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PHOTOS: Jacob Balzani Lööv WORDS: Andrew Connelly
The inaugural European Games opened in the Azerbaijani capital Baku on the 12th June, 2015. A continent-wide sporting extravaganza costing an estimated $10bn featuring 6,000 athletes from over 50 different countries. As is so often said, sport is above politics. But for one national team competing in Baku, that could hardly be further than the truth.
In 1991, as the Soviet Union began to crumble, simmering tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh erupted into full-scale war. The mountainous lands where Muslim Azeris and Christian Armenians used to live together in relative harmony, had become a source of dispute thanks in large part to divide and rule strategies by the Russian, and then Soviet, empires. When fighting finally subsided in 1994 following a Russian-brokered ceasefire, over 100,000 had been killed and Karabakh became de-facto state administered by Armenia but not officially recognised by any countries in the world. Azerbaijan lost 20% of its territory, including land outside of the Nagorno-Karabakh hotspot, which is internationally recognised as occupied Azeri territory.
Although Armenians and Azeris meet peacefully around the world, they are practically banned from each other’s countries and the level of mutual hostility is comparable to Israel-Palestine. The European Games in Baku is the biggest sporting event ever hosted in the South Caucasus and for both sides, there is huge pressure for their athletes to better the opposing team. For the Azeris, it means a victory over the ‘occupiers’ to whom they lost the war, for Armenians, the chance to raise their flag and sing their anthem in the enemy capital has incredible symbolic power. So much for the Olympic truce.
Meanwhile, despite a ceasefire in place, villagers living on both sides of the Armenia-Azerbaijan border live in the shadow of sniper positions, and endure regular exchanges of fire. Far away from the capitals of Yerevan and Baku, people here speak respectfully of their brothers on the other side and express their frustration that their governments prolong and provoke endless conflict.
In a little-known region, a forgotten conflict divides peoples that in living memory were neighbours and friends. With no direct dialogue between the warring states and no progress by international institutions, many people ominously warn of a renewed conflict which could devastate the region and catch the world by surprise.
As the athletes face each other in Baku, (ironically both sides excel in fighting sports such as boxing and wrestling), the mantra of sport as an apolitical tool for peace risks being overshadowed by raw geopolitics, and an opportunity for nationalism and chauvinism to be exhibited, in a region which can ill afford more.
Daily life in the armenian village of Berkeber. The other side of the lake is Azerbaijan and there are regular shootings beetween the military positions on both sides but often targeting also the villages.
The final torchbearer of the European Games Ilham Zakiyev portrayed in Sumgait. Ilham Zakiyev was a soldier on the frontline before he was shot in the head by an Armenian sniper and blinded. He is now a world champion blackbelt Paralympic judoku. "My partecipation was a secret until the last hour, I know I was chosen to be a scream to the world to remind that 20% of our land is occupied by Armenians"
Training on the seafront in Sumgait. Sumgait was the teatre in 1988 of the first post-soviet etnic conflicts between armenians and Azerbaijanis.
The trainer of Armenia during a match of Sambo.
Reaction of the public to the elimination of Armenia during a wrestling match. Armenian athletes get a hostile reception from the Azerbaijani audience at the European Games in Baku.
Greco-Roman wrestlers Roman Amuyan from Armenia and Elman Mukhtarov from Azerbaijan square off in the Heydar Aliyev Sports Centre.
Armenian Greco-Roman wrestler Mirhan Harutyunyan takes a silver medal, while his opponent Hasan Aliyev from Azerbaijan took bronze. Russian gold-medal winner Artem Surkov brings the athletes together on the podium.
The elaborate opening ceremony of the European Games in Baku. A gigantic pomegranate opens up to release a flurry of heart-shaped balloons. The fruit is abundant in both Azerbaijan and Armenia and both countries consider it a national symbol.
Azerbaijani team dancing in the Olympic Village in Baku. It has been speculated that the Azerbaijani government spent up to $10bn in preparation to host the European Games. Of more concern for Armenia is Azerbaijanâs dramatic increase in their military budget up to almost $5bn, more than Armeniaâs entire domestic budget. Baku has consistently promised to use military force to regain captured territory if peace talks fail.
