Wars end, but they always have a habit of returning. The people of Artsakh seem to be moving on with their lives with the expectation that whatever they rebuild can be destroyed again. While the impact of war is detrimental for all survivors, the tragedy takes a unique toll on the smallest, most vulnerable and purest members of society.
Children perceive the war and the new reality that emerged after the war in a different way. What does war have to do with children? How does it impact their maturity and their consciousness?
Children wake up in the morning in a warm bed and immediately race out to a cold and dark basement. This is their first encounter with the war. At first, it was a joy not to go to school the next day, but then there grew a longing for the same school, the same demanding teacher and a friend sitting on the bench.
At a young age, you hear the sounds of explosions, which initially resemble fireworks, but you feel that the reaction of adults is very different from the reaction of fireworks dedicated to New Year’s Eve or Independence Day. Everyone says it is a war, but what do you know about the war?
Marat said that war is the protection of the home. For him, the phrase “attack” did not exist, only defense. He said that he was going to grow up soon so that he could join the group of defenders. When asked why he does not want to choose another profession (doctor, policeman, musician, etc.), he said, “But what are the other professions needed for if the war comes again and everyone dies? First of all, the home must be protected so that people with other professions can live there.”
Mary’s dream was to see an end to the war so she could see her father again. Some of the other children in the basements next to Mary had already lost their fathers. She said that the war would end for her when her father returned to hug her.
Loss of Home
When little Aram left his home in Shushi, he never imagined that would be the last time. His mother told him that they would be leaving for a short time and that they would soon return and live in Shushi again as they used to do before these explosions. “I miss our house very much…my clothes, our clothes… I miss our bicycle, and… Again I miss our clothes – our pants, blouses, we wore ours then…”
Aram’s sister Nora confesses that she cannot adapt to the new house and new conditions. “We do not have our home. I understand people have lost much more than this, but our house was so dear. I love Stepanakert, but Shushi will always be a dream for me. I am so connected with Shushi that it seems that my [body] part has been torn off and given to someone else. I promise that if one day Shushi is returned to us, I will walk from Stepanakert to Shushi, kissing every millimeter,” says Nora.
Because of the war, some displaced residents from the occupied territories of Azerbaijan remained in Armenia. Some moved to Russia, but most continue to live in Artsakh. The majority want to live in Stepanakert, but there are almost no vacant houses left in the capital today. Hotels, rental homes and even residences for the elderly are all occupied. It’s not uncommon to see entire families living in one room.
Life in the Border Villages
Many children today live in border villages that used to be the center of Artsakh. For example, the village of Mkhitarashen has always been a favorite place for tourists, because it was through that village that they reached one of the most beautiful sites in Artsakh—the Umbrella Waterfall. During the summer season, children sold dried fruits, doshab and jams made by mothers and grandmothers to tourists. In this way, they helped members of the household earn money.
There is no school in Mkhitarashen, but the Artsakh government has provided a car for children in the village so they can attend school in the neighboring village of Shosh. Hayk says that the cars of Azerbaijanis were passing by their school. At first they were very scared, but now they seem to be adjusting. “Frankly, they were pointing bad things at us and using foul language, but we tried not to play in that area. Yes, now their snipers see us. We hear gunshots at night, but we try to calm our mothers down, because they are very worried about us. What can we do? This is our reality now. We cannot leave our village.”
But children grow up one way or another. Life goes on, but how does the war affect them? This situation was a little different during the first Artsakh War. The Azeris were constantly bombing Stepanakert from Shushi. Forty bombs came out of the weapon called GRAD. The residents already knew that when the forties were over, they would have half an hour of free time, as the weapons needed to be recharged. The children would use this time to go down to the yard and play with friends.
One day, Arman did the same. Someone new had come to their yard, a refugee from Baku. Arman and his two friends started fighting with the newcomer; one of them bit him. When he got up, he ran home, calling his father so that he could come and take revenge on the children in this yard. Arman’s two friends decided to run away in fear, but Arman stayed to take responsibility for his actions. At that moment, an explosion was heard again, but it exploded where the two children had fled. Arman, who was left to answer for what he had done, survived, but was hurt. His memory is vague, but he does recall how his grandparents carried him and ran to the hospital. He remembers how he set foot in the hospital, the ground of which was completely covered with blood, and how he felt that blood and its smell. He lost a part of his lungs. A few days later, the young Baku refugee and his father came to see Arman; the father thanked Arman for sending his child home.
Today Arman is 37 years old, and it has become a life lesson for him that we should always be responsible for what we do.
A Lost Childhood
Regardless of their will, children are always affected by war. Children are usually deprived of the empathy, care and undivided attention of adults who love them. In times of war, the separation from parents or their loss, unavailability and depression, lead to significant and frequent disruption in their attachments.
Children are also deprived of education. This is one of the most damaging effects of war. In 2020 after a long break caused by COVID-19, children finally started attending school again in the middle of September; two weeks later, the war broke out.
Ultimately, the war destroyed the local economy, industries, jobs and infrastructure, which caused financial problems in families. Children were left to find work or look after their siblings, instead of studying and focusing on their schoolwork.
As displaced persons, children, who are the most vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder, wait for years to return to normalcy while living in extremely difficult circumstances.
They worry about food and clothes. They hear parents talking about lack of money and teach themselves to get used to that kind of life, not to want more and not to get disappointed. They learn the words “disappointment” and “pain” very early.
These children of Artsakh have gone their own way. They have grown up too soon and seen too much. Many of them dream of becoming soldiers to defend their country, while others dream of becoming doctors to heal the pains of war.