The Enemy Within: After the Deaths of Soldiers

BY MARIA TITIZIAN

Exactly three years ago, I had written an article about the dark side of life in Armenia entitled, “A Conversation with Myself.” A brutal and fatal attack on an old man for a few thousand dollars and the death of a little girl by a speeding motorist had triggered the torrent of emotions that ran through the piece.

Looking back, I recall the outrage that had begun to blind my perceptions and distort my idealistic, perhaps naive understanding of the homeland. One passage reads: ”I have crossed over to the dark side of the moon and am hanging on for dear life. Perhaps I need to exit the borders of this small plot of land that I adopted, or that adopted me, so that I can fill my lungs with oxygen and see that the planet around me isn’t sinking into oblivion.”

With seven Armenian soldiers killed in two separate non-combat-related incidents (July 27 and 28), one in Karabakh and the other in Armenia, I fear I am treading the dark, murky waters of despair once again.

When we learned of the ceasefire violation on June 18, the worst since 2008, by an Azerbaijani commando raid on a Karabakh Armenian outpost in northern Nagorno Karabakh, in which four Armenian troops were killed, our hearts cringed. We were outraged at the blatant violation and for the young lives lost. We demanded condemnation from the international community and expressed our rage. While the Armenian government expressed its condolences, full military funerals were not bestowed upon the murdered soldiers and the families were left childless and broken.

In his blog, my friend Hayk wrote: “Last week, four soldiers died defending Armenia. But the only reaction in the mainstream Armenian media was the possible escalation of the Karabakh conflict, the political aspects of an Azerbaijani attack, the circumstances that made the Azeri offensive possible, what should be the retaliation, and on and on in the same vein. Four 19 or 20 year old boys died for their country. Instead of a military funeral with honor guards and a tricolor folded and formally presented to their families, no one even mentions their names. No one talks about the sacrifice, about the heroism, about how they are the modern day examples (living examples, one could say) of the lines in Armenia’s national anthem: ‘blessed is he who dies, for his nation’s freedom.’”

I was in Barcelona when I read the news of the attack and the resulting deaths. I remember trying to catch my breath as an ache in my heart began to swell. How much more blood did we need to shed? I immediately wrote a note to my Dutch colleague informing her of the news – after all we are good at being the victims, are we not? The enemy continued exacting revenge and I was full of indignation. The message of my note was blame and a self-righteous anger against the foreign aggressor.

But this recent spate of non-combat deaths of young Armenian soldiers is so intolerable and unbearable that for days I have asked everyone around me not to talk about it. Anytime the subject would be brought up, I would leave the room. I could not bear to think about it, I wanted to pretend that it hadn’t occured. I was being a coward because I tried to avoid the horrific reality of violence and abuse. And then I thought of all the mothers and how they would never be able to escape the reality of the pointless death of their sons.

Mah, voch imatsyal mah e. Mah imatsyal anmahutyun e.
(Death, not understood is death. Death, which is understood, is immortality.)

We need to have an army; we need to have a strong army. I get it, I really do. We live in a conflict zone with the threat of war constantly looming over us. A Swedish parliamentarian, who was in Yerevan attending a conference recently asked me rather condescendingly how I felt about conscription and I told her that what we would want and what we need to have are two very different things. Our choices are always so limited – our geography and our history dictate the realities that we must face.

I am proud of every single young Armenian man when he leaves to carry out his military service and prouder still when he returns. Over the past ten years I have witnessed two military parades in Yerevan – my heart bursting with pride each time.

Serving and protecting the homeland is an honor and a privilege, a responsibility that our young men cannot shirk. While every mother’s heart is clamped with fear until her son returns home from his military service, she sends him off with honor and dignity. But there is no honor or dignity when it is a meaningless death; when it is a death that could have been and should have been avoided; when instead of worrying about the foreign enemy she has to worry about the enemy within.

Abuse within our country’s armed forces has been documented for years. The army has claimed that the number of deaths due to mistreatment has been declining and while hazing is a common practice in armies throughout the world, our numbers do not give us the luxury of killing each other. The defense ministry, military leaders, generals, commandors, sergeants, officiers are all to blame. And so are we, the ordinary people, because for the most part we have remained silent.

We have all heard stories of how young conscripts are humiliated verbally and physically by their superiors, sometimes so viciously that they take their own lives. Or they die under the beatings. Or they return to their families with psychiatric problems. For what? For whom? Who gains from this kind of abuse? Does it improve discipline within the ranks? Or does it demoralize them further?

