Dedicated to A. H.
The last working week of September was not productive at all. We were all unsettled, both physically and mentally. On Friday, the most proactive among us decided to volunteer, which inspired the remaining three of us to join. We needed to find a solution for transportation. We posted an announcement in a Facebook group, stating that we were four volunteers looking for a kind-hearted person who could drive us to the town of Vayk. We would cover the fuel costs. The only person who responded was a stranger who had two conditions: he was going to be the fifth volunteer, and we should forget about paying for gas.
On the morning of September 30, we arrived in Vayk. On both sides of the dirt road leading to the Culture Center, a variety of items were grouped together: suitcases, a sewing machine, blankets, a pink bicycle, a large Toshiba TV box, clothes wrapped in blankets, and countless colorful bags. Each family had gathered their belongings in one place, usually with an elderly member of the family sitting next to them, and had gone to the Culture Center to learn about their fate from the Republic of Armenia. I wished the Republic knew what answer it should give these people.
We didn’t know what to do. A practical-minded young volunteer from Yerevan State University diligently explained the set up. The first floor of the Culture Center was divided into four main sections: registration, food, clothing, and hygiene supplies distribution points. Additionally, there were representatives from phone companies, a medical center, and a social welfare desk. I will write about this experience later because after spending 12 hours at the Vayk registration center, I definitely have something to say.
In an ideal organizational setting, a resident of Artsakh who had witnessed war, left their home, spent days on the road, and been displaced, would enter the Culture Center, get a free local number, then be directed by a volunteer or a policeman to one of the student volunteers manning the registration desk who would register them in the system using their newly acquired phone number. The newly displaced individual would provide documents such as a passport or birth certificate, and answer questions about their needs, which would be assessed, including which region they wanted to choose as their place of residence, they would receive food, clothing, and medicine. Finally, a social worker would take down notes in their notebook stating that the family of eight needs two mattresses.
But, the reality was completely different. If things went smoothly, it was only thanks to the willingness and readiness of the volunteers gathered in that building. If it was terrible, it was due to disorganization. But we’ll get to that.
My friends went off to discover the secrets of the registration software on the computers, while I was asked to watch over an old man who, according to a Red Cross volunteer, had been sitting in a chair since yesterday. Even his compatriots couldn’t understand his words. All we knew was that he had a granddaughter, but we weren’t sure if she was here. I stood next to the old man like a guard, keeping an eye on the doors of the Culture Center.
People kept streaming in and asking each other questions. They would often approach those with less troubled expressions than their own and ask, “Where should I go? I’m not going to Gyumri, I’m going to Leninakan. Where should we wait for the bus? But if we go to wait by our baggage and you call us, we won’t hear you. When I arrive in Gyumri, what should I say and to whom?” A young volunteer was shouting through the loudspeaker until hoarse. Then, without a loudspeaker, they explained the same thing in more detail to the confused individuals around them who had questions written all over their faces. These confused individuals were the Artsakh Armenians who had recently registered to go to Gyumri. Since they did not have their own transportation, they had to wait for an unknown amount of time for the bus, which would arrive in an hour or perhaps five.
In a deserted place, a thirteen-year-old boy stood, looking at the two large clouds of cotton candy on sticks in his hands. He had a delighted smile and unblinking eyes filled with love, but he did not dare to eat them. This static scene was interrupted by school-aged children proudly wearing their big Red Cross volunteer vests. They had big smiles on their faces as they carried heavy boxes of Artfood eggplant caviar up and down the steps of the Culture Center. It wasn’t clear if they were bringing them in or taking them out.
The old man’s granddaughter approached him and asked something in their dialect. He sat in that chair with his back straight as a rod. The granddaughter explained that she occasionally had to leave her grandfather alone to attend to her grandmother, who was in the building. Her grandmother didn’t want to go out and her grandfather didn’t want to stay inside the building. Convinced that the old man’s relatives had been located, I entered the building to find something to do, as my friends had already settled down to do their tasks in this vast apparatus.
