Armenia: wounds unhealed one year after the war

Armenia: wounds unhealed one year after the war

At the Tavush cemetery, near the border with Azerbaijan, a family mourns a soldier who died during the 2020 conflict.

(Lorena Sopena)

On 10 November 2020, the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan came to an end. The two nations, former Soviet republics of the Caucasus, had been engaged in combat for 44 days, in Nagorno-Karabakh (Armenian majority population – under the control of Armenian troops since 1994 – but located in Azerbaijani territory and recognised as part of Azerbaijan by the international community). Disputed since last century, this territory has been the cause of skirmishes and the 1992 to 1994 and 2016 armed conflicts between the two countries.

During the latest armed confrontation, Baku was supported by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey, a country Armenia has condemned before the European Court of Human Rights for allegedly sending Syrian mercenaries into the conflict zone. The cross accusations between Armenia and Azerbaijan include the proceedings filed with the International Court of Justice over the alleged laying of mines (by Armenia) following the end of the war and Azerbaijan’s holding of war prisoners.

Fears that the conflict might escalate and spread beyond the Armenian and Azerbaijani borders did not materialise. The EU is Baku’s largest trading partner and crude oil is one of its main exports, so maintaining the flow of the pipelines passing close to Nagorno-Karabakh was a priority.

The conflict ended in defeat for the Armenians and with the signing of an armistice by the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia (which mediated the ceasefire). Armenia agreed to cede a large part of Nagorno-Karabakh (a territory inhabited by some 146,000 people and which declared itself independent in 1991 but has not been recognised by any country) to Azerbaijan. According to sources in both countries, around 4,000 soldiers were killed in the fighting on the Armenian side and some 3,000 on the Azerbaijani side, in addition to civilian casualties and the thousands wounded.

Although the war is over, there are still periodic skirmishes on the border between the two countries and there is no end to the nationalist exaltation. Whilst victory has boosted morale in Azerbaijan, in Armenia, the wounds of the conflict continue to sting. But, for now, neither side wants to go back down the military route.

Youth cut short and job prospects dimmed

Yerevan, in the Armenian capital, is home to the Armenian Wounded Heroes rehabilitation centre where former soldiers, most of them in their twenties and thirties, battle with their war wounds. This generation was born during or shortly after the conflict of the early 1990s. Many of those here (from among the more than 10,000 wounded in the conflict) have lost one or more limbs. Such is the case for Sayn, who on the day he welcomed us had started work on making his way downstairs with his two new prosthetic legs. The 20-year-old was a professional soldier before the conflict. Now he plans to return to the Armenian town of Ararat, where he was born, to work in the fields with his family, once his rehabilitation is complete.

“I lost one of my legs in a drone attack that killed 17 people,” explains another wounded soldier, 27-year-old Samuel who went to the front as a volunteer. Since being amputated, he has been living between Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh (where he is from), with his wife, and Yerevan, where he goes for rehabilitation every two weeks whilst waiting to receive a prosthesis, which will enable him to walk again.

For this young man, who works in the Foreign Ministry of what is left of the self-proclaimed republic of Artsakh (as the Armenians call Nagorno-Karabakh), “peace with Azerbaijan is possible, but not in the short term”.

Vardan, from Yerevan, was called to the front whilst doing his military service on Armenian territory. He says that “even if he hadn’t been obliged, he would have gone anyway”. At the age of 19, he was fighting with the Armenian troops to repel the Azerbaijani attacks on Nagorno-Karabakh. Sixty per cent of those killed on the front were between 18 and 25 years of age. Most of his friends and acquaintances also traded their homes for barracks during the conflict.

At the moment, he does not feel ready to fight on the front, “neither physically nor mentally”, and for now he will continue to work at the logistics company where he is employed. But if need be, he tells us, he would be ready to return to the front to defend Armenia within a few years.

Levon (not his real name), who is also from the Armenian capital, was one of the young men who was sent to the front at just 19 years of age. He had been doing his military service for two months when he was sent to fight as part of the sniper unit. He resents that the Azeris had more resources, such as drones, and says that the hardest thing is the “first time”: “the first hour of combat, the first dead body, the first dead friend. You go out thinking you’re going to die,” he recalls.

His Christian faith, one of the pillars of Armenian identity, helped him to carry on. “In war, you feel God’s presence everywhere,” he says.

He fought until the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and was finally able to return home in November after being away for more than two months. “Armenia has suffered a lot from the genocide and wars. Still, we Armenians, we never lose our strength and our hope, and we are always ready to fight for our land and our lives.”

Many young Armenians are now torn between living in Armenia or emigrating to a country – often the United States or Russia – that offers more opportunities than the Transcaucasian country, with its poor economy, high unemployment and low minimum wage (around US$300 or €260 a month).

From a complex past to a future that hinges on dialogue

The war also affected the civilians who suffered from the shelling in Nagorno-Karabakh. Those living in the territories brought under Azeri control (just over two-thirds of Nagorno-Karabakh), following the signing of the ceasefire deal, lost their homes. Some of them went as far as to burn their houses (many built with their own hands in the 1990s), preferring to see them destroyed rather than allowing an Azerbaijani to live there.

One of those forced to flee Artsakh was Ruzanna, a resident of Stepanakert. “We lived amid the shelling for a month,” she says. Although she was able to keep her home, she chose to leave for the Armenian capital. “Everything changed before my very eyes, everything looks sad. Stepanakert filled up with the many refugees [from areas under Azerbaijani control], so much so that it’s hard to get around the city now,” she tells us.

The conflict and its consequences were among the main campaign issues debated during the snap parliamentary elections of 20 June 2021 in Armenia, which Nikol Pashinyan won with a comfortable margin. His victory allowed him to maintain his position as the prime minister, despite being identified as the person ultimately responsible for the country’s defeat by its neighbour. “He is the only one who can help the Armenian people. He’s made mistakes, but he has learned from them,” says Arin, who voted in the elections.

Pashinyan and his government now have a number of pressing issues to deal with: the health response to Covid-19, the unstable economic situation (aggravated by the war) and, not least, the border issue with Azerbaijan, which is unlikely to be resolved in the near future.

As for Nagorno-Karabakh, reconstruction work is underway in the areas recovered by Azerbaijan, such as Shushi (Shusha for the Azerbaijanis), and Turkey remains present as a partner for strategic infrastructure. Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, has meanwhile indicated his willingness to talk with Pashinyan to normalise bilateral relations, but has ruled out any chance of granting special status or autonomy to the Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh.

This article has been translated from Spanish by Louise Durkin