The Youth of Karabakh: Concerned for the present, committed to the future

Not too long ago, would it seem possible that youth in Nagorno Karabakh would now be celebrating Halloween – dressing as ghouls and goblins and ghosts in this war-worn country?

This Halloween, they did.

And the simple – and yet astounding – act of self-expression is indicative of how one generation which may never outgrow the impact of war, has at least developed an outward world view and a spirit that embraces freedom. According to Suren Sarumian, editor-in-chief of Martik (Warrior) official newspaper of NKR Defense Army, there is a stratum of society in Karabakh who were robbed of their childhood and youth because of war.

“The difference between the pre-war and post-war generations is huge,” says Sarumian, 35. “I used to be ‘oktyabrenok’ (Soviet elementary school students prior to becoming pioneers), then a pioneer (youth communists). I read about Vladimir Ilyich Lenin in school textbooks that cited him as a role model. Meanwhile the source of inspiration for our children now are our national heroes. These children opened their eyes in an independent country, born with knowledge that this is their motherland, with a sense that they are the owners of this land,” says Sarumian.

He says that despite environmental differences, there cannot be a big philosophical gap between residents of capital Stepanakert and those of Karabakh villages, because the city center “is a thirty-minute ride from the ‘war’, the frontline, and everybody is well aware where they live”. Meanwhile in Yerevan many have trouble imagining what life is like outside the capital. To many “motherland” is limited to Yerevan. In Artsakh (NKR’s historic name) the war factor unites people one way or another.

During the turbulent days of the Karabakh war, in 1992 the branch of Azerbaijan’s Lenin Pedagogic Institute (opened in Stepanakert in 1969) was turned into Artsakh State University (ASU).

In 1988-92 the university headquarters hosted a battalion. Once ceasefire was signed and the war ended, the building underwent large-scale reconstruction and today offers education in six faculties, has 21 chairs with 338 teaching personnel and more than 4,700 undergraduate and post-graduate students.

The university premises are now fully furnished and upgraded, equipped with modern laboratories and other facilities. Right in front of the main building there is a café with large, tall umbrellas, and offering free WiFi. Finding a vacant table in the second half of the day is almost impossible.

Vitya Yaramishian, ASU Pro-Rector on Student Affairs, assures that a bright generation of students is now getting higher education at the university.

The 50-year-old pro-rector smiles at recollections of his Soviet-era youth. But he says he envies the freedom Karabakhi young people enjoy today.

“When we were young, we didn’t have that many troubles, everything was decided for us and went smooth – from elementary school to higher education, then employment,” Yaramishian says. “Today’s youth have a hard time deciding what career to choose, being free in their decisions because they live in a free country, which is the greatest achievement.”

Yaramishian, who has PhD in psychology, says war haunts those who have ever witnessed it for the rest of their lives.

“During the early years after the war my family and I went to Yerevan for a few days. The house we were staying at was in a district next to the airport and every time my five-year-old daughter would hear the sound of airplanes landing or taking off, she’d hide behind her mommy’s skirt. Even now she stiffens when hearing loud sounds,” he says.

Deep traces

Anzhelica Zakharian, born two months before the ceasefire was signed in May of 1994, is now a student at ASU, and is president of the ASU Student Union. She remembers nothing from the war, but says it has nonetheless left deep traces and it will take a long time for those wounds to scar.

“My grandpa died in the war; my father was wounded. You probably won’t find a single family in Artsakh which hasn’t lost a family member, and those losses have affected us greatly. One could say we have not ‘returned from the war’ yet,” says the18-year-old, adding that her choice of curriculum, political science, has been determined by her concerns over the yet-unresolved Karabakh conflict. “My parents, my ancestors have fought hard for these lands, and I want to have my contribution to the diplomatic side of that struggle.”

In 2011, together with her friends Zakharian founded Azat Artsakh (Free Artsakh) youth NGO, dealing with environmental issues and arranging cultural events aimed at encouraging patriotism in younger generations.

The Non Governmental Organization (NGO) has more than 50 members.

Gayane Ohanian, a native of Hadrut, works as assistant to the Rector at Grigor Narekatsi college, founded in 1996 in Stepanakert. The 23-year-old associates the war with memories of her father who in those years was helping defend the borders of his homeland.

“I have very little recollection of the war, only my father’s beard and his green uniform, which had this very unpleasant odor about it – a mixture of blood and mould,” Gayane recalls. “I remember the sound of explosions and the basements, full of children like me, but we were silent and didn’t play like regular children.”

After the war Gayane’s family left for the Ukraine, however longing for their motherland made them go back to native Hadrut and start carving their future there.

“After the war we started recovering very slowly, but if there hadn’t been war we would have been much more advanced now,” says the young professor. “We lost a lot during those years. People had built nice houses, had good jobs. But then somebody lost a father, a son. Those children who lost their parents are now of my age and it’s very challenging for them to get to their feet on their own. If not for the war they might have been living a well-provided life by now.”

