All over Yerevan, black banners can be seen with the names and ages of the boys who died during the war. There are no Christmas decorations in the streets of the capital of the country in the Caucasus, only photos and posters commemorating the victims of the latest Nagorno-Karabakh war.
The city is black with mourning. From the Opera House to Republic Square, from the suburbs overrun with Soviet-era buildings to the snow-covered countryside, everywhere you come across distant, afflicted and hermetic gazes, the expression of a collective suffering that, in the private dimension, reaches a paroxysm of pain, tragedy and loneliness.
We need to know the individual, personal stories that by their authenticity will explain the disorder of lives better than the news reports, to understand the facts in a more deeply real and human way so as to have an immediate and absolute understanding of the horror of the war.
Tens of thousands of Nagorno Karabakh citizens today live in makeshift housing in the Armenian capital. Thousands of families have been forced to leave the main cities of Artsakh and have found hospitality in hotels and private homes. In a small apartment in the capital live Karen and Lilith, the mother and father of Aren, a young man of just 18 who died after 40 days of fighting.
It is a house filled with an unspeakable torment, where time seems to have stopped forever: no hope, no future, all suspended in an accompanying limbo of perpetual melancholy, incomprehensible pain and dignified piety. Aren’s photo is placed on a small piano. His mother Lilith carefully lights some incense and gently caresses his photo.
“We are originally from Shushi, then when I was asked to go to work in Stepanakert we all moved there.” His father tells the story of the family and his son: “My son did well at school, he really liked physics, and like all boys of his age he played football. But his great passion was always the guitar.” Then on September 27 the Azerbaijani incursion into Nagorno Karabakh took place, the war started, and his draft card arrived.
“When the conflict erupted, Aren was sent to fight. He hadn’t yet finished his military service or even his training, but no one had any scruples about sending him to the front line,” explains his father calmly and lucidly, and then adds: “When he died, no one had the courage tell us exactly what had happened. We were informed that Aren had been injured and that we should go to the hospital. Only then did we learn that he had actually been killed.”
There is no rancor and no measure of hatred or vengeance in the words of his parents, but a profound desire for pity and silence: “I can’t stand the rhetoric of politicians and everyone who calls my son a hero,” continues Karen. “My wife and I do not want our son to be called a hero, we would have preferred him not to be sent to die and that he could continue studying, playing football, playing the guitar: living.”
Lilith, his mother, has eyes swollen with tears barely restrained and with a rare and firm dignity. Without ever giving way to sorrow, she watches a video of her son playing the guitar on her phone, trying to rewind the tape of time and so relive a moment of life with her son. ‘‘How can I say that the Armenians are good and the Azeris are bad?” asks Karen. And then concludes: ‘‘I can only say that war is absurd and terrible…and allow me to send my sincere condolences to all the Azerbaijani fathers and mothers as well. Because I know what it means to lose a child in the war.”
It is the fathers and mothers today who have to face the painful aftermath of the war. In some cases the void that can never be filled for the loss of a child, in others the responsibility of having to give their children hope for a future that the war seems to have denied them. In still other cases, there is the unjustifiable ordeal of having to live day by day without any news of a loved one, missing on the front line during the fighting.
In Stepanakert the streets are frozen as a timid sun tries to warm the early hours of the day. As they do every morning, Angela and Nikolay Asryan put on their heavy coats and go to the presidential palace in Stepanakert to find out whether there is any news of their 31-year-old son Sasun, who has not been heard of since mid-October. He disappeared during the conflict. Walking slowly, his elderly parents go to the seat of government and, producing photos of their son, ask the attendants and officials whether the president has any information about his fate.
No answer. Once again a laconic, ‘‘We know nothing,” and a bureaucratic, “if we come to know of anything, we’ll let you know.” His father and mother return homeward for another day, without answers and without being able to put an end to their nightmares, accompanied only by the sacred patience of living, unable to give way to fatalism or passive acceptance of the drama.
‘‘My son was very famous in Shushi. He believed a lot in his land, he lived in Shushi and loved to go hunting, fishing, swimming in the river. Many people knew him,” explains his mother, while looking in her purse for a photo and a medal for valour that her son had received during the four-day war in April 2016. The elderly parents continue to look at the photos and videos of their son and his mother says: ‘‘Sasun was not married but he had a girlfriend who calls me every day and asks me if there is any news of him. And I keep telling her I don’t know anything and then we talk about him and I tell her I wish they had had children.”
There is only desperation on the face of Angela and Nikolay who have seen themselves deprived of even the most charitable and elementary right that is the due of every parent affected by a sorrow as absolute as it is absurd: