I almost died in Martuni. While reporting in this town in the east of Nagorno-Karabakh a couple of weeks ago, a missile exploded exactly where my cameraman Aram Grigoryan and I were standing. I received a few scratches, but Aram was seriously wounded.
Along with two other groups of journalists, we had headed to Martuni on 1 October. Two residents of the town, including a seven-year-old child, had been killed in shelling on the first day of the war, 27 September, and local and international journalists decided to visit - to inspect bombarded houses and interview local residents.
It took us several hours to reach Martuni from Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh - an unrecognised republic located between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Our vehicles were marked “Press” in capital letters on all the windows. We wore bullet-proof vests and helmets, also labelled “Press”. There were no military forces and military structures located in Martuni and there were no soldiers in the area where we were reporting.
After an hour of filming and interviews with residents, the groups regathered and we were getting ready to leave for Stepanakert. A few minutes later, Azerbaijani forces began shelling us with Grad missiles, a Soviet-built 122mm multiple rocket launcher.
The first missile exploded several metres away from us. Then within split seconds, one missile followed another. They came down like hail. Locals insisted that there were 40 explosions. The ground was shaking, smoke was everywhere. I barely saw where we were rushing. We entered a building and ran through a corridor when another missile fell and exploded in front of us. We turned back and another one exploded.
One of the missiles hit a car, burning it to the ground. We rushed to an underground shelter, where I noticed that Aram, my cameraman, was wounded. His hand was soaked in blood. I immediately removed the material and tried to get a look at the wound on his back, to bandage it and stop the bleeding.
Two Le Monde journalists, Allan Kaval and Rafael Charles Yaghobzadeh, were seriously wounded in the attack. Sevak Vardumyan, a local reporter for an Armenian news agency, 24news, was hit by a fragment of a missile. Residents managed to find a functioning car to take the wounded journalists to a hospital for urgent treatment. The thirty-minute car ride seemed like it would never end, but eventually they were transferred to hospital in Martuni, and then onto Stepanakert.
The fact that all of us had vests and helmets labelled “Press” raises the question of whether Azerbaijani forces intentionally targeted journalists that day. Reporters Without Borders’ Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk stated that this bombardment was “unjustifiable as civilians, and journalists in particular, are not military targets” - and called on the Azerbaijani authorities to conduct an investigation.
A day after the shelling in Martuni, another press vehicle was hit in the town of Martakert, in the north of Nagorno-Karabakh. Small shards of the missile hit the car, breaking the windows and piercing the exterior. Artak Beglaryan, human rights ombudsman in Nagorno-Karabakh, expressed suspicion that “Azerbaijan’s targeting of journalists is aimed at driving journalists out of the war zone, so that international journalists, in particular, will not be able to present the situation objectively.”
On 8 October, Azerbaijani forces targeted the St Ghazanchetsots church in the town of Shushi twice. During the second shelling of the church, two Russian journalists, Yuri Kotyonok and Levon Arzanov, were seriously wounded.
Nagorno-Karabakh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has stated that it has data which suggests that special Azerbaijani military units are ordered to follow and target reporters covering the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied that the country’s military has targeted members of the press.
These cases won’t be the last as long as Azerbaijan continues targeting civilians. This is a strategy that Azerbaijan uses to silence the world and prevent international media coverage of the conflict, by trying to discourage journalists from visiting Nagorno-Karabakh. In Azerbaijan itself, a journalist working for France 24 has said that their movements and freedom to report were limited. This situation puts trenches between the reporters covering the conflict on both sides, and is a serious challenge for journalistic objectivity.