Following the granddaughter into the building, I discovered a hall that exuded old suburban grandeur. The hardwood floors were worn, and the high curtains had faded over time. Inside, I found the grandmother sitting motionless on one of the benches with her head down. Meanwhile, on the stage, a silent action was unfolding. Trained volunteers skillfully sorted and organized various donated clothes into boxes with labels such as “Warm women’s clothing,” “men’s pants,” “schoolgirls’ attire,” “boys’ jackets”. While there seemed to be an abundance of clothing, there was a shortage of essential items like warm pants or jeans and winter jackets for people of all ages and genders.
Those in need of clothes either felt ashamed and too proud to ask or were picky and stubborn in their approach. I encountered a grandmother who wanted a robe. I happily offered her a cotton robe I had come across earlier, imagining how she would wrap herself in its warmth and sip hot tea, just as the people of Artsakh love to do. But, she wanted the same style of robe in a dark color, while the one I had was light blue.
Another woman approached with three school-aged children, asking if there was anything warm available for them. Excitedly, we presented various options, assuming that someone with three children of different ages would require a lot of clothing. Surprisingly, the woman only took two blouses, saying, “They won’t wear these, let others have them.”
A lady expressed shock upon learning that the clothes were not brand new. She said, “I don’t want anything second-hand.” It should be noted that completely new clothes had been brought to the building at one point but were never brought to the stage for distribution.
Boxes of children’s sneakers in various sizes were emptied at lightning speed. The “men’s warm jacket” box was either emptied the fastest or couldn’t be filled completely. Perhaps the women, instinctively, had managed to bring some items with them, but the men arrived empty-handed, their minds being somewhere else. Volunteers exchanged words in hushed voices, maintaining the quiet decorum expected in a theater. They understood each other almost without words, like a unit.
However, the quiet and organized teamwork began to falter when enthusiastic young girls joined the volunteer team in the clothing section. These girls seemed to possess natural organizational instincts; perhaps they were class presidents at school.
“Volunteers!” one of them called out in the almost church-like silence of the hall, inviting everyone to organize themselves. “Come, let’s decide who will oversee the children’s clothing section.”
I left the theater before I was assigned a position.
I made my way to the food allocation section, which was located in the theater’s dressing room. We, the volunteers, gathered on one side of the table. Bending down around the inconveniently high clothes hangers, we sorted the food laid out on the ground into bags and distributed it to the people gathered on the opposite side of the table. Some would inform us of the number of their family members: “for eight people,“ others would mention the number of children, “there are four children,” and some asked for bread and sweets. At that moment, there seemed to be an endless supply of jars of eggplant caviar from Artfood and very little other food. It was clear that there had been other food because there were empty crates that had damaged boxes of groceries or flour left in them. Later, perhaps, the caviar also ran out and another batch of food arrived, but I never found out because I tried to slip out of the dressing room without being noticed. It was difficult to refuse people who asked for food.
I tried to find myself a role in the registration section, which was my last stop of the day at the Culture Center. This section operated by its own unwritten rules. Periodically, someone would approach and announce, “50 places left in Aragatsotn” or “Gegharkunik is closed, no more registrations there.” Typically, at each station, two people managed the registration process for the Artsakh Armenians: one recorded the information, while the other posed questions and conveyed the answers to the person taking down the information. In front of them lay a photocopied list with the names of regions and several major cities, along with contact numbers for those in charge of the regional capitals and communities. Upon learning that there were available spots in regions like Aragatsotn or Lori, you would suggest to an Artsakh citizen to choose a city from that list in the respective region, preferably one close to the regional capital. Since many people were unfamiliar with Armenia’s geography, it became necessary to keep a map of Armenia open on your phone to show people where Shirak, Ararat, and Aragatsotn were.
Most people didn’t want to go to border towns, preferring to be registered near Yerevan, Vanadzor, or Gyumri. Naively, you would begin to convince them, saying, for example, “Ashtarak is very close to Yerevan; you can reach it in just 20 minutes. This is a unique opportunity to register there because Aragatsotn was closed for a while and just opened again. Don’t hesitate. Agree. And when you get to the registration place, call this phone number.” You would write down the contact information of the person in charge at the regional governor’s office. When trying to direct people to the best possible region within your abilities and imagination, you wouldn’t know if a person was sent to a shelter and had to live in the gymnasium of Artashat’s high school with fellow compatriots, if they were given a free room in a comfortable hotel in Dilijan, settled in a half-dilapidated house in a neighboring village to Stepanavan, or given a house belonging to someone who had left for Russia, with the condition that they pay rent.
