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Letter from Yerevan: a city in shock as the nation mourns8 min read

 In Blog, Caucasus, Civil Society
With the sun not yet risen over Armenia, on 10 November I woke at 4 AM to a text from the U.S. Embassy warning “Protests have broken out in downtown Yerevan, with reports of violence.” Groggily, I checked the news and discovered that the unthinkable had come to pass. An agreement had been signed between Armenia and Azerbaijan in which Yerevan would cede control of most of the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (known to Armenians as Artsakh), to Baku.

For more than forty days and forty nights, intense fighting rocked the Caucasus. In Yerevan, my life came to revolve around news from the front, as I scrolled obsessively through Twitter and discussed the latest events with my students and colleagues. No other news seemed important. The American presidential election provided a brief moment of joy but soon after, my attention returned to where it had been for the entire past month: the war.

The heavy human toll of the conflict dominated our collective headspace. Estimates suggest over 40,000 Armenians have been displaced from Karabakh, and another 40,000 civilians displaced within Azerbaijan from areas near the conflict zone. Both sides used banned cluster munitions against civilian populations and thousands have died since the start of the war. In Yerevan, it has been impossible to bury your head in the sand. Everywhere collection points for supplies being sent to Karabakh, endless rows of flags of Armenia and Artsakh, and giant screens depicting images of victory in combat. Even my cell phone provided a constant reminder, the service provider’s name changed from “MTS Armenia” to #haghteluenq, Armenian for “We will win.”

Internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but controlled by ethnic Armenians for the better part of the last three decades, a truce in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict came as a shock to many, including myself. Armenians remained steadfast in their commitment to the cause of protecting what they consider their sacred homeland even despite rising casualties and the loss of Shusha. In the streets of Yerevan, riots broke out. The parliament and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s house were broken into, media personnel were assaulted, and Parliament Speaker Ararat Mirzoyan was dragged from his car and severely beaten by rioters.

Apart from some ongoing protests, the streets of the capital have returned to relative calm since the events of that night. However, daily life still feels far from normal. Walking by Republic Square the next day, the broken windows of government buildings were now surrounded by a line of police officers in riot gear, casually smoking as protestors argued with each other. For many residents, the same mixture of exhaustion and fear, but more so than anything grief will continue festering in the open wound that is Armenia’s loss of Artsakh.

Frame of mind

2020 has been a hard year in education. As a teacher, the pandemic had already made everything quite difficult but in Armenia, the country suddenly entering a brutal war has made teaching and learning alike nearly impossible. Students became understandably distracted and stressed about their friends and relatives who were in harm’s way. Professors who had sent their sons to the front would receive incessant calls from concerned friends and neighbors. Everyone tried their best to make do with the situation at hand.

On social media, many universities regularly posted tributes to students who had died in combat. In these posts, smiling photos of deceased students and alumni stare back as words describe what bright futures they would have had ahead of them; how successful and wonderfully kind they were. I often thought about my own students when reading these obituaries.

The pain of once again losing what they consider to be their homeland, the grief of those who may never return to their homes or the region, the immeasurable loss of cultural heritage — it isn’t difficult to imagine Armenians would be devastated by the truce. With the nation so saddened and bitter, I wonder what chance this leaves for peace.

Fellow teachers and their loved ones had been called to fight. Friends of mine volunteered to go fight for their motherland while others had signed up and were only waiting to be called upon to serve. When the war suddenly ended, I was relieved for their safety yet totally underprepared for the gravity of this loss. My students and colleagues would no longer tell me stories of their neighbors, friends, or even their local pharmacists dying. Nonetheless, our moods had not brightened. Ultimately, the shooting has stopped but the humanitarian catastrophe looms in the air.

