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From the Frontlines of Artsakh: AIWA-SF Interview with VICE News Team

AIWA-SF had the opportunity to interview the VICE News team who has just returned from the frontlines of Artsakh. 

On September 27, 2020 when the war broke out, a group of journalists and producers with VICE News pitched a story to their leadership: they wanted to cover the conflict from the ground in Artsakh. The journalists worked closely with the VICE News security team to analyse the risks and develop a safety plan to layer on every possible precaution. By the next day, on September 28, they were on a plane en route to Artsakh. Coordination was complicated, flights were cancelled and delayed, but with a crisis unfolding the VICE News team knew they had to be there. 

This was the first time VICE News had sent a team to the region. While, for years there have been skirmishes along the border, things had not escalated beyond a short 1-2 day flare up, so global media coverage in the region wasn’t prioritized. What started on September 27, however, was much different. The dedicated VICE News team knew they wanted to get there, and fast. While this team has had fast deployments before, the haste and significance of this story was much heavier. The team shares since this region isn’t a global hotspot “everyone underestimates the magnitude and aggressive nature of what’s actually going on (in Artsakh), upon arrival we had to quickly and significantly change our calculations. The instant we arrived it was clear that something very significant was brewing.” This sentiment that this horrific reality is underrated, seems to carry outside of the media as this horrendous lingering War of Survival remains globally obscure. 

When the team finally arrived in Armenia, and despite Martial Law, the team felt that the warzone felt  far; that feeling didn’t last long. That evening, they interviewed reservists, who are featured in the beginning of their piece. While filming, they noticed two flares in the sky, at first they thought it was fireworks, but since the flares had odd directionality they thought it might be something more serious, a strike perhaps. It turns out it was an after-flare of an Azerbaijani drone that Armenia had shot down just outside of Yerevan. 

 “It was a moment of reflection, while the sentiment is that Yerevan is safe, since it is not a disputed territory, and far from the battlefield, it was clear that night that Azeri drones were in Yerevan.”  

After interviewing the soldiers in Yerevan, that same evening, the VICE News team drove to Artsakh. The drive from Yerevan to Artsakh was nerve racking. “For a long time we drove with the lights off and passing military vehicles was quite tense.” They arrived in Stepanakert at 7:00 am local time.

Exhausted, they thought they would rest for a few hours then start filming.  But, one of the Producers shares, “the second I put my head on the pillow I heard a huge explosion. Looking out my window I could see the exact spot of a bomb strike with smoke billowing very close.”  This was a profound moment of realization. As a team of international journalists and producers, they have travelled the world to cover extraordinary stories. They share, “typically journalists stay somewhere relatively safe from the risk zone. We might drive to a town near the border and go back and forth to limit the time we’re exposed to more risk. Those are the moments when we tell the story. But we quickly realized this was different. Stepanakert was NOT the safe place; it was actually the target.” 

Comprehending quickly that “nothing was off limits” they had to rethink how they spent their time in Artsakh. Sleeping was hard. They slept on the ground away from windows, near doorways and used the bed as a type of shield. This proved to be a wise strategy because the glass did break because of bombings in the building where they stayed. 

Communication was a challenge. With rumors that journalists are targets and the October 1 reports that two French journalists were severely injured due to shelling, the team didn’t know how cautious or paranoid to be.  Moreover, network and internet service providers do not recognize Artsakh. Worried about location tracking and communication monitoring, they were able to get a SIM card from a local who gave them his personal one. Needless to say, the situation is unnerving.  They reflect, “the logistics of getting to Artsakh, and being there were really tough, let alone the safety aspect of simply being in a warzone.”

The team shares two powerful memories. One is the sound of the constant siren which is very unsettling.  Second, the panic of people trying to leave and the passion of those who stay. Reflecting, “As international producers we have travelled worldwide, visiting refugee camps, migrants, we have met a lot of people in dire situations. However, I never realized how severely different the situation is from when someone is making the real-time decision to stay or go. We saw moments like that in every context. These people have nothing with them other than the clothes they are wearing. We’d see families jumping in their cars and leaving or rushing to get on a bus. Dozens and dozens of cars trying to get gas, with gas stations running out of supply.” In some instances, moms are sending their children alone on the buses to Armenia in hopes that the child will find a relative, friend, or safe place to stay. 

Conversely, many refuse to leave. They have loved ones on the front lines.  “Underground bunkers are filled with those who will not leave their loved ones behind. It’s very powerful. One of the fixers, who is a journalist, refuses to leave. Her Father, Brother, and Boyfriend are on the frontlines. Her Mother is a nurse at the hospital. This is very common in this generational war. Even though many have urged her to leave, she will not.”

Our hearts ache for the children who cannot comprehend life under the skies of war and fear. Children and families are being housed everywhere. We must value life over politics and power. We hope that peace will prevail soon.

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