You still don’t know, and in many cases, you would never know, unless you wrote your number on a piece of paper during the registration, in a moment of deep compassion for these people, and gave it to them, saying, “Call me if you need anything.” Those who called also had high expectations from you. They assumed that as the person on the other side of the computer with an important responsibility, you should have at least been an employee of the passport office. They would inform you that the city you were praising a few hours ago like a troubadour was not a city at all, but one of its faraway villages, and the house where they were placed “was in an unlivable condition.” That phrase “in an unlivable condition” led to a small initiative weeks later.
And now, I find myself sitting at the registration desk, holding a stack of passports for a family of ten. I dictate their passport information and registration address in Artsakh. The tired woman sitting in front of me bursts into tears when she hears me say, “City of Stepanakert, street so and so, house so and so.” I reach out and hold her hand, trying to contain my own emotions. To reassure her, I make unnecessary jokes, fully aware that I lack the subtle psychological skills that could provide some comfort in this situation.
I ask if they have a preferred place to live, if they arrived with their own car, if they have family members with health problems or disabilities, and what their needs are. My colleague transcribes this information into the system, making quick notes in the appropriate sections on the registration website. Looking at the date of birth on many of their passports, I realized that the person in front of me is my age, but they look twice my age.
A man rushes in, clearly in a hurry, and requests to be registered in Noragavit. “I have a relative there. Please register me quickly because as soon as I arrive in Yerevan, I have to undergo surgery. There is a shard in my hand, and my wound is bruising,” he says breathlessly. Glancing at his immobilized hand, I could see that it was almost blue.
Next, a plump young woman sat in front of me with a two-year-old child in her lap, showing me four passports. She starts apologizing that the owners of the passports are not present because they had to rush to Yerevan. “My mother-in-law died on our way here.” After asking a few questions, we learn that at the border exit from Artsakh, the enemy’s border guards searched their car, and the mother-in-law died of fear a few hours after they left.
One family’s father agreed to be registered anywhere that isn’t too cold in the winter. Another woman expressed concern about her son’s education. “Is there a high school there? My son has already fallen behind in his classes.”
During this rapid succession of events that intertwine people and their destinies, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that a man regularly comes and sits in the chair opposite one of my friends. From the moment this man approached her, my compassionate friend became even more anxious and concerned. It turns out that this man, whose name is Ararat, arrived in Vayk in the morning and was registered in the border village of Ditavan near Ijevan. However, he refuses to go there until he finds his wife. His wife’s data is not on the registration website, which could mean that she did not cross the border to Armenia or was not registered after crossing the border.
The first possibility was dangerous and hard to ascertain, and the reason for the second possibility could be numerous, making the search for her even more difficult. All state representatives, volunteers, and private organizations working at the Culture Center were already informed and concerned about Ararat’s wife, Aida B., who was born in 1974. However, none of the discussed suggestions yielded results. We told Ararat, “Go to Ijevan, where you are registered, and as soon as we find your wife, we will let you know.” In turn, Ararat said, “I won’t go without Aida. How can I go without a wife? I will sleep here under a bush for the night until I see what tomorrow brings.” He would leave for a period of time and then reappear, asking, “Have you found my wife? Man, how did things get like this? I wish I had a comb. Don’t you have a comb so I can fix my hair?” This small, slim, but strong man in his 60s wanted his wife, and the only thing he was interested in at that moment, apart from Aida, was having a comb that could ease his worries and anxiety. Time passed, and Ararat was still without a wife and without a comb. My friend, throwing caution to the wind, proclaimed that she will not leave until she finds this man’s wife. And that meant that we all had to stay because we came together in one car.
So, our spontaneous volunteer group of five undertook the search for Aida. Whenever we had a free minute, some of us would look for any data about her in the system at the registration desk, considering all possibilities, including the possibility of errors made during the registration process. One person would call the police or the Red Cross, while others would contact the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Goris registration center. Thus, the news about Aida spread beyond the Culture Center to Vayots Dzor, and from there to Syunik and other places. But to no avail. Between all the calls, we found out that this man last ate when he was still in Artsakh. We laid out the sandwiches we had brought from home in front of him. But Ararat did not eat. Instead, he told his story in detail but incoherently.