A villager in the town of Chinari in northwestern Armenia, shows the bullets found in his own garden. In the mountains above, Azeri and Armenian sniper positions stare at each other. Violations of the 1994 ceasefire are frequent not only in Nagorno-Karabakh but also along the main border between the two countries. Most of the casualties are soldiers but villagers are often targeted and have lived in an atmosphere of tension for over twenty years.
A signpost in Armenia points to the road leading to Azerbaijan, a relic from a time when the countries were at peace.
Armenian children walk to the football ground in the village of Voskevan on the Azerbaijan border. The ground is in the shadow of sniper positions and the children have to consult with their parents, or the military, to play at times when there is calm on the frontline.
A Taekwondo class in the village of Koti, a village in the northeastern Tavush province of Armenia where some buildings bear the bullet holes of recent sniper fire.
Vovik Khojanyan trains youngsters in the art of Sambo in the gym that he built himself in the village of Abovyan, Armenia. Vovik was born in Azerbaijan but his family left in the fifties.
Felix Aliyev, 76, trains a pupil in a gym in the village of Geghakert, Armenia. Despite having coached children who would become world champions, Aliyevâs gym lacks even toilet or showering facilities. During the ethnic conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis that erupted in the early nineties, many escaped to their respective countries. Some decided to stay and change their identities but despite sharing the same surname as the president of Azerbaijan, Aliyev has lived in peace ever since. During the war, his pupils took shifts to sleep at his house to protect him just in case. Both Armenians and Azerbaijanis remain virtually banned from each others countries.
Yuri Sargsyan, 54, supervises a young wannabe weightlifter in a gym in the village of Geghakert. A weightlifting world champion several times over, he is now the coach of the Australian Olympic team. Many athletes choose to migrate to other countries due to the dire economical situation of Armenia. After 1991, the country remained geographically isolated, cut off from Azerbaijan and Turkey, and industry formerly dependent on the Soviet Union all but collapsed. Most of the country survives on remittances from family living abroad.
Armenian boxers take a timeout during a training. Some will visit Baku for the inaugural European Games though most Armenians have never seen the country with whom they are at war.
Businessmen stop to pump some iron at an open-air gym in Yerevan. In the run-up to the European Games, a big debate raged in the country dover whether Armenian athletes should participate. Ironically, both countries excel in fighting sports such as wrestling and boxing.
Taekwondo champion Armen Yeremyan, takes a break in the restaurant of the high-altitude training centre in Tsakhadzor, Armenia. He sits with his with his trainer, and his Iranian sparring partner. Armen used to be good friends with a Taekwondo athlete who plays for Azerbaijan until his friend told him that he was forbidden to speak with him. These days, when they meet at international competitions, they merely nod at each other.
Sambo champion Ashot Danielyan, during a training for Baku with the Armenian National Team in Abovyan, Armenia. Ashot was born in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. During a recent medal ceremony in Moscow, his Azerbaijani opponent squatted in protest during the national Armenian anthem. Sambo, a mixture of judo and wrestling is common in post-Soviet countries and has its origins in the Red Army.
Greco-Roman wrestler Arsen Julfalakyan is served lunch during a training camp in Yerevan.In addition to sports, Julfalakyan is also completing a PhD in International Relations and speaks four languages, including Turkish. He is boycotting the European Games in protest at Azerbaijan's human rights record. In addition, he has bad memories of his previous visit to Baku in 2007 where security was too overbearing, and the audience hostile.
Armenian shooters train at a range in Yerevan underneath a poster of Nagorno-Karabakh surrounded by photos of war veterans. The region is currently a de-facto independent state, not recognised by any countries in the world and supported by Armenia. The territory is considered by the international community as part of Azerbaijan.
Albert Azaryan, 86, observes one of his pupils at his eponymous gym in Yerevan, Armenia. Azaryan is a sporting legend of the Soviet era, in a time where it was harder for smaller republics of the Union to shine. Thanks to the strength he gained working as a blacksmith in Kirovabad (currently Ganja, Azerbaijan), he was the first gymnast to win two consecutive medals for rings. The incredible contortion of his signature âAzaryan crossâ move has never been copied, though many try.
A military shop in Sumgait, Azerbaijan with a poster of Ramil Safarov. Safarov was an Azerbaijani soldier that murdered a sleeping Armenian soldier with an axe during a NATO language training in Budapest in 2004. Safarov was extradited to Azerbaijan in 2012 and immediately lionised as a national hero prompting waves of outrage in Armenia.