BY DICKRAN KHODANIAN
Weeks following the Four Day War in early April, the Armenian Youth Federation’s With Our Soldiers program restarted, but this time with the goal of providing monetary aid to the families of the fallen soldiers. In 2012, the With Our Soldiers campaign was established in order to provide assistance to the veterans of the first Karabakh war. This time, the initiative would provide $1,000 to every family and an additional $250 to every child.
Following the April attacks, AYF members quickly mobilized in order to plan how they could address the issue. This war had ignited a fuel among the AYF members in the Western United States that was vividly seen through their work. Funds were collected immediately and were ready to be dispersed to the families within weeks after the initiative had begun.
At the time, I was living in Armenia volunteering with Birthright Armenia and working on various projects. An on-the-ground task force was then established as a part of the With Our Soldiers Committee comprised of AYF members from the Western United States who currently resided in Armenia. Our responsibility was to arrange the visits to the families of the fallen soldiers and to deliver the financial assistance that was sent to us from the Western United States. The on-the-ground task force contacted the local Armenian Relief Society in Yerevan in order to have a crisis therapist/psychologist accompany us with all of our visits. When we started organizing all of the visits, an ARS member was definitely a necessary component of our visits due to the circumstances.
After visiting Artsakh multiple times and developing lifelong friendships with the locals, Artsakh had already left an everlasting impression on me. It was clear why so many brave and courageous people fought for and helped liberate this small piece of land. However, as a diasporan, you can’t help to feel helpless sometimes, especially when you constantly hear Azeri ceasefire violations at the border resulting in the death of yet another Armenian soldier. How do I contribute? What am I even able to do? At the time, since I was living in Armenia, there was no hesitation when I agreed to work on this campaign, no matter how difficult just the thought of visiting these families sounded. I knew it was not going to be an easy task, but my experience following these visits truly surpassed any thoughts or notions I had. Until today, there are no words to describe what I experienced. Just thinking about gathering my thoughts, and putting everything down onto paper made me both emotional and proved to be a challenge.
Through my work with this program, I was able to visit over 40 families and travelled extensively throughout Armenia. Each visit was distinct and even more difficult than the next. Every soldier had their own story and most of the families were more than willing to talk about their son and how proud they were of their patriotic son who became a hero and gave his life to his nation. There were families who lost their only son. There were families that lost their only child. There were families that lost their son and husband who left a wife with three kids. And there were families who lost their only breadwinner of the family. As I would mentally prepare for these visits, the question of “What can I possibly say to these families that’s going to help?” or “I know we are providing the family with money, but how is our visit making things better for them?” However, almost every family was more than willing to describe the type of individual their son or husband was and every family was genuinely proud of how they had raised their son as a brave and honorable hero of Armenia.
Our on-the-ground made sure these visits were not just an opportunity to hand an envelope and leave. Firstly, the committee had prepared a nicely worded letter that delivered our message. In addition, we took our time with each visit and learned as much as about the soldier and his family. The parents without hesitation usually explained the characteristics of their son, as well as the profession, and what school he had attended. They even went on to tell us how long he had been serving, where he had been serving, and in some instances how he passed away (if they knew). Regardless, these families who just met us were openly discussing in detail almost anything about their son or husband. As difficult as it was, they felt comfortable enough to host us and converse.
Most soldiers were serving in either Mataghis or Jebrail. A majority of the soldiers were between the ages of 18 to 22. Some were even veterans from the First Artsakh War. And most were either going to school, or had graduated and were working. All of the soldiers’ homes that I visited were home to bright, young intelligent men who had a promising future ahead of them.
Following all my visits, it has become very difficult to forget any of the names or any of the stories I heard and there were definitely a few that I would like to go into further detail.
One of our first visits was Robert Abajyan’s family. Robert Abajyan was a 19 year old soldier who sacrificed himself in order to help out his fellow soldiers. His parents were talking about him always acting older than what he was. They showed us albums of his childhood as they told us stories about each picture. This 19 year old young man, who is 4 years younger than me, sacrificed himself in one of the bravest ways possible for his homeland.
He is now known as a National Hero of Armenia. In addition, his fellow soldiers had brought back an Azeri soldier’s uniform shoulder pad that the family placed on top of the welcome mat in front of the entrance to the home so whoever goes into their house must step on it. Because this was one of our first visits, I was at a loss for words and couldn’t say much. All I was able to do was patiently listen in order to remember as much as I can so that later I can write everything down and do my due diligence as I make sure his legacy gets passed on from generation to generation.
Another visit that I will never forget was our visit to Hayk Minasyan’s home. Hayk Minasyan’s family lived in the region of Vanadzor and a local ARS member was going to accompany us that day instead of from Yerevan. Since it was our first time making these visits with this ARS member, we discussed the process of our visits and how we would go about them. Usually, we needed the help of the ARS member to help make the conversation smoother. The ARS member understood and was ready to help us.
However, whenever we arrived at Hayk Minasyan’s home, his father answered the door and the ARS member immediately recognized her. She knew who he and the entire family were. She had worked in the same field as the sister of the soldier so she was in complete shock. Tears rolled down her eyes as she came to a realization that she actually had a bond with this family and this loss meant so much more to her than she originally thought. In a split second, a situation where I felt somewhat comfortable with an ARS member changed in a split second when she became the most affected one out of our group. In addition, Hayk Minasyan passed away because a bomb had exploded from a distance, and a particle hit his heart. Hayk’s mother cried through the entire counter and was not doing well. Hayk’s age was not too far from Robert’s. Hayk’s dad would discuss Hayk’s interests, personality, and more but even he got emotional and teary eyed as he spoke. This visit to me became one of the most challenging due to its various components; the ARS member knew the family, Hayk was the family’s only son, and his death was a very unfortunate one.
A third visit that stuck with me was the visit to Vrezh Sargsyan’s home. Vrezh Sargsyan’s family lived in a small village called Pokr Masrig on the east side of Lake Sevan. Just reaching this destination proved to be challenging due to the troubling roads and how far it was. Vrezh Sargsyan was 33 years old and had a two year old child named Vartan. His parents and wife all lived together in their family home in Pokr Masrig. Vrezh had two younger brothers, one who was also serving in Artsakh at the time. This visit made me realize the hardship that this young child that was now left without a father was going to face for the rest of his life. This visit showed me that no matter how young this child was, he knew something was wrong. Vartan’s face said it all. When I attempted to converse during this visit, I couldn’t. During the beginning, this baby was just staring with his big piercing eyes, filled with so much sadness and despair. As the conversation continued, the wife couldn’t handle being in the room and her and the baby left the room.
Unfortunately, this was one of many scenarios similar to it. Vartan was one of the 30 or so children who was left under these circumstances. And why? Because Azerbaijan has never been able to hold true to a “ceasefire.” None of these children or families deserve any of these hardships and it is unfair that more than a 100 families are currently experiencing a loss like this. Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of every Armenian to keep the legacy of all our soldiers alive. These soldiers are all our national heroes who will be learned about from generation to generation.
These visits emotionally exhausted me. They genuinely took a heavy toll, especially as each kept getting more difficult than the next. However, they assured me of the type of valiant soldiers that protect our front lines every day and made me extremely proud. Proud that my homeland is being defended by such lionhearted and resilient soldiers. I will never forget the experience I had of visiting the families of these fallen heroes. Each soldier’s picture that I saw in the home, each name I read, and each story that I heard will forever motivate me to keep fighting for the advancement of the “Armenian Cause” so thank you, With Our Soldiers.