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Two years on from the April 2016 war, which caused the deaths of hundreds and a loss of territory, Nagorno-Karabakh’s youth are more determined than ever to stay in their homeland and build a future there. Galvanised by their recent experience of war, young men living close to the frontline talk of what the April events meant for them and how they remain ever vigilant of another outbreak of fighting.
If several years ago there still existed the hope that the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides could reach a peace agreement, the outbreak of violence in April 2016 all but destroyed it. Both sides blame each other for initiating the most violent clashes since the 1994 ceasefire.
‘The bringers of peace’
The violent escalation, which has come to be known as the ‘Four-Day War’, took the lives of several hundred people, including civilians, and was the motivation for 23-year-old Vachagan Dadayan to write his first novel — the story of a young scout who promises his mother and fiancée he will bring peace, but dies during the April War. The book is called ‘The Peace Bearer’ and its title reflects how local people in Nagorno-Karabakh see their soldiers — as bringers of peace.
Vachagan lives in Martuni, a town in Nagorno-Karabakh just three kilometres from the frontline with Azerbaijan. He was born in June 1994 — a month after Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorno-Karabakh signed a ceasefire agreement. The ceasefire put an end to three years of heavy fighting, over Nagorno-Karabakh during which thousands died and even more were displaced, but did not resolve the actual question of Nagorno-Karabakh’s status, resulting in the stalemate of ‘no war, no peace’ which has lasted to the present day.
Vachik (as he is known to his family) did not witness the 1991–1994 war, but growing up he heard about it from older relatives, learned about it at school, saw it in films, and read about it in articles and books. ‘I didn’t see the war, but according to past experiences we should be ready for it at any time. Nobody knows when it will start again, therefore we should stay vigilant’, he says.
Vachik studied law at the Nagorno-Karabakh State University in the capital, Stepanakert, but his main passion is writing. On 2 April 2016, Vachik was in Stepanakert for his studies. When he heard that fighting had broken out, he immediately returned to his hometown Martuni and went to volunteer on the frontline. While he was on duty in the trenches, he continued to write. He wrote using whatever he could find — making notes on packets of cigarettes or toilet paper, and even writing on the ground in chalk. He would copy his notes to paper during his next shift. ‘One day, when my friend Artak and I were at our posts, our connection with headquarters was suddenly cut off. Artak went to find out what had happened. He was gone for seven minutes and during this time I composed a poem called “O World, where did you disappear?” ’ Vachik recalls.
Following the end of hostilities, Vachik often thought about the war. ‘My friends and I talked about it so often that I decided to write about it. That’s how the idea for the book was born’, Vachik says. Nowadays, Vachik and his friends talk less about the war. Their conversations have returned to everyday life — work, future plans, football. ‘The war was a special stage in our lives, and afterwards things continued as before. Except that now, people are more united. Before the war they would greet each other and walk on. Now they actually stop and ask how things are going; they discuss different things. It’s probably because during the war everyone shared one trench and were like one family,’ he says.
Unlike the main character in his novel, Vachik doesn’t believe that peace can be found. ‘I believed in peace before the April War. But now I don’t believe it’s a possibility in the near-future. We are not ready to compromise; neither are they. There is only a clash of interests.’
‘If I leave, so will others… What happens to Karabakh then?’
Twenty-four-year-old Erik Hakobjanyan, a trained lawyer, serves in Nagorno-Karabakh’s police force. Unlike Vachik, Erik still believes peace can be achieved. He served in the Nagorno-Karabakh Defence Army between 2012–2014, a turbulent period which saw several clashes along the conflict line, culminating in the August 2014 escalation — a precursor to the violence of April 2016. ‘They fired intensively on our positions. We realised that we could expect an escalation,’ Erik recalls. He says it breaks his heart each time he hears of soldiers dying on the frontline. Nevertheless, he still hopes that peace will come to the region one day.
Before the April 2016 violence, Erik was thinking about emigrating, but the war forced him to change his plans. ‘Now I’m not thinking of going abroad. This is where I see my future. If I leave, so will others… What happens to Karabakh then?’.
In other respects, the war did not change Erik’s future plans. On the contrary, the experience added to his self-confidence and initiative, leading him to continue his education and find a job. ‘The war has strengthened me and made me more resilient. Now it’s easier to overcome difficulties’, he admits. ‘It showed us that we are ready to confront the enemy. Young people are galvanised by this awareness.’
‘Nothing can stop me from living in Martuni’
Gevorg Sargsyan is of the same opinion. He lives in Martuni and works in the local administration as a youth development specialist. He does not remember the first war as he was only four when it ended. For him, as for many others, the morning of 2 April, 2016 began with the sound of a salvo of Grad missiles being fired. Martuni and its surrounding villages came under rocket and artillery fire from the Azerbaijani side.
That day, Gevorg felt the bitterness of war. ‘I saw mothers with their children on the streets — they were so bewildered, not knowing where to go to hide from the shelling. This image stays with me to this day. It was the most terrible thing I have ever seen, even worse than anything I saw on the front. When you are at your post, everything seems commonplace, even when shots are fired close to you. When you are further back from the front [where there are civilians], it’s worse. That day, I realised for the first time what war meant,’ Gevorg says.
After this, Gevorg says he became more vigilant and sober. He says the main change since the war is that it has now become shameful to leave the country. ‘I know many people who were going to leave after the very first shot. The four-day war put everything in order — even those who wanted to leave stayed.’
Surviving the conflict has inspired a new sense of confidence among the youth of Martuni. Many are launching businesses even though success is far from guaranteed. People start new projects regardless of the risks — the proximity to the conflict line and the threat of war. ‘New seedlings are growing between the old trees in the gardens; in a couple of years they will begin to bear fruit. This shows that people do not intend to leave their homes. Otherwise, they would just sit back and do nothing. We need to become stronger and richer in terms our economy, our human resources and our weaponry. It’s more difficult to start a war against a rich state’, says Gevorg.
He does not exclude the possibility of a new war; he says the positions of both parties are too antagonistic and no one is ready to make concessions. But this threat does not prevent Gevorg from planning for the future. ‘Nothing can stop me from living in Martuni, whether the war will last for four days or four years. Life goes on…’
[Read from the other side of the conflict: ‘I would never return home again’ — the Azerbaijani IDPs as old as the conflict]
This article is published as part of International Alert’s work on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which is part of the European Partnership for the Peaceful Settlement of the Conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh (EPNK), a European Union Initiative. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and may not necessarily reflect the views of OC Media, International Alert or its donors.