Fifteen days have gone by since war exploded in Nagorno Karabakh: on 27 September 2020, a stumbling block in history, a date which points to when an entire land began to familiarize itself with pain, and daily life increasingly started to take on the connotations of a condemnation with no possibility of remission.
Martakert is one of the last Armenian cities before the frontier with Azerbaijan. To reach it one must cross the entire Agdam plain. Both sides of the road are flanked with trenches and missiles fall all around. The route is paved with wrecked trucks and traces of bombings until we reach the ghostly town. Martakert is the best observation point to understand how here, in the southern Caucasus, the cogs of history’s stopwatch have become clogged and now only tap the beat of relentless suffering.
Nothing seems to hark back to life anymore; the buildings have been defaced by the clashes which here, only meters away from the border, are obsessive and unceasing. The artillery shots have also damaged the city hospital. A house has been reduced to its cement framework, a supply warehouse has been completely destroyed while the explosions booming and the drones buzzing wear on the nerves, their duty to remind us of the constant, invisible and lethal threat.
Only a few men venture through the city streets. One of them is Armian, who is 23 years old and has a limp due to a shrapnel injury to his leg.
He tells us, “I’m not leaving this city because this is my motherland and I want to stay here until the war is over. As soon as I am well I will leave for the front and fight.”
War here is endemic, welded at the joints of the soul, a sacrifice which must be carried out at all costs. This is confirmed also by David Lalayan, head of education for the department of Martakert who, when asked how it might be possible to rebuild the future of Artsakh after its children have been forced to become familiar with conflict replies:
“Our children have lived with war for generations and we are ensuring they are prepared. We teach them not to be taken by surprise because this is a war zone and we cannot know when it will end and we will finally live in peace. It is evident that the basic rights of children are completely violated and we know that children should never have to live through such brutalities, however they need to be raised in the awareness of what conflict is in order to confront it and also win it.”
The word “victory” is repeated like a mantra. The citizens boastfully proclaim it with a gesture forming a futuristic ”V” with index and middle fingers. It is shouted out by officials on both sides of the front and by the young volunteers who send marriage proposals to their fiancées, promising to marry them once the conflict is over and the war has been won. Such an overused word, victory; it reveals how the pressure of war has blinded their spirits making people less aware of the extraordinary beauty of an ordinary peaceful life.
Yet there is a desire for immediate peace among the more vulnerable, such as the elderly, their age-old sufferings imprinted in the wrinkles covering their bodies. They have seen too many wars to once again be tricked by the eloquence of rhetoric, by the separatist fury and by belligerent nationalism.
Two women live in a small apartment in the center of Stepanakert. They cannot take refuge in the shelters because they are bedridden due to illness. Zarik is 65 years old. She has heart problems and talks with difficulty. She whispers weakly as she lies wrapped in blankets on a folding bed. Next to her, on another small bed, lies Sonya who is 91 and cannot even walk. They spend their time together, giving each other emotional comfort from the illness consuming them with the solidarity of the powerless. They are assisted by Sergej, Zarik’s husband. He takes care of the women, bringing them medicines and food and ensuring they are not alone.
“They cannot leave here and I will not abandon them,” confides Sergej “If they continue bombing us there will be no hope for us and we will die. But if this is our destiny, the three of us will die together.”
The elderly Sonya, with teary eyes cries out,”I am afraid, very afraid. I beg whoever it is to stop all this, I do not want to live like this.”
Then, despite the temporary ceasefire for humanitarian reasons proclaimed by Yerevan and Baku, we once again hear the echoing of a siren. If you listen to it from inside a shelter, it is frightening; but from inside an apartment it is terrifying. Immediately you become aware of how vulnerable you are and you instantly understand that in the case of an explosion there would be no possibility of survival.
Zarik breaks down, crying with fear and exhaustion. Looking at her in silence, all the cruelty of a conflict which grants no exemptions and spares no innocents becomes apparent, where the sick are condemned as victims of their own afflictions and where the age-old compassion for the elderly has also been buried under a heap of rubble.