The Children of War: On the Brink of Life and Death

Illustration by Armine Shahbazyan.

“We were lucky it was Sunday. Otherwise – if we had gone to school – it would have been very bad…” This is how eight-year-old Mary starts her conversation about the war. She then remembers how, on September 27, the first day of the war, something exploded in the forest near their house with a terrifying noise. The shooting was very close, and they were forced to leave.

The mental suffering and stress has not ended in Mary’s large family, which moved to Armenia from the village of Kyuratagh in Hadrut. While talking about the war, Mary remembers the strange call they received a few days ago: a call had been made to her older sister, 22-year-old Marianna, from the phone of a missing classmate. The girls’ father answered the call; it was made by a Turkish-speaker.

Their relative, 67-year-old Nushik Ghazayan continues Mary’s story. “They said, ‘We are near you.’ I guess they meant Fizuli, not Yerevan. This child [pointing to Mary] started shaking with fear. ‘Hang up! Don’t talk!’ She thought the Turks were already at our door.”

There is little information on the village school. Mary only knows that the principal was seriously wounded in the war. They also have victims and wounded among their relatives. But we didn’t take the conversation there.


Children Targeted by Military Aggression

Article 77 of Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts stipulates that “Children shall be the object of special respect and shall be protected against any form of indecent assault. The Parties to the conflict shall provide them with the care and aid they require, whether because of their age or for any other reason.”

This important principle is also set forth in Article 38 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: “States Parties undertake to respect and to ensure respect for rules of international humanitarian law applicable to them in armed conflicts which are relevant to the child.”

Nevertheless, despite the existence of these and other similar legal norms, children too became a target of Azerbaijan’s large-scale military aggression. Their basic rights to life, health, family and community were consistently violated.


“Evacuation was the only way to save their lives.” -Artak Beglaryan

One of the 50 civilians killed during the war was nine-year-old Victoria Gevorgyan. Victoria’s brother, two-year-old Artsvik, sustained a shrapnel wound. Additionally, eight children sustained varying degrees of injury. This data is reported by Artsakh’s Human Rights Defender (HRD) Artak Beglaryan.

Also, on October 14, a 14-year-old child was seriously injured in an Azerbaijani attack on the borders of Armenia proper.

On November 9, the day the war ended, the Artsakh Human Rights Defender published a special ad hoc report on the violations of children’s rights. According to the documented data, the enemy targeted schools, kindergartens and other buildings that were civilian facilities catering to children with prohibited cluster bombs and high-precision missiles.

For example, the Stepanakert Maternal and Child Health Center was bombed twice and suffered substantial damage (on October 28 and November 3). The Holy Savior Ghazanchetsots Cathedral of Shushi was also targeted twice․ “The results of the urgent investigation provide evidence to conclude that the targeted airstrikes on Shushi’s Holy Savior Ghazanchetsots Church were made with an intent to inflict destruction on the Cathedral and bring death to children, women and the elderly, who were sheltering in the Cathedral basement, thus, premeditated the killing of civilians,” states the report, also emphasizing that there are no military objects in the vicinity of the Cathedral and that high precision missiles were employed.

The war had a devastating effect not only on the physical but also on the mental health of the children. Children who have lost parents, homes, normal lives, and have looked into the eyes of death…

Aida Muradyan, president of the Child Protection Network, notes that many of these children will have traumas throughout their entire lives. “There are documented cases where minors had to drive their family cars several hundred kilometres to save their families from attacks. This forced displacement has affected the lives of children – their developmental, psychological, educational and health needs, and special needs, including those disability-related,” she says, adding that these children have been diagnosed with having stress, terrors, sleep problems, etc.

According to the ad hoc report, roughly 40,000 children have been displaced because of the war. The Artsakh Human Rights Defender notes, “This forced displacement was the only way to save their lives from the constant shelling and bombing. Many of them didn’t even manage to salvage essential items such as documents and clothing.”


The Two-Year-Old Girl Who Constantly Cried

Two-year-old Lina and her mother reached Yerevan via the road to death. The little girl cried non-stop for days on end for no apparent reason. Lina’s family is from Martakert. Her father is a professional soldier and fought in the 2016 Four Day April War. Her mother, Melanya Melkumyan, relays how they were saved․

“My husband’s ancestral house is very close to the border. The enemy positions and villages were directly in front of us. I have lived there for three years and their reconnaissance drone was above our house almost every day… On the 27th, I woke up from my husband’s shouting. I went out onto the balcony; the drone was overhead. He shouted, ‘Take the baby, go down to the first floor or get into the barn.’ I picked up the baby from the crib, went down to the first floor and did not even have time to go upstairs to get clothes or food for the baby. My husband’s friend was already in our yard. He shouted ‘Get into the car quickly, shells are falling…’”

There were eight people in that car, two of whom were young children. Although they were squeezed together tightly, sitting on each other’s laps, the important thing was that they had a car․

“…when we arrived in Drmbon, we ran out of fuel and there was a long queue to get gas… We had gotten out of the car and none of us had any money to at least buy water, diapers, food for my child. My child was in a nightgown and barefoot. On the way, I kept thinking of somehow finding socks for her. When we were approaching the village of Getavan from Drmbon, there was a thunderous explosion, and we all froze.” The bridge they would have been crossing in a minute or two had been shelled.

