At the beginning of February, six volunteers in Armenia were missioned to Vardenis to determine the urgency of the needs of displaced families from Artsakh, to meet war wounded and to exchange with elected officials.
′′The families, whom we are about to visit, have fled Azerbaijani intensive bombing. They left everything in a few hours, often compelled by Armenian forces and sometimes Azerbaijani law enforcement, who ordered to empty the last civilians area entirely.
At 11am, from Yerevan, we take the road to Vardenis, which shows us breathtaking landscapes, like the majestic Sevan lake located at the foot of snowy and sunny mountains.
A few kilometers from the Azerbaijani border, the car stops. We are expected by the Mayor of Khabhyur who just returned from the war in Artsakh. ′′When I left, I was the village councilor. Today I'm replacing the mayor who died on the front line. ′′
How many more like him have died? 2000-3000? Few? A lot... Young people my age whose life had just begun! And of the survivors, how many will remain forever marked? Amputee limb, burned and ripped off skin? Which fate is the most fateful?
Sargis is one of the survivors of these fightings. After the ceasefire was announced, he went home. Nothing is as it was before and will never be the same again. With his hands crossed on his legs, he tells us about the war, about the dead and sacrificed. He also tells us about life before. He was a football coach! Today he is no longer one. An Azerbaijani bomb took his leg. He no longer walks. Timidly, he takes a photo out of his pocket. The X-ray is conclusive: the injury is too serious, his leg is unusable.
What can I tell him? Pity him, tell him that we are praying for him? Say nothing? I haven't lived through a war, I don't know what it's like to hear bombs splitting the sky in the middle of the night, to be woken up by the last rales of his friend hit by shell fragments, to live thanks to miserable sandbags piled up, blocking enemy bullets. I am only 20 years old, I know nothing about the life of a soldier. What can I say to comfort them? So I choose to remain silent and wait. I turn the information over and over in my head. No matter where my steps take me, I think of those families shattered by death and exile.
Datev lived with his six children in the historic heart of Artsakh, in the town of Shushi. "Everything happened very quickly, we didn't think that the town of Shushi would fall into the hands of Azerbaijan. The moment we leave was very hard, because we left the family home of our ancestors," says the father.
He is, well, was, a mechanic. Today he unemployed because of the war. His wife is pregnant. His family lives in great precariousness. They need everything: food, hygiene products, shoes and warm clothes.
When you leave in a minute, you obviously don't have time to pack your bags, to plan for the winter and its freezing temperatures. Survival mode is on. The mental distress beacon lights up... you no longer think... you act. Then, you remember that outside the storm is rumbling and that you have survived... to suffer more. But it is too late and you are still alive. So you hope that in this new house, a garage made of grey sheet metal, with a small stove that struggles to heat the air, you will be able to start a new life. But the reality is icy.
The floor of the house is made up of deformed wooden planks laid on the ground to insulate as best as possible from the negative temperatures. The poverty is impressive, the suffering is omnipresent. The eyes of the youngest, marked by these atrocities that no one should know, let alone a child, leave me speechless. I sit among them, I listen without understanding too much, because I don't speak Armenian, but I listen. The woman hands me a cup of hot coffee. Their generosity is beyond comprehension. In a few hours I will be warm in the volunteers' flat and will be able to eat without fear of missing out. I could refuse the cup that is handed to me and leave it with them, but how would they interpret my gesture? They don't have to show such great hospitality... They don't have the means to be so generous and yet they are. So I honour their kindness and I drink, with a tight throat.
Everywhere we go, situations are the same. They left with nothing, walked as far away from conflict as possible and live today thanks to the generosity of a few. And yet each story is unique. It has many faces, damaged by anguish, fear, the unknown.
In Vardenis, it has the face of 51 families bereaved by war. There, misery grows before our eyes. Many of them live in one and the same room. Sometimes parents sacrifice themselves by leaving the bed for their children. Cow dung, the only fuel, is their only means of reloading the stove to fight against the cold. The suffering of war can be seen in their eyes. The memory of their life spent in Artsakh remains indelible. "My husband, why did they take my husband? We are so alone in a land that is still unknown to us...". Marie is distraught. So, tenderly, her mother-in-law comes to share her grief by taking her in her arms. Their few words pierce my heart.
I turn my head, out of modesty...perhaps. My eyes are fixed on a photo hanging on the wall. A dead son or husband? A hero of Armenia who died in battle? In all the families I visit, I see these mausoleums. Last memory of the one who gave his life to defend his country and save his brothers. Before we leave, we honour his memory, we pray. And like Saint Teresa of the Child Jesus, we pray as if action is useless and act as if prayer were insufficient.
I have only been in Armenia for a week but already I can see the deep scars left by the war on the hearts and History of mankind.
Soon we will return to Vardenis to distribute food and hygiene packs, blankets and warm clothes. This will give them momentary comfort and light up their faces with a smile, even a furtive one.
But in the meantime, I wonder! "What would I tell them if I knew?"
Louis-Marie, volunteer in Armenia.
With 20€, you offer a food and hygiene pack to a family. Support the displaced people of Artsakh.