In the Name of Her Son: The Story Behind Artsakh’s Museum of Fallen Soldiers

The Armenian Weekly August 2013 Magazine

Black and white photographs of men—and some women—hang on the walls of Stepanakert’s Museum of Fallen Soldiers, reminding visitors of their absence. Tucked in a simple wooden frame, a picture of a man with a thin mustache and a Soviet-era cap stares back at Galya Arustamyan. “He was 17 when he joined the liberation movement,” says Galya of her son, Krikor, the young man in the picture. At 21, he was killed in battle. Ten years later, in 2002, Galya opened the doors to her museum, a tribute to those who lost their lives fighting for Karabagh’s self-determination. What was paid for with the blood of her son is non-negotiable, and that is the message she wants to convey to the international community.

Galya Arustamyan stands before pictures of fallen soldiers.
Galya Arustamyan stands before pictures of fallen soldiers. (Photo by Nanore Barsoumian)

The portraits of the 3,250 soldiers killed and the 132 missing lock eyes with visitors to the museum. The atmosphere there is somber. “The pictures of all are here,” confirmed Galya. She would know; after all, she compiled the list of the soldiers, contacted their relatives, gathered their pictures, and took them to Yerevan where she had them enlarged and framed.

Personal items discovered on the soldiers—clothing, helmets, letters, books, weapons—are displayed in glass cases. A small shrine stands in a corner, and includes an accordion and helmets. The words, “Your Bravery Is Immortal,” are painted on one wall, above the soldiers’ pictures and besides a painting of the Mother Mary, cradling the naked and limp body of her adult son.

Galya established the museum together with the Karabagh’s Fallen Soldiers’ Relatives Union, which she also heads. The organization provides support to the families of deceased soldiers. But Galya wasn’t always an activist. Born and raised in a village in Askeran in Karabagh, she moved to the capital of Stepanakert after completing middle school. Sometime in 1958, she began working in a textile factory, and kept the job until the factory burned down during the bombings in 1992.

“They were shelling the city all day long. You couldn’t find shelter anywhere. Buildings didn’t have bomb shelters. We just put up sand barriers. The situation was really bad. We were surrounded, completely encircled. There were no roads that led to Yerevan,” she said.

Soon, the war would claim what was most precious to her, and that led her to her current work. “I lost my son. He was born in 1971. I lost two nephews and my brother-in-law. Those were difficult years. Sometime later, I got involved in this museum. The work I did helped ease my pain a bit,” she said.

Galya hoped her efforts would also help others with their pain. “Parents continue to visit this museum. Their pain is heavy. Even though they say that their child died as a hero on the battlefield, they can’t help but think about how their kids weren’t married; how they didn’t have children; or if they did, how difficult it was to raise them…” In 2009, Galya published an 895- page book, titled RMK National Liberation Struggle, 1988–2009, which provides the profiles and pictures of the deceased or missing soldiers.

Against all odds

The museum serves both as a memorial to the fallen soldiers and as a tribute to their ingenuity. Homemade weapons, constructed with ordinary items such as forks and

A small shrine stands in one corner of the museum, made of an accordion, helmets, and a few other items.
A small shrine stands in one corner of the museum, made of an accordion, helmets, and a few other items. (Photo by Nanore Barsoumian)

screwdrivers, are a source of pride. Outnumbered, outgunned, and fighting from disadvantaged positions, the Armenian soldiers, Galya’s son among them, accomplished what many considered impossible. “They were unarmed men facing tanks,” said Galya. “While the Azeris had Soviet weapons and ammunition—after all they were a Soviet republic, we were merely a province—they also had technical help from the outside and mercenaries. They managed to drive Armenians out of Kedashen and Mardounashen. But our eagle boys were able to regroup, and they engaged in a massive counter-attack.”

Galya recalled the words of Chechen commander Shamil Basayev who fought on behalf of the Azeris. “He said that he was one of the last fighters to leave Shushi. He said that there was so much ammunition with them that for a whole year, 100 fighters could defend the city. They had the advantage of a high ground. Our men climbed, and they seized the town,” she said. “Now, we’re also a republic.”

“There wasn’t even 150,000 of us in Karabagh—counting the infants and the elderly—and we had 7 million against us,” she continued. The right to determine their own fate and to live securely and without fear was the driving force behind the liberation movement. News of the pogroms in Sumgait, Baku, and elsewhere seemed like a distant echo from the Armenian Genocide.

“We defended ourselves. Did they expect us to sit back and suffer the fate of the Armenians in Western Armenia? They massacred them all. Were we supposed to watch them massacre us all as well?” she asked. For Galya, Azeris are synonymous with Turks, and the Azeri pogroms were just another chapter in the bloody fate Armenians encountered under Turkish rule from well before and after the Genocide.

