Exactly three years ago, I had written an article about the dark side of life in Armenia entitled, “A Conversation with Myself.” A brutal and fatal attack on an old man for a few thousand dollars and the death of a little girl by a speeding motorist had triggered the torrent of emotions that ran through the piece.
Looking back, I recall the outrage that had begun to blind my perceptions and distort my idealistic, perhaps naive understanding of the homeland. One passage reads: “I have crossed over to the dark side of the moon and am hanging on for dear life. Perhaps I need to exit the borders of this small plot of land that I adopted, or that adopted me, so that I can fill my lungs with oxygen and see that the planet around me isn’t sinking into oblivion.”
With seven Armenian soldiers killed in two separate non-combat-related incidents (July 27 and 28), one in Karabagh and the other in Armenia, I fear I am treading the dark, murky waters of despair once again.
When we learned of the ceasefire violation on June 18, the worst since 2008, by an Azerbaijani commando raid on a Karabagh Armenian outpost in northern Nagorno-Karabagh, in which four Armenian troops were killed, our hearts cringed. We were outraged at the blatant violation and for the young lives lost. We demanded condemnation from the international community and expressed our rage. While the Armenian government expressed its condolences, full military funerals were not bestowed upon the murdered soldiers and the families were left childless and broken.
In his blog, my friend Hayk wrote: “Last week, four soldiers died defending Armenia. But the only reaction in the mainstream Armenian media was the possible escalation of the Karabagh conflict, the political aspects of an Azerbaijani attack, the circumstances that made the Azeri offensive possible, what should be the retaliation, and on and on in the same vein. Four 19- or 20-year-old boys died for their country. Instead of a military funeral with honor guards and a tricolor folded and formally presented to their families, no one even mentions their names. No one talks about the sacrifice, about the heroism, about how they are the modern-day examples (living examples, one could say) of the lines in Armenia’s national anthem: ‘Blessed is he who dies for his nation’s freedom.’”
I was in Barcelona when I read the news of the attack and the resulting deaths. I remember trying to catch my breath as an ache in my heart began to swell. How much more blood did we need to shed? I immediately wrote a note to my Dutch colleague informing her of the news—after all we are good at being the victims, are we not? The enemy continued exacting revenge and I was full of indignation. The message of my note was blame and a self-righteous anger against the foreign aggressor.
But this recent spate of non-combat deaths of young Armenian soldiers is so intolerable and unbearable that for days I have asked everyone around me not to talk about it. Anytime the subject was brought up, I would leave the room. I could not bear to think about it, I wanted to pretend that it hadn’t occurred. I was being a coward because I tried to avoid the horrific reality of violence and abuse. And then I thought of all the mothers and how they would never be able to escape the reality of the pointless death of their sons.
Mah, voch imatsyal mah e. Mah imatsyal anmahutyun e.
(Death, not understood, is death. Death, understood, is immortality.)
We need to have an army; we need to have a strong army. I get it, I really do. We live in a conflict zone with the threat of war constantly looming over us. A Swedish parliamentarian, who was in Yerevan attending a conference recently, asked me rather condescendingly how I felt about conscription, and I told her that what we would want and what we need to have are two very different things. Our choices are always so limited—our geography and our history dictate the realities that we must face.
I am proud of every single young Armenian man when he leaves to carry out his military service, and prouder still when he returns. Over the past 10 years I have witnessed two military parades in Yerevan—my heart bursting with pride each time.
Serving and protecting the homeland is an honor and a privilege, a responsibility that our young men cannot shirk. While every mother’s heart is clamped with fear until her son returns home from his military service, she sends him off with honor and dignity. But there is no honor or dignity when it is a meaningless death; when it is a death that could have been and should have been avoided; when instead of worrying about the foreign enemy she has to worry about the enemy within.
Abuse within our country’s armed forces has been documented for years. The army has claimed that the number of deaths due to mistreatment has been declining, and while hazing is a common practice in armies throughout the world, our numbers do not give us the luxury of killing each other. The defense ministry, military leaders, generals, commanders, sergeants, officers are all to blame. And so are we, the ordinary people, because for the most part we have remained silent.
We have all heard stories of how young conscripts are humiliated verbally and physically by their superiors, sometimes so viciously that they take their own lives. Or they die under the beatings. Or they return to their families with psychiatric problems. For what? For whom? Who gains from this kind of abuse? Does it improve discipline within the ranks? Or does it demoralize them further?
On July 28, a young, 21-year-old conscript, Karo Ayvazyan, turned the gun on himself after allegedly going on a shooting spree that killed four soldiers and one sergeant. The reason for his maddening actions might never be truly known. What is known is that Ayvazyan, as young as he was, had a long history of criminal activity in the United States. He had emigrated there with his mother in 1992 and returned to Yerevan in 2009 after being deported for his criminal conduct. Ayvazyan should never have been conscripted into the Armenian Armed Forces. Why he was is the core issue of this particular incident.
We live in an independent and free state. We no longer live under a foreign oppressor. The Soviet Union vanished two decades ago. We now have the choice to move to the homeland, something we desired for so long. We are the makers of our destiny, and most importantly, we are accountable to ourselves and to our children.
When we learn how to govern ourselves, when we appreciate the value of statehood and its fragility, when we no longer point the finger and blame only the foreigner, we will be able to stop the madness that is all around us. I want to believe in the goodness of our people and the wisdom of our leaders. I am not calling into question the strength and preparedness of our armed forces. What I do hope is that we rise to the challenge and begin shaping a nation, a state, and an army that we can all truly be proud of.