We Never Walk Alone
I did not know what to expect when I traveled to Artsakh for the first time as the new Executive Director of the Tufenkian Foundation. I had been there numerous times before; I had seen and felt the beauty of this incredibly beautiful yet rugged land; I had heard and read the sad, yet heroic stories of its people – stories of war and survival, memories as old as the land itself. But this time, my visit took place after the recent April war, which set the region in an even dire state: more deaths and destruction, many refugees from Talish and other villages, dozens of wounded soldiers during the fiercest of battles this land had ever seen.
Antranig, my predecessor, had been guiding me through TF’s various projects in different regions of Artsakh, particularly in the Kashatagh district. While the April war continues to echo and leave its marks in many parts of the Armenian world, I couldn’t help but think about the status of all of TF’s initiatives. The Tufenkian Foundation has been building houses in the Arajamugh village, planting pomegranate orchards, opening a beeswax factory in Kashatagh, renovating houses for Syrian Armenian refugees in Ishkhanadzor, constructing a greenhouse in Yeritsvank, supporting the ‘Shogh’ Children’s Center in Shushi, and much more. While I was being introduced to all of TF’s incredible projects, Antranig continued to describe how most of the young men left their workplaces to go join the battle at the frontlines. Some of them had returned to their families and their daily lives, but the majority still remained, at the line of contact.
‘Line of contact.’ What a subtle, passive and soulless term used to describe what it genuinely means and represents. The term omits the sorrow of mothers, sisters and brothers who lost their loved ones; it does not describe the destruction of houses, abandoned villages, nor the people who left behind their homes, their fields, and their belongings.
The unprovoked Azerbaijani attack along the entire length of the ‘line of contact’ in early April disrupted all normal life and developed numerous new necessities that require immediate attention. TF quickly joined the nationwide effort to provide emergency assistance to those who suffered most. TF’s emergency appeal garnered a lot of support, and despite the numerous projects already on its plate, the Foundation also managed to provide urgent medical assistance, renovate homes of wounded soldiers, and facilitate the visit of international journalists to ensure fair and balanced media reports.
Raffi Doudaklian together with NKR Project Director Edik Grigoryan visiting a wounded soldier in Togh village, Artsakh
A month had passed since the ceasefire and I was eager to meet our team in Stepanakert and learn about the repercussions of the war on our projects. It was reassuring to hear and see life returning back to its normal pace. People were back to their daily routines: shops were open, kids were attending schools, and farmers were back in the fields. As for the TF projects? Inevitably, there had been implementation delays, but not more. With extra effort, lost time would be recovered.
The most emotionally uplifting experience was when we visited the wounded soldiers, which completely comforted our souls. The Togh village was our first stop. A muddy and bumpy road led us to a very old house on the top of a wooded hill in the village. We had learned about a 50 year-old man named Vachik, whose name was provided to us by the NK Ministry of Social Affairs. Vachik had been in the NK Special Forces for more than 15 years and was an experienced member of the reconnaissance/special operations unit. He wasn’t aware of our intention to help renovate his house. He simply thought we were trying to gather information for our work.
With typical Armenian hospitality, Vachik welcomed us warmly and offered whatever he had in his small, old, almost rusting refrigerator. Death had greeted this short, tiny, yet strong man numerous times on the frontlines, but could never get him. His entire body was peppered with scars from past and recent wars. In early April, while he operated behind enemy lines, a shell exploded and a piece of shrapnel penetrated his body from the back, shooting through his lungs and scraping the outer bones of his spinal cord. He was hospitalized in Stepanakert and Yerevan for a month-and-a-half. He still had trouble walking and breathing, but despite his slow motion and speech difficulty, he exuded positive vibes and energy.
He proudly spoke of his 2 sons, aged 19 and 26 respectively. The younger son is a new recruit in the armed forces, while the older son has been a long-term contract soldier. Vachik’s wife worked in the village preschool taking care of the village kids who were oblivious to the war and could not understand why their fathers and older brothers had to leave them abruptly, just when spring had begun.
When asked about his old, run-down ancestral home, Vatchik said he had started renovating and expanding it because his older son was going to marry and they would need the extra space. He became even more cheerful and optimistic when he spoke about the future of his children in this centuries-old village, which has been destroyed many times and rebuilt time and again. Vatchik did not complain about the war, about his still-painful wounds or about the unfinished renovation of this collapsing shabby house. He exemplified resilience, pride and determination and left a huge mark on us. When we told him that TF would be helping him repair and refurbish his old house, he was astonished and visibly moved. Unable to find words to express his emotions, he looked at me for a moment and said, “We always believe we never walk alone on this land”.
On our way back to Yerevan we stopped in Ishkhanadzor, in the Kashatagh district. A Syrian-Armenian family, having escaped the Syrian war, was going to move into one of the houses we are renovating. War had delayed the construction by a week or two, but we were happy to see things moving forward now. We also took the opportunity to pass by the nearby village clinic to assess the repairs required there. As we started our journey back to Yerevan, a young man stopped our car and ran towards us. He greeted us joyfully and introduced himself: “I am Arman, the Syrian-Armenian whose house you are renovating. I have one child and my wife is pregnant again. We can’t wait to move into our new house”. We congratulated him and told him the house would be ready in about 6-7 weeks. We exchanged a few words and returned to our car. “Thank you! This is a new life for us. Thanks a lot,” he shouted as the car moved slowly forward.
I didn’t think of what to say, then realized that I am repeating Vatchik’s last words, the best expression I had heard in all the 12 years I had lived in Armenia.
“We always believe we never walk alone on this land.”
Arman smiled. So did we, as we began our long and silent journey back to Yerevan.