Attorney photographer Sara Anjargolian eyes social injustice in Armenia

Svetlana Bachevanova – WNN Features

Dead Armenian soldier's shrine
An Armenian shrine to dead son Araik Avedisyan has been set up in the bedroom that is still reserved only for him in his family home. Image: Sara Anjargolian

(WNN) New York, New York, UNITED STATES, AMERICAS: With a 2002 Fulbright Scholarship U.S. California based Armenian American photographer and attorney Sara Anjargolian fell in love with Armenia, the country connected to her from childhood. But as she began to explore the region her experience in law school reminded her, “It’s important to look at ‘the-story-within-the-story’.” 

Documenting Armenian  government impunity from 2011 to 2012 Anjargolian brought the mystery, as she puts it, of one of the most “secretive” institutions in the country, the veil of impunity within Armenia’s military industry. With military suicides that just ‘do not add up’ the relatives of dead soldiers continue to ask for more supervised and detailed investigations. Numerous relatives who have received death announcements from the Ministry of Defense in the suicide of their son, brother, father or husband don’t believe the Armenian army has given them the complete truth.

Without proof of the suicides families have been left to their own devices to investigate and carefully retrace the steps leading up to the death of their family member. Innocuously Armenia’s Ministry of Defense continues to ignore many of the cases that families say need to be re-opened and investigated thoroughly.

My son’s suicide just “doesn’t make sense” say many of the mothers who have lost their sons, some only a few months after their son enlisted in the army. Some also believe that unexplained tampering and cover-up by the military may have occurred in the death of their sons.

As the Armenian army continues to brush aside most claims that the deaths are “not suicide,” the deaths have created many more questions than answers.

“As of October 31, [2013]  the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly Vanadzor office had reported 29 noncombat army deaths [within the ranks of the Armenian army], including 7 suicides. Local human rights groups have documented the Defense Ministry’s failure to investigate adequately and expose the circumstances of noncombat deaths and to account for evidence of violence in cases where the death is ruled a suicide,” outlined Human Rights Watch recently in their annual World Report 2014 Armenia update.

“…I discovered that the entire system in all sectors and at all levels – including the investigators, the medical examiners, and the courts – is set up to conspire against the truth,” said Anjargolian.

In her interview with award-winning photojournalist Svetlana Bachevanova, Sara Anjargolian talks about corruption and those who want to stop it in Armenia.

As co-founder and publisher for FotoEvidence, working in the tradition of using photography to draw attention to human rights violations, injustice and oppression, Bachevanova is considered one of the world’s experts in today’s field of photographic exposé. As curator for the July 2013 show mOther Armenia, in Armenia’s capital city of Yerevan, Bachevanova helped for very first time to show perspectives of some of the best women photographers in the region.

“Women in Armenia still battle to establish a career,” outlined Bachevanova at the time of the show. “Women are still expected to be full time mothers and housekeepers. But these ten documentarians broke the rules and found a way to pursue careers and create powerful bodies of work.”

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Svetlana Bachevanova: In your recent work, “An Absent Presence,” you have been witnessing and documenting the challenges of non-combat fatalities in the Armenian military today. What did you discover?

Sara Anjargolian: I have been documenting social justice issues in the former Soviet republic of Armenia for years, and the topic of human rights abuses in the military was one of the most difficult I have tackled. Not only are the activities of the military shrouded in secrecy under the guise of “national security,” but I discovered that the entire system in all sectors and at all levels – including the investigators, the medical examiners, and the courts – is set up to conspire against the truth.

SB: Human rights groups believe that many reported suicides in the Armenian army are really homicides involving complicit army officers tampering with evidence and covering up these crimes. Is this the case?

SA: Yes, human rights organizations estimate the number of non-combat deaths since Armenia’s armed forces were established to be between 1500 and 3000 – although the facts of each case are deliberately convoluted. Most of the time, we don’t actually know what happened. Usually “something” triggers a situation where a soldier ends up dead – sometimes the situation is triggered by a commander who loses control, sometimes it involves a group of soldiers hazing one soldier, and sometimes a soldier witnesses illegal activity (like a narcotics trade as in the case of Valery Muradyan or the stealing of fuel as in the case of Arthur Ghazaryan) – and it seems that their witnessing of these crimes leads to their death, and a fake suicide is staged to cover up the murder.

SB: How did you learn about these issues in the Armenian military and why did you decide to start working on this project?