This perspective isn’t far from that of Azeri (or Turkish) authorities. It was Heydar Aliyev, the former president of Azerbaijan and father to current president Ilham Aliyev, who uttered the now famous words, “One nation, two states,” in describing the close relationship and ethnic loyalty shared between Turkey and Azerbaijan. The feeling seemed mutual. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has evoked those words before his “brother Aliyev” (while not forgetting to pay homage to the words of Kemal Ataturk): “Azerbaijan’s joy is ours, Azerbaijan’s grief is ours too.” And it was based on these principles that Turkey imposed a blockade on Armenia in 1993, and continues to do so until today.

Oil has bought Azerbaijan tremendous support in the international arena, said Galya. “We don’t have oil, and so they think of us as a weak state, while they consider Azerbaijan economically more developed. But we have good spirits, and good ideals. This was the war fought by our boys whose pictures hang on these walls. They’re all in civilian clothes. They were common people. We were a peaceful people. They forced us to fight,” she said.

Galya has one message for the international community: “Let them come to this museum and see what price we have paid in this war. Let them see how much we’ve bled. How could we live under Turkish rule again?” she said. “I always say, let the [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe] Minsk Group representatives visit this museum. Let them come and see what we have lost; how we have liberated Karabagh; how many men have sacrificed their lives, have been wounded, or have survived through miracles.”

Unity in time of crisis

Galya has another important message, this one to Armenians the world over: Strength, exhibited in the liberation of Shushi, was rooted in unity. If Armenians lose their unity, they will lose their strength. “After all we’ve been through we have to keep our unity. We have to stick together.”

Black and white photographs of men—and some women—hang on the walls of the Museum of Fallen Soldiers.
Black and white photographs of men—and some women—hang on the walls of the Museum of Fallen Soldiers. (Photo by Nanore Barsoumian)

Victory wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for help sent by the diaspora, she said, adding that she is grateful to the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), a party revered by many in Karabagh. “They helped us in every way, and we were able to survive. They didn’t leave us to face our fate alone. The Turks, until today, say that we are pompous because of the Armenian Diaspora. We are not pompous, but we are proud that Diasporan Armenians stand by our side. We love them dearly. They have seen genocide, they are dispersed all over the world, but they unite when circumstances call for it,” she said.

Galya recalled one summer day in 1992, when her son came home with two men she had never met before. All three had black ribbons tied around their arms. “My son came to me and said, ‘Mom, fix us some food. We’re starved!’ I began preparing food in the kitchen. They were chatting, and then they were singing. I left what I was doing and came into the room where they were sitting, and gazed at the three of them. My son turned to me and said ‘Mom, come with us to the battlefield. You fight, while they sing.’ Later I found out that they were Dashnak boys. At that time, they had all come here. They were helping us,” she said.

The mere knowledge that Karabagh was in the hearts and minds of Armenians across the globe gave the people of Karabagh strength, said Galya. “From every corner of the world, Armenians came to our aid. Even until today, they [collect aid] and bring it here, so that Karabagh gets back on its feet—and it is. The war was in 1992. Now I get out on the streets and I can’t believe that this is our city, because it was destroyed, buildings were in ruins— the pictures are hanging right over there. That was our situation then. There were days that 70 or more people were killed. But we persevered because we were not alone. If we had been left alone, the Turks would have destroyed us long ago,” she said, and pointed to the portrait of Monte Melkonian, the Armenian- American commander who died in Karabagh. “We have the entire Armenian nation on our side.”

For Galya, that unity is critical, especially when the threat of renewed bloodshed is very real. “You see, [the Azeri author- ities] haven’t let up. They haven’t accepted defeat. Day after day, their warmongering rhetoric continues. They constantly fire on our soldiers and our villages, and don’t allow our boys on the border to get any rest,” she said.

‘They are our soldiers…’

Once a month, Galya goes to the border to meet with the soldiers, and to offer them encouragement. She is, after all, the president of the coordinating body of the non-governmental organizations that cooperate with the army. She visits each battalion and, as a mother figure, never goes empty-handed. “We bring them sweets. We spend time with them, talk to them. They are our soldiers; we have to encourage them, and look after them. We are faced with our old enemies who don’t want us to exist,” she said.

Although there has been a ceasefire for two decades, Galya is wary of the language used by Azeri authorities. “They have become more insolent now and better armed, with expensive technology and aerial powers,” she said. “On May 12, 1994, it was the Azeris who asked for a ceasefire when they saw that they were going to lose more land. We shouldn’t have agreed to it… Now they have started mouthing off again. They want our lands again. But how could we give them any land? Every inch of this land is mixed with blood. How many boys have we lost? How many innocent civilians have we lost?”

It’s not uncommon for visitors to the museum to ask Galya what she thinks of Aliyev’s recent rhetoric regarding Karabagh. “Go ask folks on the street!” she always says. “Ask those mothers who have lost sons in the war! If Aliyev wants another war in Karabagh, let him send his own son to the front lines. See if he’ll want his war then. They are keeping their own children safe, while sending the kids of common folk to fight.”