Ararat and his wife worked at one of the military bases (“I was a plumber, Aida was a cleaner”). When the bombing started (“there was a huge building in front of the base; all of a sudden it was leveled to the ground”), Aida was injured (“but it’s impossible not to find her, Aida’s hand and legs are burned”). A few days later, Ararat sent his bandaged wife to Armenia with the first available bus (“I told her to go to Goris and wait for me at the bus station”). Due to a lack of transportation, he set off the next day and came to Vayk instead of Goris. “What am I going to do without my wife? I won’t get a new wife. I need my Aida. She is such a poor thing. What will she do alone? She’s now sitting waiting for me at the Goris bus station,” Ararat said with tears in his eyes. But in the next moment, he smiled gently, adding, “Do one of you have a comb? Man, how did it come to this? I should at least fix my appearance.”
Since finding Aida was much more difficult than finding a comb, I couldn’t ignore Ararat’s pleas and bought one from the store next door. During that time, we assumed from Ararat’s stories that his wife was probably in Goris. Therefore, the search should start from there. Our fifth volunteer-turned-friend, who had already taken a family without a car to their accommodations in Goris during that day and returned, suggested, “Let’s go to Goris; what are we waiting for?” We decided to go to Goris with Ararat and return the same way we came. But Ararat half-jokingly said, “Hey man, she weighs about 100 kg, we won’t be able to fit Aida in the car if we find her.” The most concerned among us — the car owner and our most proactive member — set off with Ararat to search for poor Aida B., who had burned hands and legs, weighed nearly 100 kg, and was born in 1974.
While the main characters in this story are traversing the 100 km road, the three of us who remained at Vayk’s Culture Center are continuing to knock on every door, and make endless calls to various mobile operators, medical institutions, volunteer groups, social services, and even the governor’s office and the governor himself. Everyone has already been informed, but at the same time, nobody knows where Aida is. As for the details of what happened in Goris, I cannot present them with the same level of detail, because I was not there myself. During our volunteering experience, two more small acts of volunteerism disrupted Ararat’s personal story: helping the driver of a broken-down car and taking another family with them to Goris.
Meanwhile, the news about Aida has already spread in Goris, and our friends are looking for her everywhere. After arriving in Goris, our friends go in search of Aida for several hours, while making calls. The police can’t search for her because she hasn’t committed a crime, and the Ministry of Social Affairs can’t provide a clear answer, but there’s an assumption that she’s registered on paper, as it is often done with incapacitated patients or the elderly. A compassionate and determined volunteer from Artsakh, who came to Armenia in 2022 before the blockade, joins our friends and contacts someone at the Kornidzor checkpoint. However, there is still no news. Ararat, who was constantly being encouraged by everyone, feels discouraged and decides to return to Vayk. So, our friends decide to return to Vayk. Halfway through their journey, they get a call from the determined volunteer from Artsakh: “We found her! It looks like she’s in Kapan. Come.”
Our friends’ joy knows no bounds: a U-turn, and they head back to Goris. The Goris registration center is in chaos. Everyone is comparing information about Aida’s location with various details and assumptions. Even the Governor of Syunik, who is now well aware of this story, has arrived. But guess what? The information about Kapan turns out to be false. The day is getting dark and Aida is nowhere to be found. I don’t know how, but it turns out that there was a woman with a similar description to Aida among the passengers of a bus that went from Goris to Kapan. However, she did not reach Kapan. Maybe she’s in Meghri?
While one of us is searching for the phone number of Meghri Hopital and trying to find the contacts of the burn ward, another one of us calls their friend in Agarak. Vardan from Agarak takes the road from Agarak to the hospital in Meghri in 20 minutes, in the dark, finds Aida in one of the hospital rooms, calls us, and passes the phone to her. Finally, she’s found. “We found her! We found her!” the shouts of my friend’s voice sounded happy on the phone. In the video they sent, Ararat is sitting upright on the chair, talking on the phone with his Aida in a strict but gentle tone.
And so, Aida was found. But the story does not end there; it continues until the two loving hearts reunite and go to their registered village of Ditavan, to start a new chapter of their lives without knowing what is to be. Ararat will spend the night in Goris, promised to be taken to his wife in the morning. His only request: “Let me at least bathe and change my clothes.”
