Because the inhabitants of Stepanakert in their shelters continue to be hungry, because Armenians continue to be hospitalized because of the war, because the displaced from Artsakh continue to be cold, and above all because wives, mothers, fathers and children need support, it is essential to give.
At a time when Azerbaijan is attacking Armenia in Artsakh, SOS Chrétiens d'Orient is preparing to open a permanent mission in Armenia. A few days before its installation, a team composed of François-Xavier, director of operations of SOS Chrétiens d'Orient and François-Marie, communication officer, is sent to Artsakh to carry out an emergency humanitarian operation. The situation seems complex and unclear, it is a leap into the unknown!
"As I write these lines, I am working from my home in France. I am in "quarantine" and I am looking at the pictures I took on the spot with my "reflex" ... I see again the faces imprinted in my memory. I now have a feeling that I find difficult to describe. I am realizing something. It is not so much what I experienced there, but rather what the Armenians of Yerevan, Goris or Artsakh are experiencing now. I don't have the patience to recount hour by hour what François-Xavier and I have experienced. I prefer to concentrate on a few strong impressions, while they are still fresh in my memory.
Medical packs prepared from Paris are not easy to fit in a travel bag.
The three enormous, rigid, rectangular-shaped first-aid kits contain large quantities of bandages, compression dressings and tourniquets. As we know, during armed conflicts the wounded largely die as a result of severe hemorrhaging that is treated too late. These first-aid kits are therefore of vital importance to the combatants.
We also take individual first aid kits for our needs. In case of injury, if the person coming to my aid has no equipment, he can use mine to place a tourniquet, a bandage... A humanitarian emergency mission is being prepared very seriously and everything possible must be done to assist the population in complete safety.
In our personal gear, we also include a heavy helmet and a bulletproof vest, as well as anti-noise plugs. They are like earplugs, they allow us to prevent hearing loss in case of explosion, noise of bullets, bombs...
Since yesterday, we have been in Yerevan, the Armenian capital. I must admit that François-Xavier and I are not sure what to expect from this emergency humanitarian mission.
We are making a final tour of the medical equipment shops to complete our donations. A doctor who has just returned from the front tells us about the needs of the hospitals: splints, systems to keep the spine straight, bandages, etc. The loading of the 4*4 driven by Aram, our Armenian friend on the spot, has to be optimized as much as possible.
There is an emergency! From Goris we have to leave for Stepanakert, the bombed capital of Artsakh, but our departure has been postponed several times. The town is too often shelled by artillery and drones. Our medical donations are for the moment stored at Rita’s house, an Armenian woman who houses us.
At the beginning of October, Goris is cold and humid. The fog is thick. "It is said that here, dogs don't recognize their masters," says Aram laughing. I've learned that many dogs are on the front line, certainly acting as sentries alongside the soldiers. Huge dogs, shepherds of Armenia. To feed them, the Yerevan zoo donates part of its food reserves. Even the animals, both on the front and the back, are taking part in the war effort...
I cannot help but think back about the statements of François Hollande in 2015 about terrorism and Emmanuel Macron in 2020 about covid. I discover here what it means to carry out a war and it is quite far from the France of 2015 that was waging war with Lennon's song "Imagine", candles and glasses on the terrace. A people at war makes sacrifices on a daily basis. People do not avoid, do not close their eyes to what hurts them and makes them suffer. A mother does not prevent her son from fighting. She knows that the interests of the inhabitants of Artsakh, which Turkey threatens, are above all else. A woman understands that her husband is at the front, far from the children, and at his level, she helps out at the back.
Carmen, for example, in charge of a French-speaking center in Goris, works a lot in the shadows. She is in contact with families from Goris and surrounding villages who host displaced people from Artsakh. They, who have left their homes with nothing. The men are on the front line, the old women, grandfathers, women and children are here.
Carmen spends a lot of time collecting information: "How many people in this home? How many children? What do they need? Are they cold?" Once the lists have been drawn up, we discuss the items together and then the team of SOS Chrétiens d'Orient buys the food and warm clothes. I remember that day when, during a shopping session, while we were buying whole bags of pasta, butter, preserves, I received a call from Carmen with a special request: "Some children who are in a hotel don't have enough to study their lessons. Some ask for notebooks and pens. We can add some games! I know a shop where we can find school supplies and educational games."
Of course the shop is closed, it is late in the evening! Carmen takes out her phone again. A few minutes later, to our great surprise, a ten year old child opens the shop door. We guess that he is running the family shop tonight and François-Xavier is amused: "a games shop run by a child, ... After all, it's normal.” When shopping of notebooks, sketchbooks, pencils is done, we start the donations.
In the rooms of the hotel restaurant, old ladies knit socks, hats and scarves for the soldiers. Loaded with our belongings, we take the lift directly. "This hotel is new. It is closed out of season. Exceptionally in view of the situation, its owners have opened the doors to families."
Once again, the "general mobilization" and the sense of sacrifice impress me. In front of the door of a room, upstairs, ladies are waiting for us. We offer them packs containing pasta, oil, biscuits and canned food. One of them tells us that the donation is also for her blind and bedridden father. We are allowed to approach him. His room is large, well heated, comfortable but very impersonal. A hotel room!
"It's a French association that came to support us during the war. They also help Christians in Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan..." says her daughter. The old man tells us about what he lived through, about the wars he went through in Artsakh... The stories are long. Aram finds it difficult to translate everything because the flow of words is uninterrupted. Not a single tear, not a single sob. A lot of bitterness, yes. But also a lot of combativeness, a lot of courage: "It's our life, yes! They destroy, we rebuild. It has been going on for centuries..." It is sometimes difficult for me to use my camera. I often hesitate to film. When I see these old people, these women, these children, I feel like I'm stuck. Carmen sometimes reminds me: "It's OK, you can film!" It is hard for me. On the way down, we offer the supplies to some very grateful mothers. The children are too busy playing on the hotel stairs to say thank you.
