oDR: Opinion

Where was the outpouring of empathy when my country was at war?

As an Armenian, I feel our pain was ignored. And my trauma means I’m struggling to empathise as I should with Ukraine today

Tatev Hovhannisyan
24 February 2022, 5.06pm
I remember being in almost exactly the same situation in Armenia during the Nagorno-Karabakh war
CC BY-SA 2.0 ogannes / Flickr. Some rights reserved

War is a strange thing – it makes you both empathetic and cold-hearted.

As an Armenian, I experienced two huge wars – the first Nagorno-Karabakh War (1988-1994) and the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. Now in my 30s, I still live in a country where people are praying every night not to receive word about a new war and casualties in the morning.

Unfortunately, this morning, we received exactly that. This time, the war is not in Armenia, but in Ukraine.

Ukraine is not far from my country, but this doesn’t change my reaction to it. Ukraine could be in Antarctica and I would still feel the same sharp emotion – like my heart is being squeezed and I want to scream ‘stop’.

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From empathy into heartlessness

As soon as I got the news, I put myself in the shoes of every Ukrainian. I really felt for them. I imagined young people in love, with big plans for the future or for their wedding day, who will not live to see them happen. It is heartbreaking.

But empathy was just the first reaction I had this morning. It was followed by something different: a pang of what I would describe as heartlessness. I suppose this is a product of trauma.

I remembered being in almost exactly the same situation in Armenia, but with a slight difference. The world was not supporting us. It was just watching our pain in silence.

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Don’t get me wrong. I’m genuinely happy to see how the international community is supporting Ukraine, how people in different countries are protesting in the streets, how millions are adding the Ukrainian flag to their profiles on social media. But this unity and empathy feels so different from what I experienced in 2020.

Thousands of young people aged 18 to 20 died in Armenia and Azerbaijan barely two years ago. And I don’t recall much international solidarity happening then.

Please, spare me explanations about the differences between wars. War is war. It’s a tragedy. It means being able to smell death. It’s mourning a parent and a partner. It’s an evil that takes away your sleep and your laughter. It’s an invisible pain in your heart. Let’s not talk about geopolitics here.

What really shocks me is the hypocrisy. How can this be the same world, the same society, the same media? Where were they when people in another part of the world were fighting for 44 days during the pandemic?

I don’t care about politics, land, negotiations, economics – I just want to live in a peaceful country where parents don't have to fear that they will not see their children again

I remember feeling so helpless at the time and trying to throw myself into work. I’m not sure it helped much but at least it alleviated my anger towards the world.

My international friends were silent, too. They didn’t change their profile pictures. Most didn’t text me messages of love and solidarity. There were just two friends (one from Africa and one from Europe) who did so, and I’ll be forever grateful to them. Believe me – when you are in pain, every word of support matters to you. It’s a silver lining. These messages remind you that you are not alone, and can even make you smile.

I want to live in a peaceful country

The 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict turned my life upside down. I am not the same anymore.

I might be silent about it, appear happy and back to normal, but every night I think about the more than 4,000 Armenian families who lost their sons in the 2020 war and the 200 families whose sons are still missing in action. I think about Azerbaijani families, too, who also have losses. I’m sure all human beings mourn and love exactly the same way.

For me, it’s all about humanity. I don’t care about politics, land, negotiations, economics – I just want to live in a peaceful country where parents don't have to live in fear that they will not see their children again.

There are times I wish I had not been born in this region, where life is so unstable and fragile, where you don’t have certainty in tomorrow.

I live in constant fear of change – either from ongoing war, an earthquake or political tensions. It’s hard to keep up with it all when you are an ordinary person who doesn’t want to be involved in politics and just wants to live a normal life.

The main lesson I learned from the war is not to expect any help or solidarity from outside. You are alone and you need to live with your permanent wounds as there will always be scars. I guess my scars are too fresh and deep – that’s why there isn’t more room to feel others’ pain.

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