Article and video by Daniele Bellocchio
Nagorno Karabakh: the Scars of War
Endless night fell on Armenia on November 9, 2020. The announcement of the war’s end and the trilateral peace agreement signed by Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan entered the homes of 3 million Armenian citizens through a Facebook post by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. The Nagorno Karabakh war is over, the war is lost. It would have been a night of extreme grief and silent sorrow, but the collective fury simmering at the humiliating defeat transcended the pain and gave the hours following the ceasefire a tragic and angry despair.
In Yerevan, the announcement of the surrender conditions was followed by an explosion of collective anger. Hundreds of thousands of people, a human tide demanding answers and devoted to the enterprise of rancour, occupy the streets of the capital, besieging parliament, government buildings and the premier’s home. Acceptance of the defeat, concealed from the majority of citizens, and the repetition in the history of the Armenian people of that anathema of death that has condemned them through the centuries to loss of territory, deportation and genocide, devastated and kindled the anger of the demonstrators, who demanded that the premier and his government be sacrificed to the crowd and as a pledge to history.
Today, almost two months after the end of hostilities, the darkness of that night still hangs over this country in the Caucasus, which has received over 100,000 displaced people and thousands of victims. Its population is divided between those who support the prime minister and his decision not to resign, so seeking to preserve the shaky democratic structure that his executive managed to establish in two years, and those who accuse him of betraying the nation, of surrendering Karabakh to the enemy, lying about the progress of the war and so being primarily responsible for the deaths of over 3000 young soldiers.
On September 27 Azerbaijan, with the support of Erdogan’s Turkey, launched a war of military aggression against Nagorno Karabakh, historically an Armenian land but which in 1921 was assigned by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to Azerbaijan. Stalin’s aim was to make the country looking on to the Caspian Sea an outpost from which to export the Bolshevik revolution both eastwards and towards Turkey. In the late 1980s, the demand for independence by tens of thousands of Armenians was rejected and coexistence between the Azerbaijani and Armenian communities became increasingly difficult, with clashes and massacres occurring on both sides. The inevitable result was a conflict that caused the death of over 20,000 people between 1992 and 1994. Only a frail ceasefire put an end to the war in the nineties, with the final victory of the Armenians, who occupied the whole region and proclaimed the birth of the republic of Artsakh, not recognised to date by any other country in the world. Formally, however, according to international agreements and resolutions Nagorno Karabakh has always belonged to Azerbaijan and this is the reason why the region was once again the scene of a painful and bloody conflict, from September 27 to 9 November 9, 2020. After 44 days of hard fighting, Baku achieved military victory by once again taking control of seven disputed districts of the Caucasian region, the historic and iconic city of Shushi and other important towns of Karabakh.
It is morning and a light snowfall whitens the Armenian capital. But today there are no rallies or strikes, no majority and opposition. There is only absolute grief for the victims of the war. The government has proclaimed three days of mourning in the city and in Hanrapetutyan Hraparak Square the wind stirs the Armenian banner flying at half mast over parliament. Thousands of people march in silence to Yerablur, the military cemetery of Yerevan where, for more than a month, the funerals of all the fallen have been celebrated each day.
It is a hill of unquiet graves. On its slopes reality reduces the very idea of hope to dust. Everywhere there are photos of smiling young men who seem, in those smiles, to remind themselves and the whole world of when they were alive and happy. Albert was eighteen. His portrait has become an iconic image of the conflict and today his smile is carved on a slab of marble covered with a mantle of white roses. And it is the smile of Arman, Karen, Grigor, and the more than 3,000 young men aged 18,19 and 20, who now lie in a cemetery that is the epitome of all the senselessness it is impossible to come to terms with. There is no longer, here in Yerevan, the glory of the propaganda of the days of the war and not even the clamour of irredentist proclamations overflowing with simple history and immediate revenge that called for the bitter struggle in the Karabakh mountains. Instead, there is Anna, an elderly mother, who lights incense and kisses the letters of her child’s name. Not far away there is a father, a soldier, who with an unexpected sweetness in the hard lines of his face, caresses the portrait of his son and looks at his photo with dry eyes devoid even of the consolation of tears. And they are empty, distant eyes, lost in the landscape of his own memories, those of a tall, strapping man who, alone, amid the multitude of those present, caresses his brother’s monument. There will be no other horizon for these parents and these brothers than that of the past, forced to serve in solitude their sentence as survivors with memory as the sole and extreme remaining comfort from the wrongs of history and the injustices of life.
And the injustices of life are also clearly visible at the Yerevan Military Hospital where over 200 young men, seriously injured or maimed during the fighting, receive care and attention. ‘‘Most of the young people here are between 18 and 20 years old. They’re little more than boys who have just started their adult life and for them the fact of being here, in this condition, is utterly dramatic,” says the hospital’s director, Dr. Lucine Poghosyan, who explains: “We try to do more than give them just medical help. We also create a family environment and offer psychiatric support. Many suffer from mental problems caused by the horrors they’ve experienced and of which they’re the victims.” In the physiotherapy ward, some have lost legs and arms, some are no longer able to walk or have full control of their limbs. Still others, suffering from muscular injuries caused by shrapnel, have to learn how to regain control of their limbs. Dr. Poghosyan confides: “A young man of only 19 was once brought here, he had no arms or legs and a terrible wound to the abdomen. He was conscious and we didn’t know how to help him. A tragedy.”
Some of the young patients in the hospital retain in their melancholy features the traces of the faces of the boys they were until a few months ago, others seem to have aged suddenly and are on the verge of death. Then there is a boy, a conscript, only 21-years-old, who lost both legs above the knee during the fighting. The young soldier does not want to remember the days of war and fighting, and expresses the reason for his silence with a laconic, dramatic and moving question…