‘We are closer to death than to a bright future’

“A large part of our generation has been wiped out. The Yerablur military cemetery is full of young soldiers.’

Azerbaijan and Armenia have been at odds over the Nagorno-Karabakh region for years. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev will meet this week in Brussels for another attempt at peace. What did and does this conflict do with the youth in Armenia? Indy Huttener and Zoë El Mhaned went to Armenia to learn what war does to young people.

armenia is a country in the South Caucasus and is also known as ‘the oldest country in the world’. It is located between neighboring countries Georgia, Turkey, Iran and Azerbaijan. Officially, the country belongs to Asia, but many Armenians feel European.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have been at odds for decades. They fight for Nagorno-Karabakh, an area that is barely the size of two Flemish provinces.

The conflict flared up in 2020 with thousands of deaths. A ceasefire ended the war, but tensions persist across the border.

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© Marijn Sillis & Roel Nollet

In just 44 days, more than 6,500 people died during the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020. These were mainly young, male soldiers. Armenia has compulsory military service from the age of 18. As a result, a young men with little experience ended up at the front. Many had only just left school when the war broke out.

What did and does this conflict do with the youth in Armenia?

“The conflict is like a ticking time bomb that could explode at any moment.”

Gohar Avaghyan is 22. She studies International Law and chairs the student council on her faculty at Yerevan State University. She talks about the impact the war had on student life in Armenia.

“Two years later, it’s hard to pretend that everything is back to normal,” she says. “The conflict is like a ticking time bomb that could explode at any moment. The university has always been a place where Armenian students gather to study and enjoy student life. That has now changed.’

‘If we compare Armenian students with European students, we can say one thing. We live in a different reality, one closer to death than to a bright future. When you wake up, you immediately look at the news to always be aware of new developments. We are aware that life can change drastically in one day. Because of this, we cherish every moment we have with our friends and family. After all, we live in a reality where we are grateful every evening that we got through the day.’

In the university corridors, a wall full of photos attracts attention. To commemorate the fallen students, the university hangs pictures. Fellow students set up small places to mourn their friends. Some auditoriums are named after soldiers. The war is still felt here.

The memorial wall gives a face to dozens of young people who exchanged their books for army uniforms. Gohar points out a friend she lost. “My buddy George,” she says. “He was just as committed to the university as I was.”

© Indy Huttener

George also hangs on the memorial wall in the university. “He had done his military service before the war broke out, but he volunteered to fight again. Unfortunately he didn’t return.’

‘George was very present in student life, he had many friends and was jovial. Everyone could count on him. He had already done his military service before the war broke out, but he volunteered to fight again. Unfortunately he didn’t return.’

George was one of the volunteers called upon by the Armenian army. Soldiers who had already received training were encouraged to participate. Others were called up and were told to rejoin the army.

‘A generation has been erased’

Gohar emphasizes that George is not the only one who was killed. All fallen soldiers should be honored. “A large part of our generation has been wiped out. Yerablur Military Cemetery is full of young soldiers. They sacrificed their lives for their country and all we can do is keep their memory alive and make other generations aware of the consequences of war.’

“All we can do is keep their memories alive and make other generations aware of the consequences of war.”

The 20-year-old Gevorg Khandkaryan survived the war. He was 18 when the war broke out. He and his brother had just joined the army, but they were unprepared for the mental effects of the war.

To escape the horror in his head, Gevorg makes drawings. He draws on the walls of his sleeping quarters at the front and in books he carried with him. He tells how drawing was an outlet for him during those dark days.

© Arman Epremyan

Gevorg with his brother Shahen during the war.

The 20-year-old Karen Agamalyan from Pokr Vedi survived a tank explosion and crawled through the eye of the needle. His entire body is covered in shrapnel wounds and he temporarily lost his sight.

“We went to inspect a spot at the border with two tanks. There were friends in the first tank, I was in the second tank with two others. We followed each other, but we soon realized that our reconnaissance was too dangerous. We decided to return, and position ourselves in a safer place.’

Then an explosion followed. “I had no idea what had happened. I didn’t realize our tank had been hit. I kept yelling and looking around where the others were, but no one responded. Somehow I got out of the tank and all around me I saw the devastation of the explosion.’

Soon Karen realized there was nothing more he could do for his comrades in arms. He walked back in the direction they had come from, hoping to meet someone from his group. “Finally I saw one of our army trucks and I told the men what had happened. They showed me the way to a house where our soldiers were. They took care of me and then took me to the hospital.’

He was numb from the shock and the adrenaline. In the hospital it turned out that he was in worse condition than he thought.

© Indy Huttener

A drawing Gevorg made during the war.

Fear of new war

Later, when Karen was taken to a rehabilitation center in Yerevan, he passed by his village of Pokr Vedi. He could briefly see his family, who had already heard what had happened. “If the hatch of his tank hadn’t been opened, he wouldn’t stand a chance of survival. He would have suffocated in the poisons from the explosion.’ Armine, his mother, calls it a gift from God that her son is still alive.

© Indy Huttener

Karen Agamalyan: ‘There will never be peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan by waging war.’

After his recovery, Karen had to finish his military service. In January, he finally left the army. Now he focuses on his agricultural studies and hopes that the war is really over. He would like to start a family, although he fears another war. “That would cause even more suffering.”

“There will never be peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan by waging war.”

“When it comes to peace, I don’t think war is the best way, because war and peace are incompatible,” Karen says. “The only way to reach an agreement is through negotiation. That seems to me the most sensible if both sides want to make peace. There will never be peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan by waging war.’

The future

It was not until May 24 of this year that negotiations were held for the first time since the end of the war on November 10, 2020. With Nagorno-Karabakh at the center, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan and Charles Michel of the European Council held the first conversation. This should already be a big step towards peace between the two countries.

Connection with each other is at the forefront of these negotiations, but for a large part of the Armenian people it is yet another stab in the back. It had been known for some time that negotiations were planned between the countries.

As a result, many people took to the streets in Armenia in recent months. The protest put a lot of pressure on the prime minister’s position. According to the protesters, Pashinyan would be too generous with the contested tracts of land, which would play in Azerbaijan’s favor. Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to Armenia, or so it sounds.

The protests in Yerevan were fierce. More than 500 protesters were detained between April 5 and June 19. Glass bottles were thrown, roads and subway stations were blocked. The escalation invoked the use of stun grenades to curb the aggression of large groups. As a result, the protesters finally withdrew on June 19.

Today, September 2, a new demonstration is planned. Thousands of protesters are expected at France Square in Yerevan. Another clash with the police is expected.

Charles Michel emphasized during the negotiations that the attitude between the two peoples towards each other is of utmost importance to achieve peace.

© Indy Huttener

Karen with his little brother walking through their village Pokr Vedi.

This article was made possible thanks to the StampMedia grant, in collaboration with Fonds Pascal Decroos. Every year StampMedia makes a total of 4,000 euros available for experienced reporters between 16 and 26 years old who make an in-depth story in which young people and their environment are central.

The article is in Dutch

Tags: closer death bright future

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