Women on the Roadside of the War

Background

This article tells about the stories of women who moved to Armenia in the third Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh) war and whose husbands stayed in the battlefield.

Brief Historical Overview

The roots of the conflict around Nagorno Karabakh go back into the 19th century. Violence first erupted in the early years of the Soviet Union and caused the issue of Nagorno Karabakh, of Artsakh, as the region is called in Armenian.

It raised back in the 1960s, to grow into a pan-national movement in Armenia and Artsakh in 1988. The claim was the reunification of Nagorno Karabakh (NKAR), then an autonomous region with a majority Armenian population within the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan, with the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia, in line with the principle of people’s right to self-determination, as provided by the USSR Constitution.

During autumn 1991 and spring 1992, the Karabakh conflict grew into a full-scale war which lasted until May 1994 and concluded with a ceasefire of which the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh (AR) controlled 7 regions beyond the original borders. The second war was launched on April 1, 2016, and was over 4 days later, with a ceasefire. The third Artsakh war started on September 27, 2020, and lasted 44 days, concluding with an agreement, signed on November 10, which resulted in Armenia‘s loss of 7 regions under its control along with the regions of Hadrut and Shushi/a which were in the territory of NKAR per se.

Stage One: Explosion

These narratives testify that for the citizens of Artsakh the dawn of September 27 was a bolt from the blue.

Anahit, 29, a mother of three from Martakert, tells: “My child turned two-months-old on September 26. We heard a bang in the morning, this is something usual for us. But then I saw the neighbor’s house destroy, the neighbor’s sister-in-law was killed. We all got into the car to flee to Vaghuhas. We drove some 4 kilometers and remembered that our brothers-in-law and their children were still in Martakert, we were that lost-minded. We drove back, took the children of 2 brothers-in-law with us. We arrived at Drmbon, to see that my youngest brother-in-law was on his way. He said he was going to fetch his brothers and their wives over. The children of my two brothers-in-law said they did not want to let their uncle travel alone, got into my youngest brother-in-law’s car, drove back, and moved back to get to us. On halfway the Smerch struck and threw their car into the gorge…“

Lilit, a mother of 2 (and a choreographer) from Hadrut, tells: “We went down to the basement on the 27th. I thought it was all over when I saw not everyone had come down. Later I learnt that whoever could, they fled. On the next day, a female neighbor came and asked whether we wanted to join them as they were leaving. We got to Shushi. The alarm never stopped. This woman was afraid, and we almost got into an accident. And when they started hitting Shushi, she did not want to continue driving. She said she was afraid. My husband called a friend in Goris and asked to get us, his family, out. I got to Lachin into a terrible jam, and we were asked to turn the lights off so that we would be invisible. That man found our car in a 5 km long platoon. They constantly shot. We ran for 5 kilometers, with the children in our arms, to get to that man’s car, and we arrived in Goris at night.”

And though the last war was frozen only 4 years ago, and the third war was preceded by clashes on the Tavush border in the north-east of the NK in July, the society was psychologically unprepared for the upcoming war. The degree of unpreparedness was manifested not only by the fact that the population, for decades residing in the zone of a frozen and periodically heated war, did not expect a war, but by the fact that mostly it did not have proper training in civilian mobilization and did not master serious knowledge of action at war, should hostilities resume.

“At the beginning when the men were there, we felt somehow protected, because they fought in the past, they know what to expect. When we remained all alone later, we realized that we did not know anything of the war at all, we did not know what weapons they were using, whether I could run to get some water or not”, Lilit (from Hadrut) mentioned.

This is the reason why on the very first days of Azerbaijan’s attack on the border settlements women left their houses without any necessities, some left even without any documents. The women who left settlements, located not immediately at or along the border, were also convinced that the war would last a few days only, and they would return home, hence, there was no necessity of taking anything more than what they needed to get to Armenia.

Stage Two: Shelter

Those, who did not leave Artsakh on the very first day, found shelter in the basement where they got together with residents from neighboring buildings and tried to find official or internal news on the developments of the war and figure out their future actions.

The most depressing and blocking thing was unawareness, the inability of telling the weapon used by its sound, and the lack of knowledge on how dangerous each kind was so that they could be better prepared for the organization of their routine when running back and forth between the basement and their apartment, as they had to get food and take care of young children.

However, everyday difficulties did not break their courage since the critical situation required the mobilization of all forces and taking charge of the children.

