“Two years ago my brother Artak celebrated Army Day on the border of Armenia. Today, he is missing and nothing can bring him back,” Tsovinar Nazaryan, 36, told the Armenian Weekly. She, along with around 200 protesters, lined the sidewalk of Yerevan’s Republic Square to protest the abuse and murders in the Armenian Army. The Silent Rally took place on Jan. 28, the day Armenia celebrated the 20thanniversary of its armed forces.
The demonstrators wished to convey a message much different than the congratulatory address by Defense Minister Seyran Ohanyan. Family members, friends, and supporters of soldiers killed by their fellow soldiers and commanders held a candlelight vigil to draw attention to the string of abuses that has plagued the army.
They carried pictures of soldiers killed. They held signs that read, “We did not turn 20,” and “The absence of torture is our strength.” The march began at Liberty Square where, despite the relentless wind, protesters lit their candles and caravanned on to Northern Boulevard—passing out flyers along the way—and came to a stop at Republic Square.
Svetlana Antonyan, 29, is an active member of “The Army in Reality” (“Panagn Iraganum,” in Armenian), a group that raises awareness of injustices within the army and advocates for accountability. It was formed after three mothers held silent protests every Thursday morning in front of the presidential building, explained Maro Matosian, the country director of Armenia and Karabagh at the Tufenkian Foundation. Surrounded by eight policemen, the women would sit, clutching pictures of their deceased sons. Their persistence found support, and many joined in their struggle, including Antonyan.
“The force that drags me out of my apartment almost every Thursday morning, even in this freezing cold weather, is the hope that our rallies will bring fundamental change to the current system in the army,” Antonyan told the Weekly. Some of her friends hesitate to join the protests for fear of losing their jobs, and their family members’ safety. Antonyan hopes to also represent their voices. She believes that despite the small size of the group, they can bring about real change.
“I am going there for many people. For the mothers who have lost their sons… We want to have an army we are proud of,” she said.
Human rights groups contend that most army suicides are in reality homicides, and that army officers often tamper with evidence and cover up these crimes.
In Artak Nazaryan’s case, his family believes that initial investigations were carried out hastily, without certain routine precautions, like wearing gloves. In addition, they believe the suicide note, which surfaced nearly two weeks after the soldier’s death, was not authored by Nazaryan himself, but was a shoddy shot at covering up his murder.
Nazaryan was found dead at an army outpost in the northeastern Tavush region on the border with Azerbaijan in July 2010. The military claimed the lieutenant had shot himself with a machine gun. A forensic examination revealed many injuries to his face, shoulders, hands, and feet, believed to have been inflicted hours before his death. The official account of his death says he was “induced to commit suicide.” Five fellow officers have been charged with the crime, but thus far, the trial has been a disappointment to his family and friends.
“Unfortunately, justice has not been served,” Tsovinar Nazaryan told the Weekly. Her brother would have turned 33 this year. Still, she holds out hope that the protests will at least prevent another soldier from falling victim to abuse. “We are determined to fight against violence and corruption in the army. The rights of each human being must be guaranteed, and the government must take productive steps for that.”
“With the Silent Rally we remembered those who fell victim to the corrupt and violent actions of their fellow servicemen,” she added. “We wanted to raise public awareness about the problems that are salient in the army.”
Solidarity in Prague
Late in the evening of Jan. 28, some 1,600 miles away, Christina Harutyunyan, 32, stood before the outer walls of the Armenian Embassy in Prague, a candle in her hand. She and husband Andrew Mann had brought with them
a list of names belonging to soldiers believed to have been killed by fellow officers in the army.
“It was my personal protest against the reality in Armenia’s 20-year-old army; my show of respect to the soldiers who died during peace; and my solidarity to their relatives who can’t reach simple truth and justice,” Harutyunyan told the Weekly.
“I don’t want a soldier to die from chickenpox in the 21st century,” she said, in reference to a recent case of army neglect, where 18-year-old Haik Khachatryan died from the virus.
Harutyunyan, who began participating in actions organized by “The Army in Reality” before her recent move to Prague, says she wants to see an end to army abuses, murders, and cover-ups. She also wishes authorities would “understand their guilt,” and initiate lasting changes.
“I want all the perpetrators punished, regardless of their position and rank. Look at all the ‘suicide’ cases and the court processes. Isn’t it possible to open at least one case?” she asked, outraged. “There is no time for ostrich policy.”