“If you don’t come now, when would you come?”

How one Diasporan answered the call

Martuni, Artsakh, December 24, 2020 (Photo: Shant Charshafjian)

YEREVAN—Shant Charshafjian has a million things on his mind, but in his heart, there is a special place for Martuni.

Life in the once peaceful, rural region took a turbulent turn this past fall when villagers became live targets for Azerbaijan’s indiscriminate attacks, destroying much of the community in the grim aftermath of the Artsakh War.

Charshafjian, a Los Angeles native and traveling wartime volunteer, never made it to Martuni during the war, but he never forgot the resilience that has long defined the generations of families who call those sacred lands their home. The heroic spirit of Monte Melkonian—the legendary commander of the Martuni front during the Artsakh Liberation War—lives in the hearts of nearly every villager. While thousands fled when war broke out in late September, the mayor of Martuni reported that about 400 people remained to take part in the defense of the city.

“They’re a different breed,” described Charshafjian during a recent interview with the Weekly from his temporary residence in Yerevan. Charshafjian, who has since been visiting broken and grieving families of both fallen and wounded soldiers, recalled his encounter with a Martuni mother who lost her only son during the war. She told Charshafjian she would send her son to the frontlines again, because as a 14-year-old volunteer nurse during the Artsakh Liberation War, she witnessed first hand the patriotic spirit and might of Melkonian. “The soldier has to know what they’re fighting for,” she told Charshafjian. “We have to defend this land. We live for this land,” they all believe. This is the love and the deep, unbending level of patriotism instilled in the people of Martuni that has been motivating Charshafjian to help rebuild a wounded Artsakh.   

But before September 27, 2020, Charshafjian was just an average Armenian American. A graduate of Pilibos and resident of Glendale, he was active in his local Armenian community as a member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF).

As soon as the war broke out, Charshafjian, who already happened to be in Armenia at the time, raced to help his country. At first he tried to enlist, but he was turned away because he’s a US citizen. So he set out to get as close to Artsakh as possible. He reached the village of Aghavno—a throughway near the border crossing for refugees fleeing the war torn region or Armenian soldiers entering to defend it. To prepare Aghavno as a rest stop, he helped stock the village with dozens of bags of flour, canned foods, sleeping bags and toys.

Before he knew it, Charshafjian had at least half a dozen army surplus stores on speed dial and knew every one of those store managers by name. He would go to sleep at 5:20 in the morning and wake up three hours later to go shopping for the most basic army essentials to personally deliver to the front lines. He would buy everything from socks, boots, undergarments, beanies, gloves, ponchos to night vision goggles, walkie-talkies, uniforms, generators and bulletproof vests. He visited soldiers in Martakert, Stepanakert, Shushi, Lachin and Vartenis and delivered letters and colorful drawings from families and children in the Diaspora; he even spent a few nights in the trenches. 

Celebrating Samson’s 24th birthday on the frontlines, November 30, 2020

With heavy set, bloodshot eyes after spending all day driving back and forth from Yerevan to Artsakh, Char Chaf (as he is known on social media) would document his experiences and post short videos to reassure his Facebook audiences that the morale of Artsakh’s Defense Forces was strong; some of the men would even make cameo appearances. “Our boys are really brave. They’re fighting. They’re protecting our homeland,” he said from an undisclosed location on October 15 with a lone rifle resting against the wall behind him. Much of his content was also directed toward the Diaspora, urging professionals to use their formal education and vocational skills for the war effort. “I don’t know who you are or where you are, but I know you’re out there,” he stressed in Armenian from a bumpy, moving car on October 13. “We cannot allow the Azeris to dictate our destiny,” he continued.

Charshafjian’s car loaded up with vests to take to the frontlines

Charshafjian says he made at least 30 roundtrips from Yerevan to Artsakh during the war and raised 40 to 55 thousand dollars from individual donors and followers on social media. “Should I be the one supplying boots to the army? This is a country that should have [had] all this stuff already,” he told the Weekly. “There’s a lot of blame to go around. But it’s clearly total mismanagement by the government.”

Now that the war is over, Charshafjian has become arguably one of the most outspoken critics of the current administration. Treacherous sentiments against Pashinyan and his ruling party are growing more widespread by the day, Charshafjian believes, as the opposition movement and calls for Pashinyan’s resignation gain traction throughout the homeland. “The brainwash was deep,” he said. “And people were grieving. Now, I’m seeing segments of the population wake up.”

No matter what happens in Yerevan, however, Artsakh still needs support. “There’s so much work to do,” said Charshafjian, who has visited over 400 families since the end of the war, comforting young widows and delivering small presents to children who will be growing up without a father. “The few times I’ve been shocked, when I walked into a house, and I saw the picture, and I realized I know this guy. I have his number,” recalled an emotional Charshafjian on the heroes and friends he’s helped bury. “You realize he went as a volunteer. He has a beautiful five-year-old and a two-year-old, a young wife. You say, wow. This guy went and did that, and I did nothing.”