“Well provided” is a relative term, as standards of living and lifestyle are widely different in Stepanakert than anywhere else in Karabakh.

“Be like us . . .”

Young people in Karabakh – or at least a sampling in Stepanakert – are convinced that they yield nothing to their peers living in European and more developed countries.

They have to experience some restrictions typical of an unrecognized country (and frequent references to war are no coincidence). Still, it seems the majority are unexpectedly optimistic and active. If fashion is an indicator, the mood of Karabakhi youth has improved, as the muted colors for girls and black for boys no longer own the market. Black still prevails for the male population, but even some boys now add a bit of “splash” to their style.

Vatche Kocharian, 17, says he has grown accustomed to getting stares, because he doesn’t dress only in black and because his hairstyle (slightly spiky) is considered radical for Karabakh.

“In Yerevan, for example, there isn’t such a problem anymore, they are more liberal in this sense,” he says, adding that if he had such an opportunity he would like to live in another country for some time, get a foreign education and maybe be useful to his homeland from abroad.

Vatche says that he always is surprised when he hears that in other countries people think that Stepanakert is a war zone riddled with trenches and people getting shot here all day long.

“I’m even convinced that no new war will start. The war is going on between diplomats, because nobody wants hostilities again. No one, either in Azerbaijan or Karabakh, would want their posh (by Karabakh standards) homes built during these 20 years to be bombed,” the teenager says.

Young people who met recently at Stepanakert Music College to speak with AGBU’s correspondent, say they don’t want to lose faith in the future of their republic, even as faith in the current peace process is waning.

“My parents have told me a lot about the terrible years of war,” says Olga Davidian, an 18-year-old student at ASU’s Tourism Studies Department, whose family moved, briefly, to Moscow. “Even after all the hardship here, we couldn’t quite adjust to living in Moscow. We returned to Karabakh and do not want to go anywhere, we want to be living here always.”

Olga, who still sports pigtails, says she has dreamed of a day when her coevals in Yerevan and other Armenian cities and towns would envy her: “Because they will try to emulate us, be informed as much as we are, be hardworking and advanced as we are. I know it will be so one day, we are taught to be like this,” she says.

Olga says that all the current talk of renewed war makes her very afraid, but deep down she is confident that there will be no war.

“I think that our people and the Azeris do not want a new war. Besides, other countries have already started to deal with our conflict and I always hear on television that they call for maintaining peace,” she says.

Arsen Ohanjian, 22, is also convinced that Azerbaijan will not dare to resort to war.

“What did they (Azerbaijan) gain from the previous war and why are they confident that this time they will win? If they wanted to start a war, they would have started it long ago,” says Arsen, who was born in Martakert and has lived and worked in Stepanakert for a few years now.

He says he has to have a multiple jobs to save up money in order to get married.

“Every young man in Karabakh ought to create a family. We need to have a larger population. The government encourages this, but we, too, have to work on it and not be lazy,” says Arsen, adding that he has had opportunities to work abroad, but does not acutely feel the need to leave yet.

“What will be the good of the money I earn if I have to live without the woman I love, without my friends and family? What should I do with that high salary if I have to stay alone in a foreign country?” he asks rhetorically. He says, too, that some of his friends have left, but: “Whoever has gone abroad has either come back or is saving up money for a return.”

Less than 10 miles from capital Stepanakert, 20-year old Nelli Arzumanian says the youth of Shushi are more isolated than those in nearby Stepanakert. Still, she exemplifies the determination of her Karabakhi peers.

Nelli’s family comes from the village of Seisulan (Martakert province), which, today, is in a neutral zone between Azerbaijan and Karabakh.

Nelli’s father took part in the battles of self-defense. When the village fell to Azeris, the family fled to Shushi, leaving the house and all their property behind.

Nelli says that living in Shushi, where the damage of war is striking, almost two decades after ceasefire, she certainly feels the threat of war.

“Now we are in a state of war too, we live in an unrecognized republic, we often get bad news from frontline positions. Soldiers get killed by Azeri snipers, there is a threat everyday that war will resume. It means that we are at war already,” says Nelli, adding that from time to time people start talking about an imminent resumption of hostilities and such conversations are becoming a cause for concern.

“Last spring and summer after several attempted commando attacks by Azeris at the borders with Armenia and Artsakh, the talk of an impending war resumed and at one point I, too, wanted to go to some safe place,” says Nelli, who is an assistant in the Shushi mayor’s office. “But then I looked at what has been done by my parents during 20 years – the house, all these conveniences, there is no leaving all this.”

In recent years Arzumanian has had different proposals to leave Karabakh. She has many relatives in Russia. She has also traveled abroad to attend various education programs and keeps in touch with young people she has met in other countries.

But as for herself:

“I can’t imagine my life abroad, I can’t imagine that I could go away and not return. I want to get married at Ghazanchetsots (church), live in one of the old historic buildings of Shushi and raise my children there.”