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‘With our hearts beating fast’: Back to school on the Nagorno-Karabakh front line

‘Who knows whether it’s safe or not?’

“If there is no school, there will be no village,” a staff member explained earlier this year, as children in front line villages like Karmir Shuka returned to class after a ceasefire. Frederick Gillingham/TNH
“If there is no school, there will be no village,” a staff member explained earlier this year, as children in front line villages like Karmir Shuka returned to class after a ceasefire.

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Recent clashes have underlined the fragility of the November 2020 Russian-brokered peace settlement, which ended last year’s flare-up in the decades-long war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.

In February 2021, when access to the disputed Caucasus region was still heavily restricted for foreign journalists, filmmaker Frederick Gillingham was able to travel there to document post-conflict life, exploring why opening the schools meant everything to villages near the front line — and the fears staff and students had to overcome to do that. 

Now, almost nine months on from the ceasefire, the Russian peacekeepers are restricted to patrolling roads and main towns, with very little presence at the newly drawn front lines; humanitarian access – even civilian missions – is still restricted; and access to water and electricity remains limited.

As children prepare to return to their frontline schools later this month, the political rhetoric has again been hardening on both sides. Yet the schools plan to open, as they did earlier this year. As one teacher put it in February: “We come to teach children with our hearts beating fast.”

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