Ararat came to Armenia without any belongings, and it is now past 10 p.m., with the shops closed. But Ararat’s story opens the doors of even closed shops. We buy the necessary items for Ararat from a small store that opened specifically for him. Our acquaintances find him a free room in one of the guest houses in Goris, which are usually fully booked during those days. The next morning, Ararat will receive news that Aida has already been sent from Meghri to Goris. Our acquaintance, who arranged the overnight accommodation, will arrange the taxi for the main characters of this story to reach Ditavan. Ararat and Aida will keep calling us during their journey from the south of Armenia to the north as they drive along the Goris-Ditavan road, showering us with endless blessings and gratitude.
Until today, our friend’s day begins with Ararat. Ararat calls when he has something to say, “It’s such a great house, it has three rooms.” When he has nothing to say, he says, “I said, let me call to see how you are.” When he has a request, he asks, “How can we find out such and such from such and such a place?” When he needs advice, he asks, “Do you think we should do this or that?” Like caring parents, my friends never leave Ararat and Aida’s questions unanswered. They are always ready to help, to reach out, or to find out. Each call exudes the warmth of a family member, ageless buoyancy, and distinctive fearlessness, yet also harbors skepticism, lack of knowledge, and concern. Ararat and Aida have been waiting for us to visit for over a month. “I will sacrifice a lamb in your honor,” declares Ararat, while from across the room, Aida’s well wishes and blessings can be heard, ensuring us a prosperous life for at least seven generations.
Our day of volunteering in Vayk had come to an end, and as we returned, we felt a mixture of emptiness and fulfillment. We had gained understanding and knowledge, experienced disappointment, but also found joy in the little things. We were tired, like someone who had done a small act of kindness only for it to seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, like a drop of water in a stormy ocean. But in accordance with the laws of nature, this drop will one day transform into a powerful and life-giving rain.
Our day of volunteering in Vayk was the first in my life, but little did I know that it would not be the last. As I mentioned before, the phrase “unlivable conditions” from a family from Artsakh had a follow-up. At the beginning of the following work week, while discussing our impressions and reflections on the previous day’s events, I received a call from the family to whom I had given my personal phone number. This family had settled in the city of Ashtarak, which is where I registered them. This family had six members, but due to their relatives joining them, the family now consisted of ten individuals. While they initially found accommodation in an acquaintance’s house in the town of Abovyan, it was temporary. They were offered the opportunity to relocate to one of the villages in Aragatsotn region instead of the place I registered them in. But being city-dwellers, they were hesitant to live in a village and were unsure how to adapt to the conditions there, especially when the house they were offered was in “unlivable conditions”.
Feeling a sense of responsibility for not fully completing the task entrusted to me, I started to panic and began searching for a suitable house. I contacted the people responsible for housing in Aragatsotn region from a list. During a conversation with one of the village mayors, it became apparent that in that particular village, people were primarily being settled in houses that had been unoccupied for the past 20 years. While there were basic amenities like water and electricity, and the Red Cross and villagers had provided bare necessities, the lack of hot water and heating was unbearable. If we could solve these two problems, the conditions would be acceptable for many families, especially as winter was approaching. Although I lacked the professional skills to solve the heating and hot water problems, I could purchase what was needed to distribute to these families. We embraced this new challenge.
When a friend who works in a heating company learned about our initiative, he expressed his willingness to provide necessary solutions, such as houses and apartments with natural gas heating. We had the desire to help, the initiative, and support from our friends, but we had no way of implementing our ideas. But when did that ever get in the way of a good cause?
We visited a village in the Aragatsotn region on a Sunday, where the village mayor warmly welcomed us. Accompanied by his assistant, we went from house to house, assessing the living conditions of the families from Artsakh who had been settled there. Our task was to document the availability of hot water and heating in each house. We visited a total of 11 houses where approximately 25 families resided. The diversity of living conditions was striking. One former village official offered his beautiful summer house to accommodate 18 people free of charge. Another family of five was settled in a modern, fully-equipped house for a monthly rent of 350,000 AMD. One villager drove his car to Goris and brought two families who were complete strangers to his house to live with his already large family for free. An elderly couple was settled in a room in a modest house with an orchid, paying 40,000 AMD per person to the owner. Another large family paid 250,000 AMD to live in a two-story house on the second floor, with no heating.