Gayane, 37, (a translator and professor), a mother of 3 from Shushi tells: “For two days I fed my youngest kid with my breastmilk only. Then I asked the Mayor to provide diapers and food for the children, because there were no open shops. They started providing us with these goods on the 3rd - 4th day. A woman I did not know at all, called a pharmacy, and asked to open it, she bought some baby nutrition and brought it to me. But we did not get depressed with these everyday difficulties because we were sure we were going to win. All our husbands were on the frontline. But no one whimpered.”

Stage Three: Evacuation

The women made the decision on leaving Artsakh for Armenia jointly with their husbands, their husbands urged them to leave, when the latter realized that it was not safe to stay in that settlement any longer, since civilian buildings and infrastructure were being bombed, too.

Lilit, 34, (a University instructor) a mother of two from Shushi who is currently pregnant, tells: “My backache was getting worse, but I wasn’t paying attention. And then my sister said we were moving to Yerevan. But I had told my husband I would stay. He kept saying: “Even if the whole of Shushi leaves, you should not leave.” My daughter is a bit sensitive, she said: “Mummy, you are not thinking about us, you are not saving us.” The children were constantly crying. We stayed there until November 3rd. And then I noticed in my husband’s demeanor that the situation was not good at all. My father came from the village’ and got angry with me on why I was staying there for that long. My doctor called and said I definitely had to go for an ultrasound examination. I left for Stepanakert, did the ultrasound examination, and they said I might deliver prematurely. Because the situation was very bad. And my father took us to Yerevan on the 4th.”

The civilian population left the settlements, relatively far from the war contact line in a more organized manner, since they had more time to pack, besides a number of private companies provided vehicles for transportation to Armenia.

The official Stepanakert, except for the cases, officially deemed necessary for evacuation, did not encourage the evacuation of the population to prevent settlements from emptying and deter panic.

The escape of the women, children and the elderly who were under the target of the fire on the very first days of the war was more chaotic and disastrous, when leaving the settlement was a matter of hours and sometimes even that of minutes.

Hripsime, 28, a mother of 4, from Nor Maragha, tells: “That was the first night in our new house. The childrenwere asleep. We could not even assume that there would be a war. Our neighbor often sells timber, we assumed the noise was because of his loading the timber. We woke up to see that Martakert was in fog, they had hit it so hard that dust had gone up into the air. My daughter fainted, as she has a periodic disease. We brought her back to her senses. My husband drove me out to Kitchan intersection. He left me with my four children at the intersection, and he went back to his army service. You cannot even imagine how we fled: I found a pair of trousers from the floor and put it on. My children had no clothes on.”

Stage Four: Shelter in Armenia

It was comparatively easy to find shelter for the families from Artsakh who either had family in Armenia or were from Armenia by origin.

However, the state organized the process of finding shelter for those families which could not join a relative or a friend or could not afford an apartment to rent.

The listing of those who arrived from Artsakh and the creation of a database of families who were prepared to provide shelter were processes undertaken by a small group of volunteers which, jointly with the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, established an organized headquarters – a hot line – in about a week.The choice of the settlement was done in line with the needs of those who arrived. In the course of time the following principles for the settlement in Yerevan were identified:

  • They had a wounded soldier in the hospitals in Yerevan,
  • They needed a medical intervention or supervision (for example, for the pregnant, for those who had just delivered, the newly operated on, as well as people with special needs and others).

Stage Five: Accommodation and supplies provision

After their settlement in Armenia, women had to face the problem of the organization of their accommodation that was accompanied by a number of specificities. Families accommodated in hostels and other, free-of-charge accommodations were considered more vulnerable, because they had neither food provision opportunities nor a source of income. Volunteers came together to find flexible solutions and access food, sanitary and hygiene items and other necessary goods, especially in cases when the arriving people were accommodated in hostels, provided free of charge by the state.

Private companies undertook various initiatives, too, receiving people in their guesthouses, hotels and at the initial stages, dealing with the accommodation and daily provision of the people from Artsakh themselves. Private catering companies were also actively involved in supplying food to the hostels or other places with a concen-trated Artsakh population.

With time a collaboration was formed among volunteering initiatives, private companies and LSGs, which helped the state to attempt at a consolidation of the humanitarian aid provision within the LSGs, calling to inform LSGs about the aid provision opportunities or take the relief products directly to them.

On October 1st the Government passed a decree according to which medical aid and healthcare services to the victims of the military and terrorist activities in the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Artsakh should be free of charge.However, this decree was not widely publicized and was not known to all responsible and target entities. Hence, women who were supported by social workers aware of this governmental decree benefited more.

