As the parties to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict agreed on a Russia-brokered ceasefire, visual evidence of Armenian church and monument desecration in territories acquired by Azerbaijan started to appear online.
While the ceasefire signed on November 10 brought the immediate fighting to an end, the threat of destruction of Armenian cultural heritage sites in areas taken by Azerbaijani forces persists. Previous research, including a forensic investigation published in 2019 in the online arts magazine Hyperallergic, has documented the systematic destruction of Armenian cultural monuments and heritage sites between 1997 and 2006 in Nakhichevan, an autonomous republic of Soviet Azerbaijan that became an exclave of the Republic of Azerbaijan after the fall of the Soviet Union.
New videos, which have surfaced on social media over the past few weeks, however, show graffiti on churches in territory newly seized by Azerbaijani forces, as well as Azerbaijani soldiers demolishing monuments, crosses, and other religious and cultural sites. These videos can be geolocated and verified using open-source techniques.
Open-source evidence of cultural destruction in Nagorno Karabakh
On November 14, a video emerged online of an Azerbaijani soldier standing on top of an Armenian chapel, shouting “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great” in Arabic). Behind the soldier, a toppled Christian cross can be seen.
A reverse image search of the video showed that the chapel in question was erected in the town of Mekhakavan (in Armenian)/Jebrayil (in Azerbaijani). The church was consecrated in October 2017 with the presence of Armenian soldiers, when Armenian forces were in control of the town. Under the terms of the recent ceasefire, the town is now under Azerbaijani control.
Also on November 14, reports of a vandalized Armenian church started appearing online. Ghazanchetsots (Holy Savior) Cathedral in Shushi was spray-painted with graffiti and at least one of the cathedral’s angel statues was defaced. Azerbaijani military forces also reportedly bombed the cathedral twice in October.
Geolocation and visual analysis confirmed the damage to the Cathedral in Shushi/Shusha.
The city was taken by Azerbaijani forces on November 8, 2020. In a video taken by Azerbaijani forces that circulated on November 11, there is no graffiti visible on the Cathedral, suggesting that it appeared after this point, once the city was under Azerbaijani control.
Lastly, a video was posted on November 9 showing a monument dedicated to the Armenians fallen in the First Nagorno-Karabakh War being desecrated by Azerbaijani soldiers.
The location of the monument, according to researcher Simon Maghakyan, is in the town of Qubatli, which is in the newly gained Azerbaijani territory close to the new border with Armenia. While the monument itself cannot be seen in the satellite imagery, the path leading to the monument serves as the main geolocation detail, pointing to the building complex in the southern part of the town and confirming the location.
New videos and photos of reported cultural destruction continue to emerge online, but not all of them have sufficient background detail to allow for geolocation and verification. The DFRLab will continue to monitor the situation in post-ceasefire Nagorno-Karabakh, including possible human rights violations and intentional destruction of cultural heritage.