Nagorno-Karabakh: Two Wars, Two Mothers

Author: Knar Babayan


Yelena who in 2013 left her native town of Askeran and moved to Pyatigorsk, a city in Russia’s northern Caucasus where her husband’s family lives, says that outside Nagorno Karabakh, Armenians and Azerbaijanis live peacefully side by side. As memories of the war hunted her, it was a difficult learning curve. 

“There were two fruit kiosks near our house, one next to the other. Nadya, a refugee from Prjamal [a Karabakhi village], worked in one, in the other there was Elmira, an Azeri. I would always buy from Armenians; I feared Azeris, I wouldn’t trust them, I couldn’t even greet them out of politeness. One day Elmira gifted me with strawberries as she saw that I was pregnant. I politely declined, perhaps she didn’t even realize what the matter was. Now, after living [here] for long time I’ve accepted the idea that this is a different country, a different society, with different human relations, where for example, it is normal for a Karabakhi to bake zhingalov hats (flatbread) and for an Azeri to sell it.”

Elmira eventually left and was replaced by an another Azeri woman.

“She often gives fruit to my three-year-old daughter Tamara. [Now] I don’t mind,” she concludes.

Yelena was four when in 1988 her mother, Alla, joined the movement calling for the independence of Nagorno Karabakh from the then-Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) of Azerbaijan and annexation to SSR Armenia. In February 1988, a few days after the Karabakh National Council had requested to Moscow to transfer the region administration to Armenia, clashes broke out in Askeran, making the town of the starting point of the boiling conflict.

When the Soviet Union melted the call for independence turned into open war.

Alla, who was then 26-years-old, joined the fight together with her brothers. She was one of the approximately 25 women who enrolled as soldiers in the conflict, according to history accounts. She was also a single mother, a rare instance in the highly conservative society.

“I was 21 when Yelena was born. I had no husband, so I raised the child by myself, with the help of my sister and my parents,” Alla, now 55, recalls. “I would leave the house [and my daughter] for long periods during the war.”

The conflict shattered little Yelena’s life.

“I was very close to my uncle Arayik. One day I was told he had died. He was alive the day before, we had walked together and talked. Then all of a sudden, he was gone,” sigh Yelena. “It was then that I realized what the war really was, though older people had been trying to explain it to me for a while. I also remember thinking that all that [suffering] had to end. Everyone had to live on. After Arayik’s death his son was born, and they named him Arayik too. Still, it was not my Arayik any more”

Three-year-old Tamara plays with her mother’s heels in her family house in Askeran. Yelena spends long periods in Nagorno Karabakh where Tamara attends a local kindergarten.
A doll sits on a windowsill in the family home in Askeran. Toda,y Yelena splits her time between Pyatigorsk and Askeran and her perception of life is divided too. ”My two experiences clash: [our daily] reality in Russia and my war memories.”
Yelena’s tries to avoid passing any of the fears of war to her daughter.
“When everyone started to pack their belongings [and fled] I put Yelena’s clothes in a box with our photo albums, so that they would survive and we would still have our memories,” remembers Alla.

When Askeran, a town of 2,500 residents laying barely 18 kilometers from the contact line, became too dangerous, women and kids were relocated in various locations across Armenia, and ended up in a building in Arevik, a summer camp for children during Soviet times. There, on the shore of lake Sevan, Yelena took a break from her daily reality of bombing, sirens, and wounded soldiers.

“We had fresh fish every morning, eating our breakfast in peace,” the 34-year-old recalls. “Then we would go to play; no shooting, nor shelling would interrupt our games. Girls could dress up with beautiful dresses and walk down to the park. I learnt that outside Karabakh life was peaceful. Wearing a nice dress and going to the park for walk meant “peace” for me.”

After the 1994 ceasefire, mother and daughter reunited in Askeran. Alla left the army, renovated her café and became the local coordinator of the Civil Initiative Centre, an NGO headquartered in Stepanakert, Nagorno Karabakh’s main city.

“We organise various community-focused events, including watching films about conflicts around the world that we then discuss,” explains Alla. Activities included drawing competitions for children around the theme of peace.

The lack of war, however, does not mean peace. The fragile ceasefire turned into a frozen conflict that over the years has been more about fire than ice, with shootings happening on a daily basis. On April 1, 2016 fighting resumed and for four days the spectre of a renewed large-scale conflict loomed over the region.

Alla returned to the family home at the end of the war and has been living there ever since. “In 1988 I became an activist, like many. I was hot-blooded. I left Yelena with my parents, took my rifle and enrolled. I was a trooper between 1990 and 1992. Later I became a nurse in a tank battalion.”
Yelena in Askeran. “Kids from our yard had handmade toy guns. I didn’t, but I knew that we had a real one at home and that my mother would defend me with that. I didn’t see her often in those years. I knew that everyone’s fathers and brothers went to war. Since I didn’t have a father I knew that my mother had gone to war instead.”
“I always had [many] guns at home,” says Alla. “I bought a toy pistol for Yelena and raised her like a boy. I taught her to be strong, to defend herself. I couldn’t be next to her all the time. It happened that I had to leave her with my neighbors to go to military positions.”
Tamara in the cafe’ her grandmother runs in Askeran. “On April 3, 2016 Yelena had an exam at the [Public Administration] Academy of Armenia. At the end of March I traveled to Yerevan with her to take care of my granddaughter during the exam period. On April 2, I heard the news of the war. I left everything and returned to Askeran [Tamara stayed with her father],” says Alla.
Yelena and Alla go through old family photos. “Once my mother came to visit me and she brought me [new] shoes and a blue coat with the pockets stuffed with ‘LOVE IS’ chewing gums,” recalls Yelena. “I couldn’t wear the coat for a long time, I couldn’t share it with anyone as I was the only one with such a nice coat. But I shared all the chewing gum.”
Alla with her granddaughter in the family house where Tamara spends half of the year. “I often went hunting with my uncles. I learnt how to shoot at an early age, I used to be quite good. They [the Azeris] pushed us into fighting. The events in Sumgayit [in 1988] were the last drop. Then I had only one thought; either the Azeris would massacre us or we would learn to fight back. And one day we would unify with Armenia.”
Alla attends bean plants in her garden. “I always had some make-up at the bottom of my first-aid kit. I remember that one day I didn’t take my eye pencil, so I used ordinary ash instead. A woman must always take care of herself, even on the battlefield.”
Tamara waves the Nagorno-Karabakh flag in her grandmother’s yard. “I know that she will soon start to ask questions,” sighs Yelena. “I don’t know how fair it is to tell her about my [personal] experience with the Azerbaijanis. Shall I tell her that even though the communication [with them in Russia] is good she needs to be careful?”

Over the years, Yelena has battled against her war fears. When she got married, Yelena moved to Russia where her husband’s family had been living for years. The physical distance opened Yelena’s heart and mind – her perception of what reality is got blurred, she says. 

“My two experiences clash: there is [our daily] reality in Russia and my war memories.”

As Yelena spends half of the year in Askeran she is torn between the desire to shelter her daughter from the war which remains of the family’s doorstep and the need to explain it.

“I have not found a good way to explain to my three-year-old about [what] war and peace are, [the difference] between our life in Russia and my childhood experience. I rather that she’ll discover it by herself, giving her the chance to live in Karabakh and a more peaceful life in Russia.”

This material may contain terms which are not favored by all parties of the dispute/conflict. Terms used in the story belong to the author and not Chai Khana.

November 2018, The 'Peace Builders'  edition

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