We just had a war – The Four Day War, the news decided to call it. Unlike the fighting from 1988 to 1994 that resulted in a ceasefire that’s never really held. For the 22 months I’ve been in Ijevan so far, there have been constant reports from the nearby border of ceasefire violations from both the Azerbaijanis and the Armenians. Soldiers killed. Civilians killed. Cows killed. It’s been endless. The recent fighting began in a flash, although from later news reports it sounded strategized for some time by the Azeri government. These reports have analyzed the conflict and the politics of it all, some accurately and some propagandizing, and I won’t go into it with no more than my fledgling understanding. I’ll leave that to others.
It was the effect on everyone that I saw and that mattered to me most. And it was the Peace Corps slowly inching towards consolidating the volunteers that I felt, evacuation being the next step. I’d been in the capital city of Yerevan when the attacks began on a weekend. Too far away to feel the heat of it. But when the following Tuesday arrived I was heading home to Ijevan at the same time hearing and reading about Azerbaijan’s threat to attack Stepanakert, the capital of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, the Armenian stronghold which had declared independence from Azerbaijan after the fall of the Soviet Union left its republics in disarray. On my phone I caught news coverage of several truckloads of Armenian men, volunteers heading to the front to help the young Armenian soldiers – their sons and brothers. And there was a report from a fellow volunteer of children burning an Azeri flag in their schoolyard. I was crunched in the back of one of our marshutney buses as it labored over potholes and over the mountain range which separates Ijevan’s Tavush region from the rest of the country. I was becoming increasingly nervous and just wanted to get home even though that meant being closer to the border. I wanted to be near my stuff and all the emergency gear in my apartment should I need to house the Tavush volunteers.
Higher powers came into play after that Tuesday crisis and things slightly calmed down though random artillery fire continued, the fear of another outburst not retreating. Over the following days the Armenians drew together into a knot of solidarity that I appreciated, given their history, but that also disappointed me, their hatred of the Azeris and the Turks too strong, their nationalism too impenetrable. Out of a highly complex geo-political situation threatening to spill into greater international conflict, all I felt was their anger and all I saw was vengeance in the dark eyes of my Armenian friends. Azerbaijanis had died too, not to mention the thousands of Azeri refugees trapped in dilapidated housing in the Baku capital having fled the territory between Nagorno-Karabakh (orange area) and Armenia during the earlier war. This is the land that Armenians have claimed for themselves but don’t own that they call Artsakh (pink area). I have a large map of it on my wall. Like other entrenched conflicts, I don’t see this one being resolved any time soon. The Armenian hatred is just too great and too far beyond more nuanced perceptions that might provide a course for peace or even for the will to live as neighbors with stark differences and a brutal history.
As it happened, a few days after our war the European Union Delegation came to Ijevan. They come every year and travel to all fifteen Armenian regions to meet with the locals to discuss what they can do for Armenia. They also discuss what Armenians can do for themselves. One emphatic point made was their need to compromise with the Azeris to find reconciliation and so Armenia can move forward more quickly. There were representatives from Poland, Lithuania, Germany, the Czech Republic and Italy. The head of the delegation spoke of Europe having found reconciliation after WWII through such harsh acceptance as was necessary. Time to move on.
Last Sunday as I went to church to sing in the choir it was apparent something special was going to happen during the service and I learned that the Bishop of the Diocese had come for a memorial for the 92 young Armenian men who had died in our Four Day War. The bishop greeted the soldiers as they stood before a painting representing the souls of the 1.5 million murdered in the Armenian genocide by the Turks. It’s currently in our church, a stop on its travels throughout Armenia until April 24 when it will rest in Etchmiadzin Cathedral, the mother church of the Armenian Apostolic Church, considered to be the oldest church in the world, Armenia having been the first country to adopt Christianity. I wasn’t sure what the kind bishop I met that day said during the service, but I hoped it was a similar message of forgiveness and peace. Time to move on.
And then today was April 24, the 101st anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Our church service took place at the genocide memorial in Ijevan. I again sang in the choir, looking over at the memorial and wondering where all the townpeople were, remembering the 100th anniversary the year before when the community had crowded the grounds. Before too long I saw down the road that everyone was coming from town, a huge mass of people replicating the long journey of those Armenians who in 1915 had been force marched from Turkey through Armenia and south to the desert, most dying along the way. A friend of mine noted today that it had always rained on the genocide anniversary – until today. Perhaps 100 years of suffering is enough, she seemed to say. As is also the suffering from the conflict with Azerbaijan. Time to move on.