Another day we drive thirty minutes from Goris to the village of Kornizor. The town seems extremely rural. We have an appointment at the town hall. Close by there is a destroyed building on the square, a monument dedicated to the "Patriotic War of 1941-1945". A soldier, Soviet by his uniform and the style of the sculpture, carries a sword, stuck in a snake, which he knocks down. We quickly pass by this communist interpretation of the story of Saint Michael. Loaded with clothes that we carry in crates, we enter a municipal hall. The clothes (jumpers, socks, stockings...) are intended for the families of Stepanakert who are staying with the inhabitants of the village. They, who already live in poverty, welcome their displaced brothers without question. Once again, I ask myself: am I ready to welcome in my house the inhabitants of a destroyed French town? Especially in times of crisis and war, when I also have to look for a way to survive...
The mayor wants to invite us into his office. As he serves us some extremely strong coffee, he confides to us that the village has already dozens of dead, soldiers, young men and volunteers, a sort of Armenian National Guard which also includes older men.
His brother is on the front line. He hasn't had any news for days. "Eighteen fighters from the village are missing. Families regularly come to ask me if I have any news. I am ready to answer the call to fight while supervising the reception of two hundred displaced people. I hardly sleep at all. I spend my days and nights here in this room. Sometimes I rest on the couch you are sitting on. This war awakens a lot of painful memories. The city was an outpost against the Azerbaijanis in the last war. We were hit hard. The destroyed building in the square is testimony to this. Imagine the pain and grief of those who lost a husband thirty years ago and now lose a son."
Driven by Aram, we visited Stepanakert twice. The road is intimidating: in the valleys, we notice large stretched cables connecting the cliffs, other cables hang from them, above the void. "This dates back to the last conflict against Azerbaijan, to counter the helicopters," explains Aram. I can imagine how horrible it must be, a helicopter getting its blades caught in cables and falling like a rock... Single axis of Artsakh, our road can be hit by a bomb. I confess that I often think about it. Being bombed while I am in a car scares me more than when I am on foot. I don't know how to explain it.
I'm in the back seat in my bullet-proof waistcoat. I've had more pleasant journeys. I am not at all reassured when we leave the main road to take a deflection on a dirt road. A bridge has been destroyed further along the path and we pass over a temporary structure built by the engineer. This reminds me that we are vulnerable and that sparing our lives does not justify leaving a bridge or a strategic road intact. Above all, the drones certainly don't care whether I'm in a car or outside. The metal body of a 4*4 might remind me of a coffin.
During one of these journeys, we hear a detonation, a clunking sound. None of us are talking, it may be a sound of car after all. On a nearby hill, as we come out of a bend, we see a distinct black and thick column of smoke. No doubt it was a missile. At that moment, my teeth are chattering, for a few seconds, I try to make myself smaller on the vehicle's bench, as if that would change something or protect me better. The smell of gunpowder quickly perfumes the passenger compartment. This perfume is not unpleasant to me at first sight. Knowing that the cathedral of Shouchi is the target of this shooting and that an attack in the same place will later wound Russian journalists makes me think that this smell is the one that accompanies the horror. I admit it: my first reaction, in front of the smoke smelling of sulphur, is not to say: "I hope that there is not too much damage, not too many victims." No, every time I hear explosions, I'm first of all happy that I haven't been hit. Only then I feel compassion.
When I get out of the car, in front of Stepanakert hospital, I tell myself that I am in an area that is regularly hit, so I put my heavy helmet on my head. I've trained several times to wear it but now I feel like I've wrongly put it on. You can hear sirens, it's like in a film. Should I run? Should I walk? The sirens stop and I take off the helmet. Now I'm looking for a way to attach it to my bullet-proof vest to prevent it from moving so that it bothers me as little as possible. I finally have to let it swing on my thigh.
We unload splints, bottles of disinfectant, small lamps for the patricians to operate. We give the hospital in Stepanakert our first aid kits, they are called "traumabags". Davit, the doctor who welcomes us, thanks us sincerely. It's hard to tell if he is tired from the working days or if he is focused on many things at the same time. "You film up to that limit. All this is confidential." His remark, when he sees me with my camera, makes me say that he is alert.
We are limited by the capacity of the 4*4. However it is spacious, it is not possible in a single trip to provide the hospital with sufficient supplies and to offer food to the people of Artsakh in distress. So we do our best, optimizing the loading and squeezing in as many products as possible into the 4*4.
Another time, we distribute 500 traditional breads made in bakeries in Goris. - In Stepanakert, only one is still active and is used primarily to feed the soldiers at the front. - Two men load their car in front of a hotel in Stepanakert. A thank you, no photos, few words. We are interrupted by the sound of sirens. We leave each other.
On the way back between Stepanakert and Goris. The sky is clear, it is good. The air blowing in through the windows prevents me from sleeping. We drive fast as it is better not to linger. Keeping the windows open allows us to be more attentive to possible drone noises. We would then have to stop the car and run as far away from the track as possible... This kind of scenario often runs in loop in my mind. When it's not, I'm torn between the images of the tired faces of the civilians and the somewhat exhilarating feeling that my friends and I have escaped the worst.
Food, medical supplies, this is what we offered on the spot. Because the inhabitants of Stepanakert in their shelters continue to be hungry, because Armenians continue to be hospitalized because of the war, because the displaced from Artsakh continue to be cold, and above all because wives, mothers, fathers and children need support, it is essential to give. A knee brace now costs 35 euros, 500 traditional breads cost less than 100 euros. Make a donation. "
François-Marie, communication officer in Armenia.