Frequently in this critical situation the state system failed to provide flexible solutions, it did not simplify or amend the established procedures, failing to consider the specificities of the situation (mainly the fact that the people from Artsakh did not have their documents on them), which created a lot of additional hassle in the lives of the women, up to the point when sometimes issues remained unresolved.

“Ever since the husband came back from the military defense positions, he has been in Avan mental hospital. He came back and beat his wife. They used to have a neighbor, a woman, who had died. And he said: “The neighbor’s soul has settled in my wife, that is why I am beating her.” The ambulance took him away, but the hospital said they could not hospitalize him because he had no passport. Then he lost his mind again and broke everything. I turned to the social security bodies and everyone else, they mediated, and took him away without the document, while we are waiting for the ID reference to be issued.

There is a woman with a locomotor disorder, she asked for an elbow crutch. I made an inquiry, and they described a complicated scheme, who I should turn to, where I should take the woman, how long I had to wait for some paper which I would use to get the crutch. I felt I neither had the time nor could take the woman to so many places with me. I spread the word among my friends, one of them transferred the necessary sum and I just bought it. She was on cloud nine,” Anna Grigoryan (a volunteer) said.

Stage Six: Stress

Ever since settling in Armenia, life was about the solution of daily problems, the solution of the half-solved health issues of family members, the organization of pregnancy control, as well as the hassle of finding necessary information on the matters above. However, above all, the greatest stress for the women was the concern about the situation on the battlefield and the wait for a call from their husband or relatives.

The war impacted on the mental state of children, too. All women testify to, and all volunteers and specialists confirm that the start of the war and the flight, as well as the absence of the fathers and their fighting on the frontline has been traumatic for the children. Women said that they firstly informed the responsible entities and volunteers who got in touch with them about the psychological traumas that they and especially their children had and reported on the disturbing phenomena.

“Once, when we were asleep at night, my 7-year-old son got up and started crying. He had imagined his father was dead. I called the social worker in the night. A psychologist called back, talked to the child, calmed him down. In the morning, Hayk, a volunteering psychologist came over, he was helping people from Artsakh. He is still working with my son. He said that even if we returned to Artsakh, he would continue talking to him online,” Hripsime (from Nor Maragha) said.

However, not everyone’s experience was positive in this regard.

Whereas others were concerned that the hosts or the elder generation would not perceive the visit of the psychologist properly and refused.

“To tell the truth, Armine did propose to arrange a psychologist for me, but I thought that my mother-in-law or the host would not understand it right. And I turned the offer down. But my son was very scared of the blasts. He was a bit aggressive in this period. We do not have sufficient culture to perceive psychological support, whenever you turn to a psychologist, people think you go to a psychiatrist, they cannot tell the difference. For quite a long time my children would startle at the sound of the door or gate... there were frequent plane flights, and every time they would freeze to see what happens.”

Meanwhile, those involved in the solution of women’s issues state that they mostly witnessed an amazing mental endurance, an ability to find the right solution in a critical situation and a high degree of sobriety when confronting maerial and human losses.

“Sometimes I would even feel surprised to hear them say very calmly that their husband fell in battle. And the impression is not that they are just indifferent, rather they are in a very calm and ready state: “yes, we lived there and he could die.” It was also surprising to see that pregnant women, too, were very tough, in such a stressful situation, and would not deliver prematurely,” Kristine Asatryan (a volunteer and a staff member of the Hot Line) said.

Stage Seven: Integration and Life

Even though women assured that the hosting families, the residents around, and the volunteers concerned with their problems did everything to return their lives back to normal, create entertainment and pastime opportunities for the children and alleviate the psychological state they were all in, there were a number of unpleasant incidents when individuals were not very favorable to them.

However, in general, these narratives prove that they enjoyed a kind and caring attitude.

“All we needed was to have my husband with us, because he never was away from us and never let us face any need. But due to the people who were next to us and did not leave us alone, we can say we very seldom felt the need of anything,” Hripsime (from Nor Maragha) said.

Regardless of all difficulties, it could be noted that women focused on ensuring the regular course of life for their children and tried to be stronger and better organized for their sake.

“My children did not go to school, but I taught them every day. I was in touch with the class curator in Martakert, she assigned the tasks, and the children did them here. Otherwise, children would remain illiterate,” Anahit (from Martakert) said.