From a teacher’s perspective

Just hours before news of the truce broke, it was announced that ethnic Armenian forces had lost control over Nagorno Karabakh’s key mountain fortress of Shusha [see The Battle for Shusha: the cauldron of generational pain at the heart of the Nagorno-Karabakh war on Lossi 36]. The current outbreak of war has cost the lives of more than a thousand soldiers in Armenia, with numbers expected to rise as retrieval and identification operations continue. Anywhere else, many might have started wondering if the blood paid to hold onto the region for so long had been in vain, but not in Armenia. The mood remained defiant: #haghteluenq.

On my first class that day the truce was announced, I logged onto Zoom and as my students started to enter the call, we smiled awkwardly at each other. Before the war broke out, I generally asked my students at the beginning of each lesson, “How are you?” It’s a fairly innocuous question, a simple pleasantry but in the context of the war, it felt rude to ask anymore. I didn’t need to ask if they were doing okay, I already knew the state of their moods.

We skipped right into it, what was happening with the truce, the terms and conditions, the Russian peacekeepers, and most importantly who knew what and when. When did the Armenian political establishment know this would happen? Was it as Shushi(/a) fell and Nikol Pashinyan posted that “The battle for Shushi continues” only right before the truce? Or maybe, when Pashinyan’s wife Anna Hakobyan, who was in Karabakh, was called back to Yerevan on urgent business?

The conversation dragged on for some time. Even after the war had ended, I realized it would continue to be a point of conversation for months to come. Earlier that day, an Armenian colleague and I had a lengthy discussion about what went wrong. She explained that for Armenians, defeat was always the fault of everyone else. Turkey was to blame with their hired terrorists. It was the fault of the international media for not covering the conflict enough and oppositely the fault of journalists who reported too much on the Armenian shelling of civilians in Azerbaijan. It was the fault of the EU for largely ignoring these events and the fault of a world distracted by a pandemic and the US election. The search for the guilty party would end up pointing to everyone, everyone that is, except for the Armenians.

My students and I sat there together, trying to piece together an impossible puzzle, one to which we’d surely never know all the answers. Who was guilty in all this? By the time we finally managed to start the lesson, the vocabulary and exercises all felt so trivial, and the conversation inevitably soon returned to the end of the war. My students were still speaking English, so I felt I was still doing my job.

Open wounds

As one of my in person classes comes to an end, my students and I prepare to tackle our final exercise. They start speaking but are interrupted by noise from the street. Protestors are shouting outside the window, chanting Hadrut, Hadrut!”, and we can no longer concentrate on the task at hand.

Hadrut, a village with a population of 4 thousand Armenians, was a focal point in the war in mid-October. Fierce fighting forced these residents to flee and after Azerbaijani forces captured the town it became the site of apparent summary executions. Disturbing videos of this war crime made their rounds on social media, with military experts later confirming their authenticity.

The truce fails to shed light on a number of important issues, chief among them: how will ethnic Azerbaijanis displaced by the fighting of the 1990s and the ethnic Armenians displaced by the most recent fighting will return to the region given competing property claims and reinforced antipathy between the two groups? Armenian residents in the Kalbajar and Lachin districts have decided to burn their homes and schools instead of leaving them to Azerbaijan, writing messages on walls that read “We will not kill you, but you will die from this air!”

As history repeats itself, memories of a lifetime are being engulfed in purposefully set flames. In the 1990s after Azerbaijan lost control of the Kalbajar region, Azerbaijanis set fire to their homes as well. Their ruins will sit next to those of the newly burned Armenian homes in what can only be described as an endless cycle of fire and displacement. Hadrut itself lies in the Khojavend district which will remain under Azerbaijani control and residents may never return.

The protestors got even louder, screaming out for Hadrut, and my students’ faces went blank. For an hour we had been distracted, learning in an isolated bubble. As the chanting crescendoed, the bubble had burst and the crushing reality of the war and the consequences of the truce creeped back into our minds. We didn’t finish the exercise.

Featured image: Nagorno-Karabakh Republic back / Ekaterina Didkovskaya
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