War through the eyes of a fact-checker

Journalist: Ani Avetisyan
Edition: Homefront
Topic: Conflict

There are always signs that war is coming, sometimes very obvious ones. But time and time again, we choose to ignore them. And so this war, like many others, came unexpectedly, even though an entire nation had been waiting for it for 30 years.

At the end of September, in the days before the war started, I was consumed by research for an article about the increased number of military flights between Turkey and Azerbaijan. There were ample signs that war was on the horizon.

But it was still a shock when, on September 27, a colleague’s brother called from Stepanakert, the capital of Artsakh (known internationally as Nagorno-Karabakh), to say children were being sent to Armenia.

The residents of the city refused to leave their homes during the last war, and were unlikely to go now, so the fact that the children were leaving was alarming. 

There were media reports of one girl, who had been taken far from home and her parents, saying she would pretend to be sick so she could return home. An old man who was evacuated from Hadrut and settled in my hometown said that their house was destroyed, so they were forced to leave. He said he can’t imagine living outside that city, but he also does not want to return to see the remains of his burned home.

Sitting in the Armenian capital Yerevan, I feared that a real war, not a new round of skirmishes, was starting. A planned press conference was canceled as reports of fighting grew. My colleagues started planning trips to Stepanakert. Some were even live streaming from the frontlines by evening.

But as a fact-checker, my battles were fought in Yerevan as I monitored the flood of fake news and disinformation. The fake reports started even before the shooting. 

Fact-checkers have to review every photo, claim, and bit of information reported from both sides. The governments use information as part of military propaganda, but I believe that society has a right to know the truth, even if it hurts. While covering war requires empathy from journalists and everyone else, euphoria can have irreversible consequences in any situation.

I have to put my emotions aside; everything in war is a fact to be verified--the weapons used, their types and suppliers, propaganda tricks and sources. Those facts must be conveyed to the people on both sides of the war as well as those who follow the developments. 

Sitting at my desk, as Sunday evening faded into night, the images and reports seemed endless and it became clear this time is different. In 2016, it seemed that Armenian society did not have time to fully mobilize behind the war effort—the fighting was over in four days. But it was obvious now that the nation did not wait for a second: emotions—especially rage and hatred—are on full display. Besides, there is a growing sense of brotherhood. The news from the border comes, the harder people start to work, to make and provide everything needed. It feels like the country became a factory working for one purpose.

By Monday, the fighting had already reached closer to home: my brother was called to the police station for mobilization, but then, thankfully sent home. I still hoped the fighting would end soon—that was my hope, the hope of everyone around me. There was faith that we, as a nation, did not really want war. So it would end soon. Surely.

But no. The very next day, my brother was called again and this time he did not return home. By evening, he was already in Artsakh. Now the war ceased being something distant and unreal; I, and my loved ones, became part of it. 

The fighting also became physically closer: When it was reported that a UAV was observed in Abovyan (a city near Yerevan), people went to shelters and the war-game ended for children coming from Artsakh. Even for them, it was too much to play the same game in two different places.

War is the most destructive and cruel thing that we can do to each other. It disrupts an entire society, an entire generation. The boys heading to the front—the boys in the photos I saw streaming across my desk as they fought and died—are just teenagers. Eighteen and nineteen year olds. Boys born at the beginning of this century, raised to be the “war generation.” All I can think of is that they are dying before they start living. 

Even when I close my eyes, I can still see the faces of Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers, frozen in time in the photos that fill my computer screen. They look like children, even to me, a 21-year-old. 

As I work, examining the pixels of data that are transported from the battlefield to my desk, I see a quote from Slaughterhouse-Five:

"You'll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you'll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we'll have a lot more of them. And they'll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs"

With every passing day, I see photos and videos of how these babies are turning into men somewhere out there. I want to believe there is a kingdom of heaven and that it's theirs. 

As the days turn to weeks, I feel like five months of isolation during the pandemic lockdown was easier to bear than the first ten days of the war. 

While I look for fake news, I observe peace-lovers turning to nationalists. I’m following the process of growing hatred, and the efforts not to allow these feelings to kill the human inside each of us. 

I remember the neverending posts of violence and fake news during the April 2016 fighting. Four years ago, we seemed to understand the danger of that flood of death and hate. I can still recall the days I spent trying to delete all the pages spreading misinformation from my mom’s Facebook feed. 

The danger has not gone away. But I noticed that people became more immune to it. To everything. Even to the “calls” and “concerns” of the international community. They, people from the "warzone," learned to silence the sound of rockets with headphones, to lay in bed waiting for the raid sirens to call them back to shelters. 

The only thing that we can’t gain immunity from is the loss of lives. And we already have enough. We have learned by heart the names of the soldiers killed during the 2016 fighting, even though they were more than 100. Now, after nearly a month of fighting, we have more than 700 names…

These days I wake up before my alarm, thinking of people and militants waking up by the sounds of shelling. 

I know we should all try to go back to our everyday lives. Time has not stopped. I’m trying to gather all my strength and focus on lessons, work, life. It is my senior year at university.

But 2020 has been overladen with surprises: my thesis topic, on fact-checking media coverage of the pandemic, seemed paramount when I selected it. Now, however, even though the number of Covid-19 cases rises every day, it is hard to write about anything but war. 

I am trying not to hate. To be more rational than ever, to check the propaganda being passed by both sides as if it were fact. The push and pull of waves of disinformation as they try to build themselves up while simultaneously being pulled down.  

My family is lucky—my brother is safe. The second truce has been announced. I know it will not hold, but my brother—probably most brothers—wants it to last. They need to rest, and we need time to bury our dead. 

Check out how the war has affected our Azerbaijani colleague: A week on the frontline

Disclaimer: Chai Khana is sympathetic to the views and feelings of the communities on both sides of the conflict. We understand that some of the material in this edition may offend readers. Our hope is that by giving journalists a platform to write honestly about their experiences during these difficult times, we will help foster dialogue.

This article was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) South Caucasus Regional Office. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of FES or Chai Khana.

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