A family on the frontlines

Journalist: Hasmik Baleyan

Edition: Homefront
Topic: Conflict

Illustrations by Lika Gurgenishvili

A year ago, Arsen and Haykaz Harutyunyan were medical students. Two brothers living together in the Armenian capital Yerevan, focused on their studies and following the footsteps of their pediatrician father, Dr. Aram Harutyunyan.

Arsen, 24, a fourth year medical student, and Haykaz, 26, who was in his first year of residency, opted to stay in the capital once the pandemic struck instead of moving home to their native village of Areni, 110 km from Yerevan. 

As studies moved online, the two brothers started to volunteer treating coronavirus patients. 

"I wanted to become a doctor to help people. This is what fascinated me about my father's life, I admired and was proud that he always helped people,” Arsen said. 

Aram treated patients in his community, while his sons logged in hours of time caring for Covid-19 patients in Yerevan. Haykaz caught the virus once and Arsen caught it twice during the summer. 

For Aram, 57, the fact that the two were on the front lines of the pandemic was both frightening and a source of pride.

"When my sons said they decided to work as volunteers at the Covid Center in Yerevan, my wife and I were just happy that our sons realized the importance of their professional mission and wanted to help people,” he said. “Of course, the danger is great, but there is no other option. Doctors are always fighting against the disease, and my boys must fight as well. If they have chosen that profession, then they must fight.”

He and his wife, Alisa Hambardzumyan, were again forced to watch their sons put themselves in danger when war over Nagorno-Karabakh (also known as Artsakh) started in September. 

"When my sons decided that they had to fight against the coronavirus as volunteers, I never tried to hold them back. As for Artsakh, my wife and I did not try to hold back our sons then, either,” Aram said. “A doctor's duty is to save lives. Even if it is a state of war, bombs and projectiles explode next to him, one thing is for sure, the doctor must remember his professional mission and save lives.”

Haykaz left for the frontlines on September 27; Arsen left the next day and was stationed with his unit in Yeghnikner, in northern Karabakh, which was a hot spot.

Aram knew the danger facing his sons: a native of Karabakh, he had served as a medic during the 1988-1994 war, and had to fight at times so he could reach the wounded and treat them. 

Before his sons went to the frontlines, Aram said he told them “your life is not only yours. Your life is the life of wounded boys. I understood that when I went through the horrors of war in the 90s.”

Alisa, 57, said she did not try to dissuade her sons from going to Karabakh, even though she still remembers the days when her husband was the head of the medical service of the military unit in their regional center, Yeghegnadzor.

“They decided to become doctors. I did not hold them back when in April they decided to work as volunteers in medical facilities and rescue coronavirus patients. Of course, I was worried about leaving for Artsakh, my heart hurt, but I did not forbid them, I did not ask them not to go to the battlefield,” she said.

“I realize that my sons, being doctors, have a mission to save people's lives, and many people in Artsakh need them.”

Fifteen doctors died during the war, luckily however, Alisa’s sons survived the fighting. 

Her eldest son, Haykaz, volunteered to treat soldiers on the frontlines, and was injured during the war. Despite his injuries, he stayed and continued to treat the wounded. Even now he remains in Karabakh to provide medical care to those in need. 

Arsen, who served in a military unit on the frontlines of the fighting, returned on October 26. The end of the war did not offer a respite, however. Less than a week later, he was already treating Covid patients, first in the town of Sisian and then in Yerevan. 

 “After the war, the coronavirus became less important to society because as bad as it is, the war was even more terrible, however doctors never neglected the fight against the coronavirus,” he said.

“The coronavirus changed our lives so much--we worry about our relatives, because we do not know whose immune system will be strong enough to fight the virus ․․․The war taught me to appreciate every second of life, communication with relatives and loved ones, to appreciate what used to seem like a trifle.”

Check out how the war has affected the Azerbaijani doctors: Treating soldiers, one war at a time

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.

We are a non-profit media organization covering the topics and groups of people that are frequently ignored by mainstream media. Our work would not be possible without support from our community and readers like you. Your donations enable us to support journalists who cover underrepresented stories across the region.