During our visits, we assessed the heating and hot water needs of each family, making notes. In cases where it was necessary, we offered assistance: “Next week, we can bring a “kalorifer” (heater) for this room, and would you like to put a “geyser” (electric water heater) in the kitchen?” However, there was one house that presented a unique challenge. The house was in such poor condition, you could see outside from the interior. The mother and son who lived there, would leave their nearly 100-year-old blind grandmother at a relative’s house and come to the village every day to make their new place of residence habitable. This country house certainly had its charms, with its 1950s-style hand-painted wallpaper, legless wardrobes, multi-layered wooden floorboards with inches of gaps between them, almost no kitchen, and no proper bathroom or shower. Despite these challenges, the mother and her 23-year-old son, Gevorg, were determined to make the house livable, and in the process, perhaps heal themselves. In addition to providing a heater and water heater, we promised this family other household appliances. Two weeks later, we fulfilled our promises. We collected enough money from relatives, friends, and acquaintances to buy heaters and water heaters, and even a used refrigerator, washing machine, oven, and stove for Gevorg’s “new” house. We sat in Gevorg’s family’s makeshift kitchen, drinking coffee, listening to their stories, and sharing our own. I hesitate to share the story of Gevorg and his mother, as I know that this mature and resilient 23-year-old from Artsakh will not want to publicize wounds that will not heal for a long time.
I left the kitchen and stepped out onto the balcony. I stood on the half-demolished concrete slab and gazed out at the garden of Gevorg’s new house. Three giant walnut trees were growing there, while the neighbor’s chickens pecked at the thinning autumn grass. I couldn’t help but imagine that one spring, in the garden, now lush and tended to by the caring hands of its new owner, Gevorg’s wedding would be celebrated. Long tables and benches would be brought by the neighbors, women carrying trays of treats, children of relatives running around and causing mischief. There would be walnut vodka, Karabakh baklava, fellow villagers and Artsakhtsis singing “Gini Lits,” and then standing in a moment of silence.
Several hundred forcibly displaced people from Artsakh have found refuge in the Armenian village of Ranchpar. As they struggle to make sense of their loss and create a new life, they hang on to the hope that, like the storks of the village who return each year, they too will one day return to their native Artsakh.Read more
As the ethnically cleansed Armenians of Artsakh streamed into Goris, they were met with hundreds of volunteers, among them diasporan Armenians, many of whom now feel a deeper connection and a stronger sense of purpose.Read more
As the forcibly displaced Armenians of Artsakh struggle to comprehend the magnitude of their loss, memories of the homes and lives they were forced to leave behind suffocate them. Theirs is a story of being ripped from their roots, of pain and dispossession.Read more
If they had survived it, and done so with grace and empathy, then what is to prevent us from doing the same, writes Shoushan Keshishian, about Vasuki, a survivor of the blockade of Jaffna, Sri Lanka.Read more
The ICJ handed down provisional measures against Azerbaijan, demanding that Azerbaijan ensure the rights of Armenians forcibly displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh, including their right to return. This article breaks down the significant pronouncements made by the Court and explores their potential impact on Armenia’s legal strategy.Read more
Following Azerbaijan’s ethnic cleansing of Artsakh, the issue of the preservation of Armenian monuments has again become a hot topic. EVN Report spoke with Simon Maghakyan, an academic and investigative researcher to provide updates and insights.Read more
Despite their differences, Russia, the EU and the U.S. all came together days before the Azerbaijani attack on Artsakh to ensure aid could reach the besieged population. Why did Aliyev risk going against them? Or did he? Tatevik Hayrapetyan presents a thought-provoking analysis.Read more
Azerbaijan, emboldened by impunity, is aggressively pursuing an irredentist foreign policy, now targeting Armenia proper. Yerevan must swiftly undertake measures and adopt a robust and unequivocal legal strategy to safeguard its sovereignty and deter further acts of aggression.Read more
A collection of articles about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict through the lens of Moscow by Dr. Artyom Tonoyan entitled, “Black Garden Aflame” will become a classic and a major go-to resource for scholars, writes Dr. Pietro Shakarian.Read more
Special podcast series