Diaspora Armenians train to protect Artsakh

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I met Vik in an old, abandoned courtyard in a suburb of Yerevan which had been retrofitted as a military training center. When the war started on September 27, he left his successful vinyl business in the hands of his partner in Los Angeles and got on the next flight to Yerevan. He’s now part of a group of recruits going through a two-week boot camp conducted by VoMA. 

The acronym VoMA, or ՈՄԱ in Armenian, is short for Ողջ Մնալու Արվեստ (The Art of Staying Alive). Despite what the name suggests, the organization isn’t so much a Bee Gees fan club, but a profoundly organized militia with a state mandate to provide military training for new volunteer recruits ready to defend Armenia against any foreign invasion. The training center has graduated thousands of recruits since being established following the 2016 April War. 

Vik is one of almost 70 new recruits a day which VoMA welcomes into its ranks. Over the next 12 days, his squad will perform basic fitness exercises, march as a unit, participate in weapons exercises, learn infantry tactics, undergo emergency combat medical training and alpinism. VoMA remains secretive about its training regime, however its emphasis on guerrilla-style training is said to be well adapted for the forested and mountainous terrain of Artsakh. 

Upon graduating from boot camp, they are then submitted to a psychological evaluation, and then sent off for more advanced tactical courses before joining the line, as needed, in Artsakh. They are typically placed in quieter sectors to relieve members of the professional military who are needed in ‘hotter’ areas, according to Defense Ministry spokesman Artsrun Hovhannisyan.

Vik isn’t the only Diasporan in his squad. His instructor tells me that many of the men and women who signed up—women have been welcome and active since the beginning of the organization’s martial history, I’m told—are from the Diaspora. Since the vast majority of Armenian men have typically completed their mandatory two-year military service, most are simply re-activated from reserve units and sent back to the professional army.

VoMA’s training specifically caters to those who don’t have prior military experience: women, men who had been exempt from service and diasporan volunteers. Aghasi is an IT consultant living in Germany. As a PhD student, he had been given a special dispensation from the draft. However, he still felt an obligation to return to Armenia at a time when his country faces an existential threat. “I never got to serve my country before, but now I will,” he told me.

Arame, another instructor, explained that many of the returning Diasporans, including those who aren’t born in Armenia, bring with them unique skills that can be shared with the other recruits. “Last week, we graduated an entire squad mostly made up of Diaspora Armenians who were veterans of wars in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said “I wish we had more of those.” Their sense of duty and patriotism is said to rub off on their local compatriots along whose side they train. Tatev, a 20-year old Yerevantsi praised her “akhpar” comrades for adding to the unit’s ‘esprit de corps.’ While she doesn’t expect to be deployed immediately upon the training’s completion, she says she joined VoMA “to be ready to answer the call of duty.” Her father and two brothers are already fighting in Artsakh. 

VoMA, which, unlike the professional military, is open to holders of foreign citizenships, says it welcomes more members from the Diaspora to apply. The organization is even sponsoring travel whenever possible and provides all the necessary clothing and equipment for recruits. However, they encourage those who own their own military gear to bring them, as they might be more familiar with them. High value items such as field trauma kits, tourniquets, sleeping bags and more are always in demand. They tell me all donations are much appreciated to ensure that their troops are well equipped for the battles to come.

Neither Vik nor Aghasi say they come here out of a lust for war. Aghasi even admits that he would prefer if the war could be won without him ever firing a bullet in anger. However both are committed to doing their duty until victory is achieved. 

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Raffi Elliott

Columnist & Armenia Correspondent
Raffi Elliott is a Canadian-Armenian political risk analyst and journalist based in Yerevan, Armenia. As correspondent and columnist for the Armenian Weekly, he covers socioeconomic, political, business and diplomatic issues in Armenia, with occasional thoughts on culture and urbanism.

11 Comments

  1. Great piece Raffi. Exactly what we need…..very inspiring and my guess is enlightening for many of us who didn’t know much about this. God bless these people.

  2. The best thing that the US section of the diaspora can do is to vote for Biden and encourage Armenians especially in Florida to vote for Biden. The statement supporting Armenia recently from members of the US Congress included 50+ Democrats and 3 Republicans. That reflects how a Biden admin and Democrats controlling Congress would be more amenable to punishing Azerbaijan and Turkey to stop the war. Otherwise 20 year old girls will have to go to the frontline.

    • Biden hasn’t done anything for his own country for 47 years and you actually think he will do anything for Armenians? Give me a break, 47 years in office and his own administration lied and said they would recognize the Armenian genocide and 8 years in office they didn’t fulfill their promise. Trump is the better option, Biden said we should give our “occupied land” back. Really? Biden the same racist who locked up African Americans is going to help Armenians? Give me a break

  3. God bless and protect you ,I pray Almighty GOD that the war will be over and all the parties will come to a peaceful and lasting solution.

  4. As a Chinese, I found it rather ironic that just months ago you wrote an article condemning Chinese policy treating Uighur in Xinjiang when most Han Chinese are taking the sides with Armenian right now and, in contrast, some so-called Uighur Freedom Fighters joined your enemy invading your land.

    • We didn’t all hold that viewpoint. I’m an Diaspora Armenian-American, with Armenian and Germanic ancestry. I always viewed the accusations about Uighurs with skepticism, because I suspected that they aren’t as harmless as advertised.

  5. We as Diasporans are not doing as much as we need to. During the first world war there were more volunteers who left the comfort of their homes in north America and Europe to fight for their homeland, albeit under the flags of foreign powers. I’d like to quote Historian Gevorg Yazichyan’s observation (October 30, 2020) in Keghart.org
    “My last and most important request or advice: it is good that Diaspora Armenians, especially the youth takes part in demonstrations, fundraisers and other support events; however, with such steps alone, it is impossible to stop the Turkish and terrorist mob in the mountains of Artsakh. The only way to resist this gangster scourge is to put WEAPONS IN THE HAND AND RUTHLESSLY DESTROY THE ENEMY. More than a month after the start of the war, barely 300 volunteers from the classical Diaspora have come to the homeland, i.e. out of estimated 4-5 million people only one in 10,000 at best. THIS IS A HISTORICAL SHAME. When you read this post, immediately stop all work and other considerations, and come by the first plane available to protect the homeland, the Holy Mother of us all. Do not try to make excuses to justify your desertion. An eternal stigma will be stamped on your forehead if you do not heed the call of the President of the Artsakh Republic Arayik Harutyunyan to volunteer for the defense of the Homeland.”
    Dikran Abrahamian MD

    • Thank you, Ara. I really wish Armenians could defend their land successfully against the fierce enemies. Chinese always admire those nationalities who have long and zigzagged history but China could not do much under current circumstances due to non-intervention policy and weak military force overseas. You have the morality support from most Chinese (non Muslims) and we distrust Turkey and its vassals for Pan-Turkism.

      Hao yun! (literally Good luck! )

  6. Don t wait for some one else to do our job. The USA could care less about Armenia, Armenia is in the Russian neighborhood ,if anyone is going to do
    anything its Russia , although I don t have much hope on Russia neither.

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