The last time,
I will ever go there.
The streets vibrant with people,
Children, parents, soldiers, tourists.
This was the last time I would go.
The family whose father was disabled after the 1994 war,
The suitcases full of clothes that we had given them,
The crisp 100 dollar bill that was a shock to them,
The tears of joy,
This was the last time we would go,
This was the last time we would see them.
The sky filled with lights,
No—bombs! drones! missiles!
These are what the people of Artsakh, native Armenians on their native land, saw, endured.
These were their last sights,
This was the last time I saw them,
Dead or alive—
They were gone.
The land we all loved—gone! The people we all loved—gone! The restaurants we went to—gone! Everything I had seen was gone. How could a place change so drastically within a year? I wonder now, even years later, if that dear family I met in Shushi was able to escape with their lives, died defending their land or lived as subjugated citizens of a hostile neighboring country.
A year before the calamity, our plane landed in Yerevan, and we were greeted by a family friend, a well-known physician. “Parev! Parev!” After exchanging hellos in Armenian, we began a 30-minute journey from the small airport to our hotel. The sky was dark, but the streets were lit by shop signs and street lights. There was a positive and exciting vibe that I don’t recall the last time I was in Armenia. I wonder if it was because I was much younger then?
Arriving at the hotel was a relief. The hotel looked small from the outside, but it was massive on the inside. We had ambitious plans ahead of us, so a good night’s rest was crucial. But we were so anxious that we could barely sleep, given that we had heard and read so much about Artsakh, a disputed region which has been inhabited by Armenians for centuries and our destination the following day. The multi-hour car ride in the back of a black Mercedes sprinter was lengthy, but enjoyable. Oblivious to any danger, as an uneasy peace had persisted in the region for the last 25 years, we drove into what seemed like a giant divot. It actually was a normal road with sandbags built up high so that Azeri snipers would be unable to get a clean shot off, a danger we didn’t really consider as Armenia maintained control of the region and surrounding areas.
After driving through mountain after mountain and past military post after military post, we finally arrived in Stepanakert, the capital of Artsakh. The excitement on the streets was something I had never seen before. It was shocking considering the city was being rebuilt after Azeri forces damaged it during a terrible six-year conflict that ended in 1994, with the Armenian population winning control over the land they had inhabited for so long.
The next day, we visited the heart of Artsakh—Shushi. After traveling up the mountain on a winding gravel road, we met a family who lived on top of the mountain. They had owned a vineyard for many years. “Tsavut danem” (Let me take your pain), they greeted us. It’s a common Armenian phrase of humbleness, affection and warmth. After talking to the family, we were saddened to hear that the father had experienced extreme physical and mental damage during the first Nagorno-Karabakh war. They were poor and couldn’t make much money as the head of the household was unable to get a job. My father asked if they needed anything. The mother explained in Armenian that they needed clothes for their daughter who was starting school. We took our two suitcases full of clothes that we had brought to give away and handed them to the family. They thanked us with tears rolling down their eyes. Knowing that they were struggling, my father had handed them a pair of crisp 100 dollar bills, something they’d never seen before. Tears streamed down their cheeks as they repeatedly expressed their gratitude, “Shnorhakalutyun.” We spent some time talking with them, and then we went on to tour the rest of the area. We hoped we could take their pain away in some small way.
I will never forget these moments. They opened my eyes to the struggles of people living in developing countries. These Armenian families have endured so much in a region where oppression has been constant since the time of the Ottoman Empire and before. Armenians have had to deal with corrupt political leaders influenced by historical Soviet policies. A country where 18-year-old boys (some even younger) defend a border to protect their families from death or, in luckier circumstances, deportation.
I also won’t forget the fate of those people, for it all changed only a year after our visit in August 2019. In September 2020, Azerbaijan attacked Artsakh, gaining control of Shushi (Artsakh’s strategically high location) and possibly planning to destroy it for good. Much of the capital and surrounding villages were bombed, children were killed in the shelling and families died not only by Azeri attacks but also from COVID-19, which raged through the community. Within six weeks, a generation of 18- to 20-year-old boys, only a few years older than me, died on the battlefield, as Turkish suicide drones targeted them. And the world was silent.
The people I met and the sites we visited during my trip are now gone. The beauty and the villages are all gone. They have fallen into the hands of Azerbaijan—a country where killing Armenians is glorified and considered nothing more than a sport. A country where murdering an Armenian is celebrated and rewarded with national fame. A country where joining hands with Turkey to wipe out the Armenian race has been fantasized for ages.
That one family in the mountains is gone—likely dead. My time on the mountain in Shushi is one of many moments that I should cherish more, for life is not guaranteed to anyone. I appreciate the life I enjoy in the US, where fear of invasion, deportation, loss of life, property and land is almost unimaginable. I have realized I live a life of luxury, where I don’t need to worry about death, losing my house or my next meal, and take so much for granted, such as my family, home, school and even church (our ancient Armenian churches have been desecrated and, in many cases, destroyed by Azeris and Turks). That family in Shushi, on the other hand, appreciated every moment, as they knew that their happiness could be fleeting and their lives could be taken momentarily. In many ways, their example is one that I should embrace, as we all need to cherish moments, for you never know if you will ever get to experience them again.