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An Artsakh mother’s harrowing story behind the iconic photo seen around the world
An Artsakh mother’s harrowing story behind the iconic photo seen around the world. Photo Credit / Davit Hakobyan

Poster Mom

An Artsakh mother’s harrowing story behind the iconic photo seen around the world  


September 2023 will be etched in memory as a dark chapter not just in Armenian history but also in the annals of the civilized world, marked by the failure to avert yet another human catastrophe. Asrtakh was completely depopulated after Azerbaijan’s final act of ethnic cleansing, affecting the lives of thousands.

As is often the case, the heaviest burden fell upon ordinary citizens. Within a week, more than 100,000 individuals, including 30,000 children, were compelled to abandon their homes, possessions, and cherished memories, seeking refuge in Armenia. Each family holds its own story of suffering and loss, yet many may remain untold and unheard, unfairly forgotten within the pages of history.

One of these figures is a woman captured in a photograph in Kornidzor, Armenia by Russian photojournalist Vasily Krestyaninov. Despite the unknown details of her personal family story, her image resonated deeply within the Armenian diaspora and garnered attention from numerous international media outlets. With a solemn expression on her face, she led four of her seven children forward, their destination uncertain.

The mother is 42-year-old Lilit Harutyunyan. Originally from Ashan village in Artsakh’s Martuni region, Lilit has witnessed and experienced four wars firsthand, each wrenching some part of her life and clouding her peaceful existence and memories.

She and her husband Karen are the proud parents of seven children, the eldest of whom is married. Their daughter Mane, 8, and youngest son Aren, 4, were born during the highly tense environments of 2016 April four-day war and the 2020 44-day Artsakh war, filled with stress and fear. Then September 2023 came, which will probably be remembered as the darkest day of their lives.

In interview about a month after the family’s arrival in Armenia, Lilit described in detail the conditions under which they were forced to leave Artsakh, the perilous mass exodus across the border, the moment she entered Armenia after a nine-month blockade, and the emotions behind the iconic photo of her, taken in what might have been the worst day of her life.

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An article from Paris Match showing Lilit and four of her seven children walking to the Red Cross based in Kornidzor, September 25, 2023.

An article from Paris Match showing Lilit and four of her seven children walking to the Red Cross based in Kornidzor, September 25, 2023.
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An article from Paris Match showing Lilit and four of her seven children walking to the Red Cross based in Kornidzor, September 25, 2023. Photo Credit / Paris Match

Q: Lilit, thank you for agreeing to give an interview to AGBU Magazine. Your photo became highly visible in the international media. We would like to know the entire story behind it.

A: Everything started on September 19th. As usual, I woke up at 5:30 am, read the Bible, prayed, and saw my husband Karen off to work and the children off to school. After finishing my chores, I felt a slight headache that could be eased only after a nap. So, I asked my 19-year-old daughter, Christine, to take care of Aren, allowing me to lie down for half an hour.

I had hardly fallen asleep when I woke up to the sounds of heavy bombardment as if it were raining shells around our house. Still dizzy but terrified, I ran to the room and, not finding the children there, assumed my daughter had taken them out to play. I was paralyzed by terrible thoughts and just knelt for a moment, crying. Then I heard my daughter screaming me. She and Garen had also gone to nap, so they woke up to the same sounds.

Soon, I saw my other children running home from school. I gathered them all, and we went to the basement. There, I had to compose myself and stop crying so the children wouldn’t become more frightened. You know, children always look at their mother’s face. But inside, my heart was filled with terror. Seeing the scale of the shelling, I feared that at any moment, they would enter, massacre everyone, loot everything, and leave.

That day, we went in and out of the basement whenever the sounds of shelling intensified or subsided. Later, they began to shell not only the military posts but also the civilian houses. One of the shells fell into the courtyard of the neighboring house, while another shattered our kitchen window.

As our house was on the outskirts of Martuni city, we were afraid to spend the night alone in the basement. Apart from that, my children were agitated every moment, fearful of every tiny sound, imagining someone behind the door or approaching the shelter room where we were. So, when the shelling slowed, we preferred going to the public shelters in Martuni to be with the majority. It gave us a feeling of relative safety.

Soon, the official channels announced that a ceasefire had occurred, but nothing changed–the bombing continued. We stayed in the shelter for two more days and then went to my mother-in-law’s apartment in Martuni, closer to the city center. There, we learned that we no longer had any military posts there–they had taken the weapons and released the soldiers.

We returned to our place for a couple of hours on the 22nd. In the center, there was no water. We had water stored at our place. We went there, made dinner, boiled water on the stove, bathed the children, finished our meal, and then returned to my mother-in-law’s house. We also came back the next day, but this was the last family ritual at our place.

Upon arriving, we left the car and headed towards the Red Cross. As we approached, a foreign journalist came closer to take a picture. Overwhelmed that he was photographing us, I started frowning and crying, frustrated that all the attention was much too late. It was at that exact moment that he captured the photo.

 

Q: How were you informed about leaving Artsakh?