 

This article appeared in the Armenian Weekly magazine issue (Aug. 2013) dedicated to the 25th anniversary of the Artsakh liberation movement.

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Nanore Barsoumian

Nanore Barsoumian was the editor of the Armenian Weekly from 2014 to 2016. She served as assistant editor of the Armenian Weekly from 2010 to 2014. Her writings focus on human rights, politics, poverty, and environmental and gender issues. She has reported from Armenia, Nagorno-Karabagh, Javakhk and Turkey. She earned her B.A. degree in Political Science and English and her M.A. in Conflict Resolution from the University of Massachusetts (Boston).
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@NanoreB

Beirut-Born, Boston-Based | RT Not Endorsement | The pen is mightier than the sword
RT @ZMnatsakanyan: Significant escalation in the east of #NagornoKarabakh yesterday & today. #Azerbaijan violates ceasefire with the use of… - 5 months ago
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8 Comments

  1. My son came to Karabagh in the early 1990’s with assistance in humanitarian relief…Armenians throughout the world felt your pain and we continue to support our brothers and sisters in Karabagh. God Bless You All…YOUR STRUGGLE IS ALSO OUR STRUGGLE!!!

  2. Thanks Nanore for your great article…full of love
    those who lost their lives…for our offspring to live…
    Thanks Nanore to let us know who is Galya…
    and feel with her and all mothers who lost their brave sons…
    Galya…The brave lady the mother of Martyrs…
    We are all mothers and we feel with her…

    “Mothers are Mothers were ever they are,
    tears will never dry until they die”

    Sylva-MD-Poetry

  3. Great article: one for the keeps.

    This one paragraph needs to be permanently embedded into every Armenian’s brain:

    {Galya has another important message, this one to Armenians the world over: Strength, exhibited in the liberation of Shushi, was rooted in unity. If Armenians lose their unity, they will lose their strength. “After all we’ve been through we have to keep our unity. We have to stick together.”}

    THIS ONE TO ARMENIANS THE WORLD OVER:
    IF ARMENIANS LOSE THEIR UNITY, THEY WILL LOSE THEIR STRENGTH
    Galya Arustamyan).

    ….and in the end we will lose NKR first, then RoA.
    Lights out for the Armenian people everywhere.
    No Armenia means No Armenian Diaspora.
    Without Armenia, we will eventually dissolve into the vast ocean of humanity in 2-3 generations.

  4. My Mother Areknas Vartanian Garber & my Grandmother [her mother] Aroxy Vartaninan Provided myself and my three brothers with our Armenian Heritage. We spent many a day at picnics in Sand Run Park of Akron, Ohio. We would play games, hike the trails and would sit on blankets spread on the grass just socializing with friends and relatives from Akron, Cleveland and Boston MA. On days where the group rented a pavilion, we would also share in with Dancing. All this while the Shish Kabob cooked and we’d dine on that with salad, Rice Pilaf and Round Pita Bread. All the food was donated and my mother’s Godparents Hachik “Joe” Miktarian and his wife Dicron [excuse my spelling I don’t speak Armenian and I am spelling the names phonetically]. While we were having coffee and Paklava [or Baklava]donations would be made to the ARF. Joe and Dicron would always start the bidding with a large amount and everyone would chip in. This occurred during the 1940’s through at least the 1970’s until the group became too small due to deaths and people leaving Akron.

    What I can’t understand is how I never heard of this struggle occurring 1988 through 2009. Especially since, when we had pavilions, we would also watch movie documentaries on the Turkish Genocide and my Grandma Roxy & Mom were always following Armenian news [Grandma only went through 3rd grade but could speak seven languages; read & write Armenian and did read the Armenian weekly]I will be researching this conflict to spread the news to the Armenians I still know and are still alive, Keysharpotti.

  5. Thanks so much for posting this article!!! My family and I met with Galya this summer and it was unforgettable experience…

  6. AN AMAZING DOCUMENT THAT THE YOUNGER ARMENIAN-AMERICAN DIASPORANS SHOULD READ.THEY WILL REALIZE THE STENGTH AND COURAGE OF OUR FOREFATHERS! DR. JOHN MANUELIAN

  7. I met this lady a few years back when I went to karabakh with a group. such a sweet heart, we sang Menk Angendz Zinvor enk for her and she cried, it was one of the most heart warming moments ever. The museum is really great and I suggest all young and even older people should go see when they are in Kharabagh

  8. Just this short message to thank you for your very useful (moving) article to maintain the level of motivation in Diaspora. For the reader of Peter D.Scott’s work ” The Road to 9/11. Wealth, Empire and the Future of America “, Ed. Univ. Calif. Press, it is obvious that there is nothing good to expect from the “West” to bring ‘Turkeys’ to modern feelings…

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