Imagine a hotel lobby. Now imagine laundry hanging in the middle of that lobby while the smell of mashed potatoes drifts through the halls. These seemingly unrelated smells and images have nested under the roof of a hotel in a suburb of Yerevan. As you learn the stories of those who have found refuge here, it all begins to make sense.
When the towns and cities of Artsakh came under a large-scale attack starting in the early morning hours of September 27, none of these people could have possibly imagined that they would end up living together in a hotel in Yerevan. As the war in Artsakh rages on, about 40 people of different ages and backgrounds have been staying here for about a month now. They have become a family of strangers.
“We left our house in our pajamas, not even thinking that a war could have possibly broken out,” says 50-year-old Nona Kocharyan from Stepanakert. She is at a loss for words. While her hometown was being shelled, she had nowhere safe to go to. “My house doesn’t have a basement, and the apartment buildings that do were quite far away,” says Kocharyan. “Besides, they were meant for the residents of those buildings.”
All the men in Nona’s family are in Artsakh: her son-in-law is on the front line, her brother works for the Red Cross, while her husband is too old to go to the front line. Nona shares a room with two elders, two young people and a one-year-old. “One of them keeps snoring,” she says jokingly. “But thank God for this opportunity.”
This isn’t her first time living in Yerevan. She studied here from 1988 to 1992. “I love being in Yerevan but not in these circumstances,” she says. “This whole month, there has not been a single day that I don’t dream about going back home.”
As one of the doors opens, seven pairs of curious eyes welcome you. Four-year-old Artur agrees to give a tour of their small shelter. “We want peace. We want this to end so we can go back to our homes,” says Artur’s mom, 28-year-old Anahit Avetisyan from Karmir village in the Askeran region. She came to Yerevan on September 30, with her two children, aged four and nine. While her husband is still on the front line, she managed to come to Yerevan with the bus that took volunteers from Armenia to Artsakh. “We took what we managed to, a pair of jeans and a pair of shoes,” says Anahit. There are eleven people living with her in the hotel room, most of them children.
One of her children who was supposed to be in the fourth grade, has not gone to school for over a month now. According to Artak Beglaryan, the Ombudsman of Artsakh, about 24,000 children are deprived of their right to education because of the intentional targeting of civilian settlements of Artsakh by Azerbaijani forces. With no access to formal education, Anahit’s children are being homeschooled with whatever resources and books they have available. “We have tried to send the kids to school and to kindergarten, but the COVID numbers increased drastically and everything shut down,” notes Anahit. She cannot wait to be back with her relatives and husband. “My children miss him. When they call and he does not pick up, they get frustrated,” she says. “You cannot explain to a four-year-old and a nine-year-old that their father is not able to talk to them.”
While they don’t talk much about the situation with the children, they seem to understand what’s happening back home. “When a car passes by, they still get scared because of the noise. We tell them it’s safe here,” explains Anahit.
The children are not the only ones affected by the sounds of war. Nona spent the first three days of the war in Stepanakert. “Even if you hear the sirens or the sounds of shelling only once, it’s enough for a lifetime, it’s enough for you to be scared,” she says.
The trauma of war doesn’t spare anyone, young or old. No one is immune and no one understands this better than the people of Artsakh who have seen their fair share of war and who today are displaced, homeless.
“For a week, I couldn’t speak or eat. I was just lying in bed,” says Ira Sahakyan, 59, whose three sons-in-law, husband and son are all currently on the front line. “My son was seven months old when the first Karabakh War broke out. I left Karabakh for Amasya. Thirty years later, we are in the same situation. Now, my son is on the front line and my daughter-in-law has left Karabakh with her seven-month-old son,” says Ira. This is the third war that she is witnessing in her lifetime.
Ira’s sister, Seda Gagramanyan has been in Yerevan for a week now. When her hometown of Shushi was being bombed, she sheltered in a bunker. It was only after the shelling of the iconic Ghazanchetsots cathedral, not far from Seda’s house, that she made up her mind to leave. “Let there be peace, so that we can return to our homes,” says Seda. While her extended family was in other parts of Artsakh, she was determined to stay in Shushi despite living alone, because it’s “our sacred place, it’s where my mother and father are buried.” Now her family is scattered across Armenia, finding refuge in different villages and towns.
“We are glued to the TV all day long, waiting for any updates about the situation,” Seda says. Just then, during a news segment, they see a report about their neighborhood. Their neighbor’s car has exploded following more shelling.
Everyone in the room keeps following the news hoping that they won’t find the names of their loved ones on the lists of fallen soldiers. Ira hasn’t heard from her son for ten days now. The situation is grave for all of them. Ira tells the story of her son-in-law’s brother, whose body was unrecognizable after being hit by a drone. “They didn’t even open the coffin. Imagine what was left of his body,” she says.
The silence of the international community has directly impacted the lives of these people, many of whom feel neglected and betrayed. Arega Sahakyan, 21, believes that the statistics showing the number of people displaced because of the war doesn’t really reflect their experiences. “I think no one can imagine what the situation is like unless you’re there,” she says, unable to find the right words to explain what it feels like to be away from one’s home, land and family.
“I’d like them to come here [Artsakh] to see what’s happening with their own eyes, to know what the people of Karabakh are enduring. But they don’t want to. I think the world doesn’t care about Karabakh. There are only 140,000 people living there. Why would they care about us?” asks Seda emphatically. She wants to go back home “even if it’s in ruins.”
“It’s our life, our soil, our sacred place. We grew up there. Those lands are priceless for us,” Seda continues. “How can we live without our country?”