A: During this time, different messages were circulating among the public. Initially, we were told that we could remain in our homes until the end of December, after which we would have to decide whether to integrate with Azerbaijani society and live among them or leave our homes. I hoped we could still live there for a few more months and that things might change. Who knows?

But my neighbor’s son, who was officially better informed, soon told us these rumors were wrong. We needed to be prepared because, at any moment, the Russians could come and forcefully remove us from our homes. He also strongly advised us to burn everything: military documents, military uniforms, photos from the army, everything, as otherwise, it could create a dangerous situation for us. So we did.

We went back to our place to pack things. You know, we had everything at our place—everything. We had our house with furniture and electronic devices; we had our comfort, our pets. We left everything behind. I didn’t take anything. I didn’t even allow my children to take pictures of the house. I didn’t want them to look at them later and cry. We only took a few clothes and some food, and that’s all. We left our house forever.

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Family portrait of Lilit with six of her seven children in their new rental in Stepanavan, Armenia. Aren, her youngest son, didn’t join as he feared the camera, mistaking it for a gun.

Family portrait of Lilit with six of her seven children in their new rental in Stepanavan, Armenia. Aren, her youngest son, didn’t join as he feared the camera, mistaking it for a gun.
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Family portrait of Lilit with six of her seven children in their new rental in Stepanavan, Armenia. Aren, her youngest son, didn’t join as he feared the camera, mistaking it for a gun. Photo Credit / Davit Hakobyan

Q: How did you or other civilians organize yourselves until reaching Kornidzor in Armenia?

A: By the time we finished packing, the municipality had started registering existing cars to determine who needed transportation. Around midnight, my husband’s friend informed us that approximately 50 cars from Martuni were planning to join the evacuation, and if we had fuel, we could join them.

It was the 23rd. We spent the night at our house, and in the morning, we headed to Martuni in our Zhiguli, packed with ten people in the car—my husband and I, our six children, my mother-in-law, and my late sister-in-law’s daughter. My eldest daughter was married in Stepanakert, so she was there with her family, along with my brother and sisters. We couldn’t take them.

In the morning, when we reached the other cars in Martuni, we learned they were still there from the night before. One of the drivers told us that the Azerbaijanis, accompanied by Russians, had come to disarm the military post there. Seeing that we planned to leave, the Russians advised us not to depart at night, as the road from Martuni to Stepanakert was dangerous and the Azeris could open fire.

Karen took the initiative to organize the fifty cars into a single file, with each car following the one in front, to avoid provoking the Azerbaijanis to shoot. Before reaching the main road in the village of Nngi, ten other cars were also planning to leave. My husband discussed his ideas with the policeman among them, and he agreed to lead the cars, putting a white flag on his as a sign of peaceful evacuation. So, we followed him. Our car was the fifth in line.

Seeing that we planned to leave, the Russians advised us not to depart at night, as the road from Martuni to Stepanakert was dangerous and the Azeris could open fire.

 

Q: How many military checkpoints did you have to pass before coming to Armenia, and how did they treat you?

A: We had to pass through two checkpoints. Throughout the journey, I kept my gaze fixed straight ahead, filled with fear and praying silently, unsure of what kind of treatment awaited us. I instructed my children not to utter a word when we reached the checkpoints and to avoid making eye contact so as not to provoke any reaction.

After driving slowly for some time, the cars suddenly stopped. All the men, including my husband, got out to see what had happened. We had no weapons to protect ourselves, not even a single knife–unlike them, as they were guarding the road, locked and loaded. They checked the first car and allowed it to go. We felt a bit of relief.

When we reached the checkpoint, we were ordered to open the trunk, then asked how many persons were in the car. They checked our documents. One Azeri soldier circled the car and suddenly opened the other door—I was sitting next to the opposite door—and leaned his head into the car with a frustrated look. My daughter was sitting next to that door, and I was terrified. Within that half-minute, awful thoughts crossed my mind as he was so close to my daughter. I kept my hand on the door handle, ready to run and help if he tried to take her out. I maintained a determined look as if I weren’t afraid at all, but I was trembling. Then he looked at me and said ‘salam’ in a stern voice. I replied with ‘salam’ in an equally stern voice. He shut the door, and they let us go.

The soldier at the second checkpoint was kinder. He asked only a few questions, even requesting permission to look inside the car, and waited until my husband opened the door. After closing the door, he bid us goodbye and, in Turkish, said, ‘God be with you, have a safe trip.’

 

Q: What were your emotions upon arriving on the Armenian side?

A: Well, there was a rush of different feelings: relief that we had passed the checkpoints safely, as, at that moment, that was all I could think about. But once we crossed the border, we fully realized that we had left everything behind, with no way to turn back. I also couldn’t stop thinking about my other family members who were still on the other side. So it was just a momentary relief, and then fatigue, uncertainty, worry, and many strong feelings flooded in.

Then when I saw foreign politicians and journalists near Kornidzor, I started crying in the car, saying, ‘Why are you looking at us? Why are you taking pictures? Is there anything to admire? Now I am like a vagabond with no house, no means to live, nothing. Why do you need these photos after all?’