Those women who sent their school-aged children to school stated that in this manner children felt better, and they felt sorry that in some cases children had to stop attending school because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But those, who did not manage to send their children to school because of the pandemic, felt convinced that it would positively influence the psychological state of the children.

To forget the difficulties of their life and feel helpful, some of the women were involved in initiatives to ease the burden of others and acted as volunteers to support groups that were more vulnerable.

“I am a volunteer already. New wounded men came in, the guard gave me the keys to take care of them. I brought them here, assigned places to them. Now I am going down to get their dinner,” Anahit (from Martakert) said with a lot of enthusiasm.

Loss and Grief

In terms of the loss incurred, the women who lived in the regions controlled by Artsakh and depending on the intensity of the bombing, lost some or all the property that they accumulated over the years, but some of them continue to pay back the loans and the debts they borrowed to buy the material boon (the house, the appliances, the furniture and so on) they had not even used.

The women who were from the regions left under the control of Azerbaijan lost their houses and property, too. But they have also lost the opportunity to return to their motherland.

Nevertheless, they mention the material loss on the go and are convinced that it is all restorable and they, for the sake of their children, will find all necessary strength to start their lives from scratch. Yet, the real loss is that of memory – the photos of their own childhood and their children, the handicrafts, the certificates and medals and all the rest that was impossible to retrieve and part of their spiritual life.

“A home is not just 4 walls, a home is the memory of the years you live. Wherever I went, I took my memories with me... My dad has passed away, and I do not have any photos from him now. I had a few volumes of handwritten books I made for my younger daughter, relaying facts from her life, with her photos. I do not want the property, I want my memories, things I cannot buy for millions. My heart aches for the handicrafts and artefacts left behind at our cultural center. And how I see that they have completely burnt them down. They may have seen the images of Virgin Mary and Armenian patterns...and they set them all to fire. But this is what those people had lived for and through,” Lilit (from Hadrut) tells with tears in her eyes.

Having enumerated the irretrievable losses, however, women compare themselves with those who had lost more and realize that they could be in a worse position or not exist at all, hence they find comfort in what is left. In comparison to the loss of a relative, a husband or one’s own child, all the other kinds of loss, including all material property, the loss of recollections and native land seem bearable.

The Future

The outcome of the war has left the women’s perceptions of the future uncertain and has led to many open questions which the potential scenarios of the future depend on. However, even the lost territories have not deeply broken the desire of the large majority to return to the regions under the control of Artsakh and settle down in a new place. Whether this desire will be realized or not depends on material and security guarantees. In case of the provision of an accommodation, compensation of material loss, state (as well as non-state) programs on financial, property and any other kind of stability and development, the majority of women definitely intend to return to Artsakh.

“My dad was killed in the April war. My brother lost his house in Hovtashen. My husband is from Maragha by birth. Then, they resettled in Nor Maragha. Now he is losing his home for the second time... Nor Maragha does not exist any longer. But husband is a military serviceman, I have to return. I have no house, but I assume they will provide us with accommodation. The conditions are not luxurious, but they place beds in the school gym, and people find shelter there, before they are able to find some housing. I only thank God, my husband is alive, my brothers were spared, my children are next to me. All I want is support for us to build just a small place to live in,” Hripsime said.

And regardless of possible plans and convictions that are growing clearer, it is almost unequivocal that the outcome of the war has driven them into a greater psychological stress and uncertainty than the difficulties that they had overcome during the war. Hence, in the post-war period the need for a more serious psychological support is more evident, to help overcome the loss, the traumas, the panic and the uncertainty, as well as the anxiety for the family and especially the future of the children.

As summary

In the crisis of the war, the gaps caused by the bureaucratic burden of the state apparatus were filled in due to the rapid and effective pubic and civil mobilization, allowing the state apparatus to organize or re-profile the crisis response units in one way or another. In this respect, a high level of public solidarity has been observed with an environment of common values, targeting an effective response to the various problems caused by the war, even at the individual level.

After the end of the war, there is a need for clear decisions and programs by the state to effectively mitigate its effects, compensate the loss and ensure that life is back on the normal track. These programs will largely determine how effectively Artsakh families will overcome the uncertainty of the future and their loss, how effectively they will restore their mental health and move on to create a new life.


The responsibility for the content is with the author and the use of the Armenian term Artsakh instead of the international recognized term Nagorno-Karabakh is a decision by the author. The hbs respects the rights of the author on this article but it does not mean, that the foundations agrees with all the content and wording in the text.