Shant Charshafjian and his fiancée Marine in Stepanakert.

Charshafjian, who has long-term plans to take up residence in Martuni with his fiancée Marine, wants to turn the battered region into a model village: pave the roads, install streetlights, add numbers to houses and businesses, secure an OB-GYN and anesthesiologist and build a greenhouse. He also wants to encourage civic responsibility among the villagers and help restore nationalism by promoting the works of General Karekin Njdeh. Crisis management, he says, is sorely lacking. The people need jobs, not charity. The children who are afraid to go to the bathroom alone, need specialized, one-on-one attention from licensed psychologists and mental health therapists. The community needs to come back to life and build strong interpersonal connections for the homeland to survive. “People have to bring their skills here,” says Charshafjian. “We tried the remote control version…send money to someone and hope it helps from afar. We saw how far it got us. If you don’t come now, when would you come?”

Leeza Arakelian

Leeza Arakelian

Assistant Editor
Leeza Arakelian is the assistant editor of the Armenian Weekly. She is a formally trained broadcast news writer and a graduate of UCLA and Emerson College. Leeza has written and produced for local and network television news including Boston 25 and Al Jazeera America.
Leeza Arakelian
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6 Comments

  1. This is really heartbreaking to read. We comment on conflicts as if it were a board game. We forget how real lives are impacted, how people lose their brothers, sons, husbands, and friends and have to live with the loss of their loved ones. It’s truly tragic.

  2. He is a fine young man. I was there in Armenia when the war broke as well and i was proud to make his acquaintance

  3. Good to hear about people who help beloved Armenia.
    We visited the contry in 2010 with 50 teachers from Denmark.
    Hope the best for all -and not a civil war.
    We have contact with danish-armenians.The are very sorry and unsafe about the future,
    We can only help with a little money and facebookcontact.So GOD BLESS ARMENIA

  4. Can’t resist my tears; so touching, what a sacrifice made by heroic Armenian at frontline, does this touch the heart of the politician of Armenia ?

  5. “If you don’t come now, when would you come?”

    The short answer:
    Not any time soon.

    The long answer:
    Although this is “my opinion”, I believe now that it is also the opinion of the many if not the majority of diaspora Armenians. And the sad truth is, no one is going to Armenia for permanent residence while 1. Armenia has the worst leadership to offer. And 2. That leadership is a pretty good representation of the ignorance of the general population.

    In past years I listened to the know-it-all “Authentic Armenians” that show up here and elsewhere on the internet, chanting BS like “only Armenians that live there have a right to decide this and that blah blah blah”. Yeah we saw pretty good what the Armenians of Armenia are capable of in “their own country” for three decades: electing crook after crook and unpatriotic fool after unpatriotic fool for their “leadership”, all the while gorging themselves on an anti-ARF-rhetoric feeding frenzy in order to keep diaspora leadership out of the country, and finally escaping to the USA when they got lucky in their “escape from Armenia” lotto, to Russia when they were not so lucky, and for the absolute bottom of the barrel, to Turkey as proud illegal aliens. Of course the funniest and most ironic part of it is, when these people escape to the USA to find greener pastures, they bring their anti-ARF rhetoric along with them “as if they know something so special” with their so-called “education” they received from Bolshevik Russia. This is all instead of setting high standards for themselves and the country and working toward goals for a successful nation where all Armenians can go join them and call home and grow.

    So after “independence” Armenia did the OPPOSITE of what it was supposed to do in theory to become a viable nation. Three decades past, and did diaspora have any kind of input and leadership roles in the nation? Zero.

    I suppose for Armenians that are already in dire straits and poor around the world wouldn’t have anything to lose if they moved to Armenia. That would in fact be the best thing to do. However, no one is going to Armenia from nations like the USA or from western Europe, for a very simple reason: no one gambles a successful future to put in the hands of incompetent crooks with an unpredictable future as a result of that incompetence. The ARF-dispora largely isn’t going to do it, and the Ramgavar-diaspora even less. And now the ones that came from Armenia aren’t going to either despite what they may claim, because the economic success they found in western countries would be too much of a sacrifice to take a chance on losing.

    What this means is, if we as Armenians as a whole want a viable, strong and successful nation, the original “losing formula” of Armenia must first be discarded. Next the “power structures” of the nation must be dismantled and discarded where intelligence, education and competence take precedence over nepotism, ignorance and incompetence. Only then will Armenians be ready to build a viable nation and only then will the question of “when are you going back to Armenia” be valid.

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