Shoushan and Vova Hayrapetyan (Marut Vanyan photo)

Artsakh Refugees Miss Home, See the Erasure of a Culture

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ABOVYAN, Armenia — Almost every day, those of us from Artsakh forcibly relocated to Armenia attend a funeral ceremony for the Karabakh Armenians here in Armenia. The pain from this situation is especially difficult for the older refugees.

“One dies from a heart attack, another from a stroke,” said Shoushan Hayrapetyan, 50, who has been displaced for the second time. During the 2020 war Azerbaijanis occupied her husband’s village, Aknaghbyur, in  Artsakh and her family moved to the capital, Stepanakert. After the September war in 2023, like all the Artsakh Armenians, her family found itself living in Armenia.

Shoushan Hayrapetyan (Marut Vanyan photo)

She continued, “It’s been a year since my mother’s death. She passed away during the Artsakh blockade [December 2022 through the forcible displacement of the Armenians]. Via the Red Cross we tried to take her body to Artsakh to bury her next to my father in our native village, Vaghuhas, but it didn’t work. Seeing how Azerbaijanis destroy the graves of Armenians,  in Karabakh we consider ourself lucky that we buried her here in Armenia. At least we would have a place to go to lay flowers. My mother was an old woman, for better or worse, she lived her life but what about those who lost their 18-20 year-old sons during the war — what will happen to their graves in Artsakh? I can feel their pain, but what can I do?”

Drying laundry in Hin Parvana hotel, Abovyan (Murat Vanyan photo)

A semblance of life goes on. Women hang their laundry to dry in the Hin Parvana hotel in Abovyan, where many forcibly displaced persons from Artsakh live. Each family cooks and sleeps in a single hotel room. The owner of the hotel has assigned each family a room, for which they pay rent each month.

“Arriving in Armenia, we entered a gas station to fill up the car. There were American-Armenian students there, knowing that we are from Artsakh, they asked ‘where are you going?’ ‘We don’t know,’ I replied, ‘we are thinking of spending the night in the car until morning.’

Hin Parvana hotel, Abovyan (Marut Vanyan photo)

“They helped us to push the car because we ran out of fuel. They called some American-Armenian, Vrezh, then they said we have found accommodation for you in Abovyan. That’s how we ended up here. I am so thankful to these students. Anyway, the period of stay in this hotel has passed, but the owner is a kind person, he says he knows that if he were to drive us away in the cold winter, we would have nowhere to go. All the same, we know that we cannot stay here forever,” Shoushan said. “I am mom of 4, I had to send the older two to Russia, to relatives, and we live in this one room with my other two children. We have been looking for an apartment for rent for more than a month, but the prices are too high for us. Neither I nor my husband can find a job. I have worked in the medical field in Artsakh for many years, but they don’t hire me here, they say we can’t hire people over 50.”

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She continued, “They say you should go to a border village so that the government will support you. I was displaced three times. Firstly when I was 17, during the first Karabakh war I was displaced from Martakert, in 2020 we were displaced from Aknaghbyur, my husband’s village and then from Stepanakert, in 2023. That’s enough, I’m afraid, I don’t want to.”

A young refugee in Abovyan (Marut Vanyan photo)

Shoushan’s husband, Vova Hayrapetyan, 60, said, “Our future here is very uncertain, if this continues, then our life in Armenia will become impossible, and we will have to think about emigrating. We cannot survive in Armenia with this kind of social support from the Armenian government.”

He continued, “We will spread around the world like Diaspora Armenians. We are already separated, but at least we are in Armenia.  We won’t be able to see each other even on sad occasions. We can hardly keep our identity. Maybe some 20 years, but it will be difficult. After all, we have already scattered all over Armenia. Even if a hundred years pass, I will speak the Artsakh dialect. My daughter is in Russia. When she calls, we always speak our Artsakh dialect and I will always speak our dialect with my grandchildren.”

Like Vova and Shoushan, the main reason many Artsakh refugees are considering leaving Armenia is social difficulties.

Shushi neighborhood sign (Marut Vanyan photo)

On February 27, the National Assembly of Artsakh, working in exile in Armenia, issued a statement regarding the proposed support programs for compatriots forcibly displaced from Artsakh developed by the Armenian government:

“The plan being discussed in connection with the purchase of housing for the people displaced from Artsakh is unacceptable, which, as a result of the comprehensive political and social discussion of the issue, will obviously not meet the minimum expectations and expectations of our forcibly displaced compatriots.

“Making such decisions will lead to the disappointment and dissatisfaction of our compatriots, as a result of which the emigration and the wave of protests will be stimulated,” the statement reads (https://step1.am/blog/2024/02/28/11792/).”

Lusine Gharakhanyan, the former Minister of Education of Artsakh, also believes that it will be difficult for the Artsakh Armenians to keep their identity, dialect, cuisine and culture.

Drying clothes outside Hin Parvana hotel in Abovyan (Marut Vanyan photo)

“The large-scale war instigated by Azerbaijan on September 27, 2020 and then on September 19, 2023, the forced displacement of Artsakh residents, was 21st-century genocide, which until today, unfortunately, hasn’t received an adequate response,” Gharakhanyan said. “Maybe it is also our fault that we are not fighting in the necessary target audiences. How many pregnant women lost their babies during the [Artsakh] blockade? How many people with diabetes died? There are no statistics on how many children have become mentally ill after being displaced or how many adults have ended up in mental hospitals. We are in a very difficult psychological situation. Sometimes it feels like we’ve fallen into an abyss,” Gharakhanyan tells the Armenian Mirror-Spectator.

She continued, “Along with all these, many other problems arise. For example, the Artsakh dialect. It can only be preserved where it was created, in the landscape where people spoke that dialect. It will not be possible to preserve it in other places, if it is not a settlement where all the Armenians of Artsakh are. It seems that we have adapted [in Armenia], but we are not, we are divided, we are tense.  We don’t see any possibility and ways to fight for the physical territory of Artsakh, but at least we have to fight for the historical and cultural heritage of Artsakh, no matter how much time it takes.”

Abovyan (Marut Vanyan photo)

She lamented that no systematic programs have been put in place to preserve the culture of Artsakh, which has distinct differences from that of Armenia. “We are experiencing the second stage of ethnocide and genocide. Our children are experiencing the second stage of stress. Thousands of children have suffered psychological shocks and no one is responsible for this. Now those children must find the strength to overcome the dialect barrier here in Armenia, which is also a stress for them. Although we are the same nation, Artsakh had its own peculiarities in terms of traditions and dialect.”

For her, there is only one solution. “We must return to our homeland, which has belonged to our ancestors for thousands of years, where we created our customs, our cuisine. We have our mountain mentality and values,” Gharakhanyan said. “This is about the tragedy of 140,000 people. Each one is an individual story, an individual tragedy. Each of them is a message to the international community that the 21st century is a destructive one. The civilized world should not tolerate this terror against children.  The self-determination of the Artsakh people should be respected. and, parallel to it, the right to preserve the identity of the people. We cannot preserve our identity outside our homeland, it will just be a continuation of the same ethnocide,” concluded Gharakhanyan.

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