Fighting Still: 20 years after cease fire, veterans battle survival

It’s with great paternal pride that veteran “freedom fighter” Gagik Hovhannisyan dines at a table together with his seven sons and five daughters. Bringing up a dozen children wasn’t an easy task for Hovhannisyan and his wife, Armenuhi Manukyan.

“I brought up the kids through debts,” says Hovhannisyan, 47.

Seventy thousand drams ($168) military pension and 68,000 drams ($163) poverty aid is not enough to cover even a part of the large family’s needs.

Hovhannisyan lost 12 close friends in the Karabakh war. He vowed to “replace” them with 12 children. From his oldest, age 25, to the youngest, age 10 months, the names they carry are the ones of the 12 friends the war veteran lost in battle. Even his daughters’ names he chose making the male names into female, for instance, Meline instead of Menua, Tigranuhi instead of Tigran.
The 20 years since ceasefire (May, 1994) have been daily struggles for the Hovhannisyan family.

Having a status of homeless, the family received a compensation from the Ministry of Defense only in 2006. The family purchased a house in Nor Kharberd district. Before that they had rented a house, at for a while had lived in Yerevan’s “Town of Hope” district for large and needy families. Having a shelter over their heads was, surely, very fortunate for the family, but the difficulties didn’t decrease. Hovhannisyan, who was a tailor, was suffered a concussion in 1993 during fighting in Martakert. He also suffered a wound the hand, and cannot work. There are shrapnel in his head and he can barely control his hand.

“As soon as we receive the pension we go buy three sacks of flour, five sacks of potatoes, not to mention pastas and grains. We don’t demand the state to take care of it, we gave birth to the children, we will take care of them, but the state should pay some attention, we cannot ask all the time. My wife is a mother of 12, she must be given some privileges, not me. In the end, she gets to dress, feed, bathe and school these many children,” says Hovhannisyan.

“Just like a gardener dropping seeds in the land and rejoicing and cherishing each sprout, I equally am proud of each of my children. I love my kids, I struggle and even borrow money from others to buy some clothes. The pension is not enough, and we have three million drams ($$???) debt for electricity, but I struggle to keep my family stable. They might say I’m crazy, but there is nothing crazy about this, a patriot and a loving parent is something special,” says the mother, Armenuhi.

The 42-years-old woman was enraged by Serzh Sargsyan’s words addressed to freedom fighters striking for improvements of social conditions at a Yerkrapah Union of Volunteers (YUV) meeting in February, saying that “Unfortunately, we still have some separate individuals’ whining in various squares, that they protected the country, shed blood, and now raise our pensions or we’d organize a revolution. We know very well who, where and how much blood was shed. We are also aware of the value of the words and the ability of actions of such people.”

“Freedom fighters don’t whine, they just demand respect, not to live in miserable conditions, even if the freedom fighter is not disabled. I know for sure that he is disabled by seeing his friend die next to him, seeing bloodshed. We see a dead body of a relative and we can’t take it, how is it possible not to become psychologically disabled when your friend is killed next to you,” reflects Manukyan.

Veterans of the Karabakh called strikes since last May in front of various government buildings demanding certain solutions to their social problems. The freedom fighters were saying that they kept silent for 20 years, but they were no longer going to tolerate neglect.

In total nowadays in Armenia there are registered 15,000 war veterans who participated in military actions against Azeribaijan in Karabagh in 1990-1994. Individual pensions fluctuates between 40,000-80,000 drams ($96-192).

The protests have not yielded results. Last October, retired army colonel Volodya Avetisyan, who had initiated strikes was kept in custody for fraud and in suspicion of fraud. An investigation continues, and the veterans now mainly strike in protest of Avetisyan’s arrest.

Gagik Sarukhanyan, also a freedom fighter participating in strikes, says that they will definitely continue the struggle.
“Today’s government, in peace or in war, doesn’t care for our motherland. They are busy with robbery. Whoever bothers them, they just get rid of him,” says Sarukhanyan.

“In the end, our aim is not just raising the pension, that’s just the excuse to show how rotten our country is. They say, ‘the budget is empty, we cannot help you…’ But how do the ministers manage to build million-dollar palaces? Those ministers must have worked at that position 150 years and received high salaries to be able to build such places,” says Sarukhanyan.

Defense Ministry spokesman Artsrun Hovhannisyan says the state office does everything possible in its power, but the solution to the freedom fighters’ problems lies in the abilities of the state.

“The freedom fighters are granted various amounts of monetary aids, accommodations, and educational aid for their children, etc. and I don’t even mention smaller things like events, presents, some medical aid, holiday packages, etc. Monthly 100-150 people have a reception at the Minister’s office, we try to give solutions to all problems,” says the spokesman, adding that about $7.2 million a month is allocated from the State Budget.

“Most of that money is directed to providing housing for homeless families. Only during the last 3-4 years nearly 300 apartments or compensations were granted,” says spokesman Hovhannisyan.

Another veteran, also named Hovhannisyan, says that if need be he would take up to arms and fight for his country again. Gagik Hovhannisyan’s eyes sparkle when he speaks about his son, Jivan currently in the Armenian army.

“The other day I saw him on ‘Zinuzh’ (a MOD TV program). He was saying he would continue his father’s work,” says the proud father.

But his wife gets worried for a minute, remembering her conversation with a young man. “A young man of 23 says so what, let the Azerbaijani come and take up our country… it’s been only 20 years since the war, didn’t his parents tell him what that war was for?”