to start to fade and it already has. Azerbaijani social media was not happy with the announced compensations of the families of deceased soldiers which is 170 USD. Other reports state that soldiers are not getting adequate treatment, food and payment. Additionally, the reconstruction in those seven regions is going to cost a lot of money on the Azerbaijani state budget that has shrunk massively in the last few years and is not going to go back up because it is an oil based economy. A huge slice of this decreased pie is going to go towards these prestigious projects of building highways, settlements and infrastructure. And frankly, I don't think many people are going to move back to these areas. People have been living on the outskirts of Baku for 25 years, some are born there and I doubt they will move to a largely rural area 400 km away and become farmers.

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