Lena, 15, during a class at Stepanakert Military High School in Nagorno-Karabakh. (Lena Mucha)

Last year, clashes in a decades-old conflict between Azerbaijani and ethnic Armenian forces in the Caucasus region motivated a number of young women and girls to challenge traditional gender roles and pick up arms.

“They are groundbreakers, facing resistance from many conservatives because they decided to go to a career where women are still not accepted,” photographer Lena Mucha told In Sight.

In Armenia’s capital of Yerevan, 23 female recruits entered the military academy in 2014, the first year women were accepted. A year later in Nagorno-Karabakh, girls joined the military high school in Stepanakert for the first time, Mucha reports.

Mucha visited both institutions last year and said that despite the fact that many had family members who served in the military, there was still much resistance to women joining. “Women should not be in the army, it’s not their place,” one of the physical instructors at the Yerevan Military Academy told Mucha, “They are just not like men.”

Clashes between the Azerbaijani and ethnic Armenian forces over the breakaway enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh last year were the worst violence the region has seen since the ethnic war over the territory ended in 1994. The conflict that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union killed about 20,000 people. Today, Nagorno-Karabakh is formally a part of Azerbaijan but is in fact controlled by a separatist government backed by Armenia.


A destroyed building in the village of Matarghis, in Nagorno-Karabakh very close to the front line. (Lena Mucha)

“The southern Caucasus and in particular Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh are widely known through media and visual representation for its conflict, destroyed and abandoned villages. Though this is reality, there is much more …” Mucha said.  “When I photographed these girls and spent time with them, I got to know them as quiet normal young women with very similar kind of preoccupations, thoughts and dreams most of the young woman around the globe would have.”

Despite the resistance that many of the young woman and girls faced, the experience created a bond between them, Mucha said. “A young woman normally doesn’t leave her parents’ house until she gets married and moves to her husband’s family. I think this is why the girls have built even stronger relationships among each other, they are more than just fellow students but like a family.”


Students heading for lunch at Stepanakert Military High School in Nagorno-Karabakh. (Lena Mucha)

Cadets lift weights during a physical development class at Stepanakert Military High School in Nagorno-Karabakh. (Lena Mucha)

A cadet rests in her dormitory at Stepanakert Military High School in Nagorno-Karabakh. (Lena Mucha)

A village in Karabakh was attacked last April. For many of the girls, the conflict was the main motivation for them to join the military to defend their country. (Lena Mucha)

Two girls chat during free time at Yerevan Military University. (Lena Mucha)

Students in a classroom in Stepanakerts Military High School in Nagorno-Karabakh. (Lena Mucha)

Seda, 21, during shooting training at Military University in Yerevan. (Lena Mucha)

Sports training at the Military University in Yerevan. (Lena Mucha)

Mariam Vardanyan, 21 and her friend decompress in their dormitory after their daily routine. (Lena Mucha)

A cadet in the backyard the dormitories at the Military University in Yerevan. (Lena Mucha)

Arevik Dinaryan, on campus at the Military University in Yerevan. (Lena Mucha)

Girls hang out after class in the backyard of their dormitories at the Military University in Yerevan. (Lena Mucha)

Cadets salute at the Military University in Yerevan. (Lena Mucha)

Lena Mucha is a freelance photographer based in Berlin.

More on In Sight:

Haunting photos show the devastation of Nagorno-Karabakh’s ongoing conflict

The brilliant photos of the first American female war photographer killed in action

These women hunters are redefining what it means to be ladylike