SA: I photographed a series of protests two years ago in Armenia’s capital Yerevan involving families of soldiers who had died in non-combat situations and who were demanding that the military and government uncover what had happened to their sons. I wanted to know more about this situation and began working on the project.

SB: Was it difficult to enter and photograph inside one of the most secretive institution in Armenia?

SA: Photographing on the frontlines and military bases was not the most difficult part – what is difficult is finding out the truth of what happened in these cases. The military and legal system is set up such that facts in these cases are buried in years of incompetent investigations, layers of corruption, and a complete lack of motivation in uncovering the truth.

Armenian mother sits on bed of deceased son
Deceased soldier Valerik Muradyan’s mother Nana sits alone on her son’s bed in his almost untouched bedroom in her home. Valerik’s body was found hanging from a metal pipe at the Haykazov military base in Nagorno-Karabakh where he was serving. The military says he committed suicide. Nana believes her son was killed and the suicide was staged to cover up the murder. Image: Sara Anjargolian

SB: The story you showed for first time in the “mOTHER ARMENIA” exhibit has two sides: the military that wants to present itself as a strong, disciplined defender of the nation and the families who lost sons to suspicious, non-combat deaths and question the discipline and integrity of the military: Where does the truth lie?

SA: That is precisely the question I am asking through this work – how can these two realities exist next to one another? I would like for the viewers of this work to answer that question for themselves…

SB: How did the parents of the lost soldiers respond to your interest in telling their sons’ stories?

SA: Generally very responsive. Since the military and legal system has not provided a credible forum through which these families can seek redress, they are more than willing to seek alternative channels, such as the court of public opinion, to tell their sons’ stories.

SB: Is there a story you heard that still haunts you?

SA: What haunts me are the photographs the families shared with me of the way their sons were found at the scene of the incident – one hanging from a metal pipe, the other with a Kalashnikov in his mouth, the other with a bruised body – I looked at these images for only a day – these families live with these photographs, study them in detail day-after-day, trying to figure out what happened to their children. But what haunts me even more is the feeling in my stomach when I leave the families homes, or when I leave the frontlines – that sinking feeling of not being able to “change” anything.

SB: It is an act of bravery to try to uncover what lies behind the deaths of soldiers that happened under mysterious and violent circumstances, sometimes even involving drug trafficking. Do you worry about your own security?

SA: There are moments when I think about whether or not I should be afraid, but mostly I am so focused on the story and making sure the work is true to the essence of the situation that I don’t have much time to worry about it. Not telling this story is not an option.

SB: How has the public in Armenia responded to your work?

SA: Very positive and supportive so far. In conjunction with the Open Society Foundation office in Yerevan (which also funded the project)…[a photography exhibit was sponsored].

SB: Do you think your work will prod the Armenian military to be more open about non-combatant deaths and help the families of lost soldiers find answers to their questions?

SA: It is always difficult to define if and how social justice reportage will influence the situation it seeks to portray and illuminate. I define success as being involved in the process of change even if I personally do not see the final result.

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In October 2011 family members of those who have died mysteriously while serving in non-combat duty in the Armenian army protest in front of the Republic of Armenia’s Presidential Palace of President Serzh Sargsyan in the capital city of Yerevan. As mothers hold pictures of their dead sons saying their sons did not commit suicide the Armenian government continues to refuse to investigate claims of abuse and deadly bullying inside the army ranks. Family members say that the facts in the continuing deaths just don’t make sense as they ask for cases inside the military to be properly and thoroughly investigated. Non-combat deaths in 2014 are continuing to happen within the Armenian army without government investigation.

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For more information on this topic:

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Attorney Sara Anjargolian‘s photography work has been recognized and supported by the United Nations, Open Society Foundations, Fulbright, UCLA School of Art & Architecture (Make Art / Stop AIDS), Photophilanthropy, the Tufenkian Foundation, and the Yerevan Press Association. 

American based Bulgarian photojournalist, Svetlana Bachevanova, has exhibited her work in Europe and the United States in galleries and museums and has been published, in addition to WNN – Women News Network by numerous major newspapers, news agencies and magazines including the l’Humanitie, Soar, Biography, Reuters, National Geographic and Associated Press. In 2010 she co-founded FotoEvidence, to continue the tradition of using photography to draw attention to human rights violations, injustice, oppression and assaults on sovereignty or human dignity wherever they may occur. Every year the FotoEvidence Book Award recognizes an outstanding photo project documenting evidence in the violations of human rights.

(Introduction material for this interview has been created by the editors at WNN – Women News Network).

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