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‘We went straight to the border’: AP documents Armenians burning their homes in conflict zone

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For more than a month, video journalist Mstyslav Chernov and photographer Dmitri Lovetsky tirelessly documented the toll of fierce fighting over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Their powerful images and reporting including military operations, hospitals packed with wounded patients and those sick with COVID-19, and shelled cities and towns.

On November 7,as Azerbaijani forces closed in on the key strategic town of Shusha,the AP pair finally left the disputed region and headed for the relative safety of the Armenian capital,Yerevan,with plans to leave the region after their long deployment. That plan quickly changed as Azerbaijani forces continued their advance and Armenia signed a Russian-brokered agreement ceding the territory to Azerbaijan. As thousands of ethnic Armenians began fleeing the region,Chernov,based in Germany,and Lovetsky,based in Russia,canceled their flights and waded back into the story, documenting the column of desperate people abandoning their homeland.

In subsequent days the pair would capture images that showed the world the situation had grown even more dire.

Returning to Yerevan,Chernov and Lovetsky found angry protests sweeping the city with demonstrators breaking into government buildings. Again they shelved their departure plans and spent two nights in the midst of the protests,providing remarkable coverage. At the same time,thanks to excellent contacts built up during their stay and collaboration with Moscow producer Tanya Titova,they heard reports of Armenians setting fire to their own homes in the Kalbajar region to stop their properties from falling into the hands of the Azerbaijanis.

Chernov said: “I already had my flight planned for next day,but when I heard this rumor,I understood immediately this will be a very important story. So,I postponed my flight, got a car and after another protest in Yerevan we went straight to the border between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.”

“I understood immediately this will be a very important story. … After another protest in Yerevan we went straight to the border between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.”

— AP video journalist Mstyslav Chernov

In addition to the four-hour drive,the pair faced challenging conditions just getting to the region. They had to cross the closed border before encountering local soldiers who were nervous and angry, blaming the press for losing the war.

On their first day in the town of Vardenis,they found a family packing up their home and planning to leave the next day. Chernov and Lovetsky made another arduous trip to Yerevan and back,returning in time to record the family destroying their own property. The pair would complete that dangerous round trip between Nagorno-Karabakh and Yerevan five times in less than week,the final time only just beating the permanent closure of the border ahead of the planned handover to Azerbaijani and Russian forces.

Despite the tough conditions,the pair,joined by colleague Sergei Grits,produced powerful, emotionally charged reporting and images,including the moving story of a family having a last meal in their home before burning it. They also used a drone to great effect, getting striking images of the burning structures and the long lines of fleeing Armenians.

The main video edit of houses burning was used extensively by several key customers including Sky News,which produced its own online edit that has been viewed more than 75,000 times. As of Wednesday,AP’s edit had been used some 650 times by more than 100 broadcast channels. In addition to Sky,others using the footage included ABC,Al Jazeera,France 24 and Rai News. Meanwhile,AP’s initial consumer edit of Chernov’s video was watched more than 10,000 times on YouTube.

For displaying exceptional commitment and courage in their coverage of last week’s dramatic developments — as they have throughout this weekslong story — Chernov and Lovetsky earn AP’s Best of the Week award.

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