As if that weren’t enough, the car completely broke down there half way. My husband was negotiating to see who could help us pull our car, as many cars were broken or out of fuel. One of the men agreed to tow the car to the point near the Red Cross located for humanitarian assistance.

Upon arriving, we left the car and headed towards the Red Cross. As we approached, a foreign journalist came closer to take a picture. Overwhelmed that he was photographing us, I started frowning and crying, frustrated that all the attention was much too late. It was at that exact moment that he captured the photo.

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The Harutyunyan family gathered around the table in Stepanavan, Armenia.

The Harutyunyan family gathered around the table in Stepanavan, Armenia.
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The Harutyunyan family gathered around the table in Stepanavan, Armenia. Photo Credit / Davit Hakobyan

 

Q: What happened next?

A: My husband’s acquaintance came to pick us up from Kornidzor. Before moving here, we spent the first few days in Yeghvard. Then, we settled in Stepanavan, located in the Lori region of Armenia. Thankfully, my other family members also arrived safely in Armenia. My daughter and her family now reside in Artik, in the Shirak region, a two-hour drive from here.

Currently, my children attend school and kindergarten, and my husband works at the local hydroelectric power station. He is the sole breadwinner in our family and needs to manage everything, including the rent, which is very expensive for us.

Yet, I am thankful for what we have been given, but the soil in front of our house is drier now. There, we had a lot of greens, and we used to make a lot of zhengyalov hats during the season. My garden, my pets, and poultry. They were different. They were my home.

There, I had to compose myself and stop crying so the children wouldn’t become more frightened. You know, children always look at their mother’s face. But inside, my heart was filled with terror.

 

Q: As difficult as it is to look back now, it’s clear how much you cherished life in Artsakh.

A: Living in a border community, we always lived a life in relative disturbances with shellings and at times conflict escalations. I always joke that I used to watch wars from my balcony.

During the first Artsakh war, I was only 11, yet I vividly recall how my mom would see my father off to the front, wish all the village men good luck, and when the cars would leave, she and other women of the block would kneel and pray for their husbands and brothers.

The first war ended in victory but came at the cost of our comfortable life. Once a builder, my father found himself out of work when all major construction projects were suspended in our district in the mid-90s, plunging us into dire conditions. Though we were bright children, we could only complete high school as we couldn’t afford further education.

Then I married Karen when I was 18 and moved from Ashan to his native city Martuni.

Although we encountered numerous challenges as a family, overall, in the periods between wars, we managed to cultivate a beautiful family life. I took care of the household while Karen worked at the hydroelectric power station. Eventually, considering our big family, the municipality donated a large house to us. We finally had our dream house. A large yard surrounded the house, filled with pomegranate and other fruit trees. We grew almost every type of fruit tree that grows in Artsakh. We also raised poultry, including hens and turkeys, right at home.

That’s why we were among the few families that did not experience significant hardships even during the blockade. However, I still felt unsettled because my sisters, brother, and eldest daughter’s family were in Stepanakert, where the situation with food and fuel was critical. I felt hopeless knowing we had home-grown sustenance but couldn’t transport it due to the lack of fuel. We had saved only a tiny amount of petroleum for a dark day, which arrived in September 2023.

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Aren’s drawings made after arriving in Armenia.

Aren’s drawings made after arriving in Armenia.
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Aren’s drawings made after arriving in Armenia. Photo Credit / Davit Hakobyan

 

Q: Experts say that children are affected the most during the war. How are yours doing now?

A: Yes, that is true. I notice that they usually look to us for strength; they feel calmer if we maintain our spirits. However, my youngest son, in particular, is very stressed by all of this. In December, there was a celebration to light the public Christmas tree, and I took them to the square so they could be distracted and enjoy some holiday cheer. But then other children started playing with firecrackers. When Aren heard the noise, he began to cry and asked, ‘Are they bombing us? Let’s go. I don’t want to stay here.’ So we had to go inside the church so that he would feel safer.

My little one also dislikes seeing me pray because he associates it with danger. Whenever he sees me praying, he cries and asks, ‘What happened? Why are you praying? I don’t want you to pray anymore. Is there a war again?’ I know we need to seek professional care for him, but it’s financially impossible for us at this point.

 

Q: How do you see the future of your family after this terrible ordeal?

A: It’s uncertain. Of course, we will always hope that one day, we will be able to return. But for now, the reality is that we will stay in Armenia. Many people from Artsakh went to Russia and France, but this is our homeland, and we need to stay. However, you know, we fear that the same thing could happen to Armenia at any moment. So, I don’t know. It’s uncertain. 

Originally published in the June 2024 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. end character

About the AGBU Magazine

AGBU Magazine is one of the most widely circulated English language Armenian magazines in the world, available in print and digital format. Each issue delivers insights and perspective on subjects and themes relating to the Armenian world, accompanied by original photography, exclusive high-profile interviews, fun facts and more.