Jirayr Babayan and his friend bring goods back to the store weeks after the Azerbaijani attack

Shattered but Still: Residents of Armenian Borderline Communities Yet Again on the Brink


By Lida Asilyan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

SOTK, Armenia — Just a stone’s throw from Sotk, a village 173 kilometers from Yerevan, slow-rising smoke reaches the residents from the mountains beyond their control. The bricks of a newly-constructed house sparkle with dust coming from a fresh hole in the wall. The 65-year-old Surik Martirosyan’s house was struck minutes after he stepped out. Martirosyan thought it was one of the daily shootings, but the entire sky was burning red with hundreds of missiles falling down.

He came home to have dinner after a long day on the farm on the late evening of September 13, 2022. “It was a war movie I was watching, and it turned out a real war was going on outside when my daughter called me,” he says. The gray-haired farmer was at home with his daughter and two grandchildren. Half barefoot, he ran out to turn on the car. The car stopped working, so they started running toward his friend’s house. “It wasn’t even a few minutes we ran when it fell on the house,” he says, whipping the sweat from his forehead.

One of the hotels in Jermuk, Armenia, after the Azerbaijani attack on Sep 13, 2022

Azerbaijan launched a wide-scale attack against Armenia around midnight of September 13, targeting at least three dozen locales along the southern and south-eastern borders, including small settlements like Sotk, Vardenis, Goris and Kapan. This escalation which ended on September 14 through international mediation, has been the largest escalation between the two sides since the Second Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020.

Armenia has announced the death of 207 of its soldiers, while Azerbaijan has claimed 77 casualties of its service members. Three civilian fatalities have been reported in Armenia, and several civilians on both sides were wounded.

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Martirosyan built his house from scratch in September 2020, a few days before Azerbaijan launched a full-scale war on the territory of the self-recognized Republic of Artsakh (Karabakh). He didn’t stop the construction when the war started and still doesn’t plan to move. Yet, his daughter and grandchildren are displaced, temporarily residing with relatives in towns closer to the capital Yerevan. The schools are closed, and the older granddaughter hasn’t been in class since the attacks.

Slavik Galstyan’s house after the Azerbaijani attack

Gardening in the Wreckage: the Comeback

While Martirosyan’s farming stopped, Slavik Galstyan has just dug out the potatoes earlier than the usual mid-October. The 59-year-old gardener and constructor is left with nothing but a demolished house, a few sheep, and a garden. Slavik lives with three sons and his wife. The youngest one, Suren (22), fought in the 2020 War and finished his service about a year ago.

Slavik was displaced from Kirovabad (now Ganja), Azerbaijan, back in 1989 when the Armenian-Azerbaijan conflict ignited. The tension in the country towards Armenians intensified, so he moved to Sotk with his family and switched houses with an Azerbaijani. “It was a common practice back in 1989. People made deals and exchanged the houses as we did,” says Slavik.

More than nine bombs fell in his neighborhood consecutively. They focused on Vardenis (8.5 km from Sotk). He said they stayed outside for a few days and returned to see the remains of the house. He added, “They don’t want to leave us alone. I want the kids to finally go to school and not be scared. I want to go to bed in peace.”

According to the villagers, the Azerbaijani forces set fire to some parts of the forest to scare them and spread panic. The smoke has been rising for a few days now, but Armenians can’t go close to extinguish the fire. Its smell and heaviness spreads in the village, obscuring any future plans.

“We’re not planning to leave the village, but neither can we bring the kids back to this wreckage. There’s no guarantee they won’t attack again,” says Slavik. He is just sitting and looking at Azerbaijani trenches in the mountains, foreseeing another attack. Potato bags and ripened pear trees guard the remnants of the house, giving Slavik hope for revival.

Jirayr Babayan and his wife Gayane Matevosyan are working at their market in Jermuk.

Just Two Among Many

“The total number of temporarily displaced people from Gegharkunik, Vayots Dzor and Syunik provinces of Armenia is more than 7,600 people — mostly women and elderly, as well as 1,437 children and 99 people with disabilities.

“About 192 residential buildings, three hotels, two schools, one medical facility were partially or completely destroyed. Seven electricity supply facilities, five water supply facilities, three [natural] gas pipelines, and one bridge were damaged. Two ambulances and four private cars were shot at. The Kechut Reservoir was also shelled,” announced Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.

Armenia’s Minister of Education, Science, Culture, and Sports, Vahram Dumanyan, called on the international community to condemn Azerbaijan’s hostile actions in his speech at the 9th Ministerial Conference of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe held in Nicosia, Cyprus, from October 5-7.

In his official letter to UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay, he stated that  24873 school children of 172 schools and 5808 preschool children from 69 kindergartens studying in Syunik, Gegharkunik, and Vayots Dzor regions were deprived of the right to education as a result of the military aggression unleashed by Azerbaijan. The activities of extracurricular educational institutions, colleges and universities operating in these regions are also under threat. A special report prepared by the RA Human Rights Defender was also attached to the letter.

One of the hotels in Jermuk, Armenia, after the Azerbaijani attack on Sep 13, 2022

Jermuk: From Medical Tourism to Guns

When driving to Jermuk (155 kilometers from Sotk), a touristic spa town in the southeast of Armenia, another bushfire appeared in the mountains, delineating the new borders. The road, which used to be packed with tourist cars and buses, is blocked with a military checkpoint. “Tourist town has become a military polygon,” sighs Jirayr Babayan,49, the owner of a local store in Jermuk.

This part of the country is renowned for its natural resources, healing waters, and wineries. Jermuk is a leading health resort that hosted hundreds of tourists just before the attack. The hotels and spas were packed with tourists and reservations were booked for the upcoming months. Like in Sotk and other areas of attack, the entrance to the city is restricted. Cars are being checked in the new “Jermuk gates” by the military and police. This reporter was escorted with fellow colleagues by a military representative, likewise, going through a 40-minute scan. The Azerbaijani assault left the town bare, with only a few businesses open.

The only light bulb of Babayan’s store trembles, shifting the eyes of the visitors to the half-emptied shelves. He and his wife, Gayane Matevosyan, 44, run a family business to make a living. The war left its scar on their store too. Most of their customers were tourists who left the city and won’t be back until safety is guaranteed. The local businessman says the market was full a few days before the Azerbaijani attack, but now they get 2-3 people daily, mostly servicemen.

“Have you seen the smoke rising in the mountains? That’s them. It’s dark now, but in the morning, we can see them standing and observing us from above. It’s not safe,” Martirosyan explained.

It was 12:05 am when he heard the bombing and was convinced it was a firework. Fireworks without lights. Women, children, the elderly, and tourists were evacuated. He didn’t leave the town even for a second and isn’t planning to.

“They deliberately targeted hotels, the ropeway, and touristic places. It’s the main source of income for people,  so they want to cut it and make people leave voluntarily,” the 49-year-old man says. He describes the situation as “critical but stable” in medical terms.

The smoke in the mountains chokes Jermuk’s emptied streets, hanging all the plans in the air. Yet, Babayan brings the missing bottles back to the shelves. “Do you think a tourist will come back? Maybe in a year, in two years,” says the Armenian entrepreneur. He’s far from positive about the future of his business in the short term.

“Until safety is guaranteed and Azerbaijanis recede to their initial positions, it will not be safe.”

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