“We made a sharp U-turn. We were going – we did not know where. One of the women suggested we go to Arjadzor village, which had been one of the safe places during the April War. We stayed in that village for a few hours. We ate at the house of strangers and my child finally got socks, although they were adult socks. We took a risk and went out on the road again; shells were falling during the entire journey… When we arrived in Sisian, my baby’s clothes were all soiled. It was terribly cold but if I took them off, there was no change of clothes. If I left them on, she would catch a cold… I decided to stay there, in the house of virtual strangers; they gave us clothes and fed us.”

In Yerevan, they felt the immense compassion of private organizations and volunteers. “The baby’s crying continued in the days that followed. They quickly sent us a child psychologist and pedagogues, who examined her and concluded that she had suffered traumatic stress, but that it is possible to correct everything.”

Although the Armenian government has allocated one-time financial assistance, it is not flexible and sensitive to the current situation many families find themselves in. Melanya’s official address is registered within the Republic of Armenia, while her husband and child are registered in Artsakh. They applied for the 83,000 AMD (68,000 + 15,000 because they do not have property registered in the Republic of Armenia) one-time assistance for the child, and although the application was approved, they cannot receive the money. Either the father must receive it personally or a notarized power of attorney must be presented on his behalf․

“Even the marriage certificate is not acceptable. They do not consider that that person is in military service in Artsakh, that he cannot leave as he wishes, especially since there is no notary office in Martakert, and the bank and post office are not operating. My husband received a power of attorney from his commander stating that he is in military service and that he authorizes his wife to make transactions on his behalf. This, too, was not accepted.” Melanya says that she has applied to the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. They have promised to settle the issue, but there has been no response so far.


“It is better here. There is no fighting.” – Five year-old Leonid

According to the Artsakh Human Rights Defender’s report, based on preliminary data, 71 schools and 14 kindergartens suffered material damage from the shelling, rocket and air strikes. As a result of the Azerbaijani aggression, all 220 schools and 58 kindergartens were closed. Consequently, around 24,000 school children and 4,000 preschoolers have been deprived of the right to education.

Article 52 of Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions, relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts, stipulates that civilian objects should not be the object of attack or of violence. At the same time, it stipulates that “In case of doubt whether an object which is normally dedicated to civilian purposes, such as a place of worship, a house or other dwelling or a school, is being used to make an effective contribution to military action, it shall be presumed not to be so used.”

Two of 33-year-old Mary Babayan’s four children are supposed to be in school. Her eight and nine-year-olds have been deprived of the right to education for months: first because of the coronavirus pandemic and then because of the war. The other two are preschoolers, aged three and five.

Mary and her children spent most of the war in their village of Sargsashen in Martuni. It was dangerous to stay there, but there was no vehicle available in which to escape. On November 1, people came from Stepanakert, took them out of the village and brought them to Yerevan. Like many others, they too did not manage to take anything from their home, even their documents.

Today, the children go to school in Armenia; however, their right to be with family and community continues to be violated. Their native village was taken by a hostile army. They live in a hotel; their father stays with a friend.

Playing with a pomegranate in his hand, Mary’s five-year-old son Leonid is embarrassed when he says that it is better here. To the question, “Why?” he answers, “There is no fighting.”


“Has anyone revoked the right of a child?” – Arman Tatoyan

On September 28, the second day of the war, Armenia’s Human Rights Defender Arman Tatoyan sent a special report to the UN Human Rights Council on the human rights situation in Artsakh. He cautioned that “the lives and health of children, women and elderly and, in general, the entire civilian population, their property, schools and other civilian facilities are in real danger.”

However, the first response from the UN Resident Coordinator in Armenia did not come until the 20th day of the war, when he visited injured children in Armenia. Incidentally, two-year-old Artsvik Gevorgyan had sustained a shrapnel wound on the first day, September 27.

Before this visit, Armenian users on social media networks had expressed their indignation over the silence of this institution during the war. On the day of the actual visit, a group of citizens rallied in front of the UN office in Yerevan with the same remonstration.

On November 5, Arman Tatoyan spoke in Parliament about the disproportionate reaction of international structures; the UN and the Council of Europe were created to protect human rights. The principle proclaimed by the UN is that no one should be side-lined, and no right should be ignored.

“We pose the question: has anyone revoked the right to live in Artsakh? Has anyone revoked the right of a child? Has anyone revoked a woman’s right to raise a child under a peaceful sky? Our call is that you visit Artsakh,” he stated.


Restoration of Rights That Have Been Violated

Lawyer, Ashkhen Dashyan points out that Azerbaijan joined the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1992, recognizing that every child has the inalienable right to life, to education and also, that no child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his or her honour and reputation.

In the preamble to this document, States undertake certain obligations, taking into account and remembering certain circumstances, in particular “in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations has proclaimed that childhood is entitled to special care and assistance,” “the family, as the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members and particularly children, should be afforded the necessary protection and assistance so that it can fully assume its responsibilities within the community.”

According to Dashyan, violating these obligations can cause repercussions for the state, if relevant appeals are made to three international organizations: the UN Human Rights Committee, the UN Committee for the Protection of Children’s Rights, and the European Court of Human Rights.

“If violations of the law have been registered, the state or private parties, for example, the parent of the child, should appeal to these bodies, voicing the fact of the violation,” the lawyer says.

By the way, it is completely irrelevant whether the child is a citizen of a recognized or unrecognized state. Aida Muradyan emphasizes, “From the point of view of international law, the subject of the law, that is, the bearer of that right is a child. His or her status as a refugee, asylum seeker, stateless person, citizen of an unrecognized country, etc., cannot in any way limit his or her fundamental rights. The child has those rights, because he or she is a child, that’s all.”