50.50: Opinion

I grew up in a war that has never ended

The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan changed my childhood, and now it’s changing my children’s lives

MM
Marine Martirosyan
14 December 2022, 10.45am

Mount Khustup is the symbol of Kapan | Marine Martirosyan

I’ll never forget that summer afternoon of 1992. I was six years old, my brother was four. It was so hot in my hometown of Kapan – in the far south of Armenia in Syunik province, on the border with Azerbaijan – that the heat particles seemed to form an invisible curtain across the sky.

My father was in our neighbours’ garden, making mulberry vodka. My mother was serving up her cream of chicken soup. The sound of our laughter made her smile. Our happiness was contagious and spreading up towards the nearby Khustup-Katar mountains, along with the smell of the barbecue and the fragrant vodka.

Moments later, the table started to shake and the shot glasses that my grandmother had poured vodka into fell over.

At first, I didn’t really notice anything was wrong. Then we looked up towards the mountains. Some of the houses on the hillside were burning. Then our home shook – just as it did during an earthquake.

Get our free Daily Email

Get one whole story, direct to your inbox every weekday.

My grandmother immediately realised we were being bombed by Azerbaijani forces. My father rushed off to get essential supplies, while my mother bundled us into an old wardrobe inside the house.

“Don’t come out until we call you,” she said. We understood that this was unlike any game of hide and seek we had played before, that this was something big and serious – but we knew nothing about a war.

We sat huddled in silence in the dark. The wardrobe smelled of wood. I heard my grandmother’s voice outside. She sounded afraid.

When my father came back, he grabbed us, me in one arm and my brother in the other, and ran to the bomb shelter in the building opposite. People had already gathered there. It wasn’t a real shelter, just a basement with rusty pipes and a floor of damp soil.

I don’t even know how the day ended. It felt like it lasted forever.

In the mornings, my parents went to the local hospital to find out about the victims. One of the civilians killed in Kapan was my father’s aunt’s husband, who was standing by the bus station when the first bombs fell.

The war changed our childhood and the way we played

This was the First Nagorno-Karabakh War. In 1988, three years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenians living in the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (known as Artsakh to Armenians) began to call for Karabakh to cede from Azerbaijan and unite with Armenia. The Azerbaijani government objected, launching ethnic cleansing pogroms in the cities of Sumgait, Ganja and Baku.

Azerbaijan blocked all roads from Armenia to Karabakh and forcibly displaced Armenians from the area. They also bombed border towns and villages, including Kapan and Vardenis in 1992. Meanwhile, Armenian forces launched their own offensive against Azerbaijani-populated parts of Karabakh. A Russian-brokered ceasefire (albeit frail) was finally agreed in 1994, with Armenia gaining control of the unrecognised Republic of Karabakh, including seven majority-Azerbaijani districts.

Now – almost three decades later – Kapan’s existence is under threat again. After the 44-day Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020, Russian peacekeepers were sent to Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan regained control of the seven adjacent districts.

Since May 2021, Azerbaijani forces have carried out several incursions into Armenian territory, constantly shifting the border between the two countries. After the attacks in September 2022, it’s estimated that Azerbaijani forces are now occupying more than 140 square kilometres of Armenia, including some strategic heights in the Kapan community.

Bombs and jam sweets

The war changed our childhood and the way we played. We learned, as soon as the siren went off, to stop whatever we were doing and to run to the shelter. Once, during a game, a bomb dropped inside the adjacent building. We tried to see which floor it had ended up on, not realising the danger. We still knew nothing about death.

The summer passed and the cold winter arrived. The electricity supply was intermittent, and people relied on candles for lighting. Bakeries had to sell half-cooked loaves. My grandmother always poked her finger into the bread to check it, a thin layer of dough sticking to her finger.

Our building seemed to have become one big family. We children would sing cheerfully, but the eyes of our elders were always sad. Sometimes they covered their mouths with their hands so that we could not hear their sobs.

The war made my father a soldier. A furniture maker by trade, he volunteered to join the army when the war began.

I remember seeing two jam sweets in the pocket of his uniform, which my grandmother had given him just before he went off to the frontline.

Two months later, he returned. My brother and I were waiting for him in the yard and we jumped into his arms. He hugged us both, then laughed and said we’d put on weight. He took the two jam sweets, which were still in his pocket, and gave them to us. They were old and the coloured wrapping had faded, but they were the most delicious sweets I ever tasted.

A few days passed. It was one of these sweet spring mornings. I was lying in bed with the sun’s rays gently bathing my face, when I heard my mother’s voice: “There is an air raid. They are bombing. Get up.”

I heard her, but I didn’t want to move from that warm shower of sunshine. Maybe she was telling me that everything was fine? No – nothing had changed. There was still a war.

Then my grandmother brought my brother downstairs, wrapped in a blue blanket. Even now, when I go back to my family house in Kapan and see that blanket, I can’t touch it – it reminds me too much of that time.

Related story

AzFeministsBlur1
For too long, peacebuilding has been left to men, without any success, say activists on both sides of the conflict

Today, my brother has a five-year-old son, and I have two-year-old twins, a girl and a boy. They have already felt the presence of war.

And it seems nothing has changed – except that now the possibility of losing my country seems to grow stronger every day.

Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev is threatening to establish a “corridor” through Syunik province (Zangezur in Azerbaijani), to connect Azerbaijan to its exclave Nakhchivan in the west, as part of his interpretation of the 2020 ceasefire. If Armenia refuses to comply, Azerbaijan says it will use force.

Whenever I hear the sound of a plane overhead, I hug my children in fear. They don’t understand why. My daughter says: “Mommy, the plane has left.” I look up and see a blue sky.

The war never ended for us. The guns may be silent, but the mines are still exploding inside us.

Ukrainian journalists share their stories of war

Hear Igor Burdyga and Kateryna Semchuk explain what it's like working in a homeland under threat. Plus British author Oliver Bullough and chair Daniel Trilling.

We've got a newsletter for everyone

Whatever you're interested in, there's a free openDemocracy newsletter for you.

Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData