How are Armenian civilians responding to the war with Azerbaijan?
Translation by:Magali SETTE
Since 27 September Armenian TV news has been broadcasting daily alerts urging the local population to prepare for a possible escalation of the ongoing war in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. All the country's men have been called-up to fight in the conflict zone, or to guard the borders. Their families are supporting them in any way they can. Some are trying to alert the international community as to the gravity of the conflict, which, in less than two months, has already killed thousands. We spoke to one of the women campaigning for a ceasefire.
Since the end of September 2020 the violence in Nagorno-Karabakh has officially claimed over 1250 people on both sides, including at least 130 civilians. 1100 Armenian soldiers and 46 non-combatants have been killed so far. Azerbaijan does not publish its military losses. According to some estimates, however, the real figure is likely closer to 5000 in total, and hundreds more have been wounded. Over half the inhabitants of the self-proclaimed 'Republic of Artsakh', (which is not recognised by the international community and, as such, is usually designated as the Nagorno-Karabakh region) have since fled to the Armenian capital of Yerevan. Azerbaijan and Armenia have accused one another of targeting civilians by bombing cities that lie beyond the conflict zones. Attempts at a ceasefire have so far proved insufficient to stop the fighting between the two camps, and to quell the death toll.
Zara Papikian's husband left home four weeks ago to join the soldiers. She spoke to us from the village of Paraqar, near the Armenian capital, where she is campaigning for an end to the conflict.
Can you introduce yourself?
My name is Zara Papikian and I am a communications specialist in the field of culture and tourism. I studied in France and then worked for years in a variety of European and Armenian institutions. I'm married, I have two children, one of whom is four, the other is just three months old.
How has your life changed since the fighting started?
The war has completely changed my family life, as it has the lives of all Armenian families. Since September we have all been working flat out. Anyone who can be mobilised to join the defensive effort is fighting on the frontline. Others are helping however they can, according to their skills. Given my experience in communications, and my knowledge of foreign languages, I'm personally engaged with an initiative called the Armenian Media Army. The first two weeks were very demanding. For me, in practice, this meant eighteen hours of work each day, writing, translating, sending pictures, inviting people to come and see what's happening in the territory of the 'Republic of Artsakh'. My husband has been fighting on the frontline for four weeks. He left a few days after the war began. When he realised that this was a long-term situation, that we already had dozens of deaths, mainly among young men, he wanted to be by their side. Meanwhile, I am here with the children, fighting on the computer, and participating in demonstrations in Yerevan.
"He learned words like tank, helicopter and missile. It’s terrible."
Does your oldest boy understand where his father is?
My four-year-old regularly says to me, "Daddy didn’t come and see me so I won't eat, I can't sleep, I want him here," and so on. The TV news is broadcast every hour. Every time the clock strikes my son comes to tell me that there have been bombings. He wants to give me the news himself. He's learned words like tank, helicopter and missile. It’s terrible.
Personally I believe a human being has value independently of his or her nationality, religion or skin colour, and I try to educate my children according to this principle. Not to think about weapons and killing, but to create, to give birth to new things. Looking at the reports that are shown on television, however, at the severed heads of the Armenian soldiers who were taken prisoners of war, for example, it's difficult to explain these values to the children.
In practical terms, who has been called up to fight?
We've been governed as a military regime since 27 September. All men aged 18 to 55 who can fight are prohibited from leaving the country. This includes politicians, mayors, regional prefects and so on. All the men received the call. As soon as they receive the letter they have to go to the police station where officials take their contact details and call them when necessary.
For women, participation is on a voluntary basis. Some help by transporting weapons, others have gone to fight on the frontline.
What is the Armenian Media Army and what is your personal involvement?
The Armenian Media Army is a closed social media group that was set up by two or three people specialised in digital media and marketing. They decided to bring together people with communication skills so that they could organise highly specific missions. Among other things they identify false governmental websites, or highlight where fake news is being published. The aim is to disseminate truthful reports and videos.
As for my own role, it depends on the moment and the specific difficulties that the Armenian government is encountering at the time. Sometimes it simply means sending emails to companies, asking them not to sell equipment to Turkey which could be used to produce drones. Other times it might mean contacting foreign media, and trying to get people to talk about these events. We've also launched petitions.
Is this group linked to the Armenian government in any way ?
Yes and no. The young specialists who started this group are private, unaffiliated individuals. When there is important information that needs to be highlighted, however, the Minister of National Defence asks us to broadcast it. The government has no authority over us. We are not a state organisation, just a citizens' initiative. Nevertheless, if we can help their efforts in any way, we do so.
‘They are being asked to go to Stepanakert and see how affected civilians are by the war.’
60% of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh has now fled to Armenia. Most are women and children. What structures are being put in place to accommodate these people in Yerevan?
The citizens were the first to mobilise to provide shelter for the displaced people. A few days into the conflict the government set up a reception system. The Ministry of Social Assistance and Labour, along with hundreds of volunteers, are helping provide shelter for these families in homes or various apartments which they usually rent out. This year, given there has been no real tourist season, hotel owners have organised themselves to provide shelter for the refugees. Everybody here is helping in some way.
Much of the formal aid is aimed at feeding, sheltering, and educating children. There is a school and a kindergarten which provides activities and educational events to help the younger refugees who have witnessed the bombings process the situation. Music teachers give free classes. The health care system is free so the refugees can get treatment like everyone else here.
What kind of demonstrations are taking place in the streets of Yerevan?
We are mobilising in front of the offices of international organisations, such as the Red Cross or the delegation of the European Union, to make them see the conditions that thousands of refugee families are living in.
What exactly are you asking these institutions to do?
We're asking them above all to go to Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, to see how the war is impacting on civilians there. Regarding the Red Cross, we are asking for two things in particular: that they observe the war crimes, and that they join the call for a humanitarian ceasefire. There are prisoners of war in the area, and bodies that cannot even be recovered because the territory has been taken by Azerbaijani forces. Hundreds of families have been searching for their loved ones since 27 September, and they're still uncertain whether their relatives are alive or not.
Our expectations of the EU are less concrete. The Armenian diaspora is huge. In the past month, we have set up a foundation which has been accepting donations from different countries around the world to help the refugees, and the efforts on the ground. Above all we are simply asking that the EU condemns the war crimes and that they too call for a ceasefire.
On November 10th, a ceasefire has been signed between the two camps.
In October 2019, the “Cafébabel” team went to Yerevan to conduct a series of reports about the capital's youth. We wrote about military service in Nagorno-Karabakh and interviewed four young men about it. You can read and listen to their testimonies here, on Generation Yerevan
Cover Image: © Annabel Roda
Translated from L'unité arménienne face à la guerre dans le Haut-Karabakh