On July 28, a young, 21-year old conscript, Karo Ayvazyan, turned the gun on himself after allegedly going on a shooting spree which killed four soldiers and one sergeant. The reason for his maddening actions might never be truly known. What is known is that Ayvazyan, as young as he was, had a long history of criminal activity in the United States. He had emigrated there with his mother in 1992 and returned to Yerevan in 2009 after being deported for his criminal conduct. Ayvazyan should never have been conscripted into the Armenian Armed Forces. Why he was is the core issue of this particular incident.

We live in an independent and free state. We no longer live under a foreign oppressor, the Soviet Union vanished two decades ago, we now have the choice to move to the homeland, something we desired for so long, we are the makers of our destiny, and most importantly, we are accountable to ourselves and to our children.

When we learn how to govern ourselves, when we appreciate the value of statehood and its fragility, when we no longer point the finger and blame only the foreigner, is when we will be able to stop the madness that is all around us. I want to believe in the goodness of our people and the wisdom of our leaders. I am not calling into question the strength and preparedness of our armed forces. What I do hope is that we rise to the challenge and begin shaping a nation, a state, and an army that we can all truly be proud of.

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8 Comments

  1. Nareg Seferian said:

    Truly a source of national shame.

    I was planning on applying for Armenian citizenship, and was certainly considering serving in the military. But after these incidents, on top of all the negative and downright dangerous things I have heard about Armenian military service in the first place, I have to think again, and perhaps wait a few more years.

    Imagine how shameful it is that an Armenian has to acquire citizenship of the Republic of Armenia out of patriotism or pride, while simultaneously doing so calculating his age such that he avoids serving in its armed forces, simply for the sake of his own safety! Shameful, shameful.

  2. Shahan said:

    Dear Maria,
    Violence is a natural phenomenon in all Armies in the world. Many people cannot handle stress or orders and that can lead to unacceptable and in our case tragic incidents.
    Let’s not join some of the local media which accused the Army with corruption and etc…..I would invite you to read what the Defence Minister said and did during an internal meeting of the ministry yesterday.

    Here is the link if you missed it:
    http://tert.am/am/news/2010/08/07/mil/

    As you are addressing the diaspora from this newspaper, I would have love to see you questioning what is Diaspora doing for our National army. For example, it’s interesting to know how many Diasporans volunteered or are ready to volunteer in the Armenian Armed Force today OR How much percentage of the donations of the Diaspora money (majority donated for churches and monuments ) are channelled to the National forces?

    • Arman said:

      Dear Shahan,
      Violence is not a natural phenomenon in well organized army. Officers do not drink and abuse solders. This not spouse to happen in Armenian Army. Please, do not repeat the oligarchic government’s lines. We have heard what they have to say and what they do. I do not like what I hear and see.

  3. Avetis said:

    More and more I’m beginning to think we diasporans are more of a liability for Armenia than a benefit. You self-destructive people here need to realize that Armenia is a fledgling nation-state. A poor, tiny, landlocked nation surrounded by enemies. Armenia is not a fairytale land of saints and scholars you want it to be, nor is it your experimental test-tube. Like all nation on earth, including the most prosperous ones, there is both good and bad in Armenia. Despite Armenia’s numerous internal and external problems, Armenia is still doing better than most nations on earth, including many-so-called developed nations. My advise to all you self-destructive peasants here is to grow the hell up and get real for a change. Armenia has enough problems without you people complicating things even further.

  4. Rovshan said:

    1) You and will stay (remain) you such (a), till/untill give up of/from stealing, you will be liar and toady nation.
    2) Ache and unauthorized (without permission) to go out (climb) to mountain is not heroism.
    3) You know in yourself that you will give military service many (much, very) pisdir.Qarabagis in you sooner or later,…

  5. Ani said:

    I completely agree with your point about the corruption in our army. Countless tales of abuse from commanders for no other reason than being drunk and on a power trip have been recounted to me by friends who recently served or are currently serving in the Armenian Army. It is true than many have remained silent. I know, at least in some circumstances, it is because of fear of further abuse. One positive experience has been recounted to me by a friend who served in a base near the capital and he did not experience any abuse. If that monitoring which occurs in and around Yerevan could be taken to the regions are army would be stronger and more united and our young sons would be protected as they are protecting us.

  6. Seervart Kevorkian said:

    You are right on target Ani jan, it is absosutely totally inexcusable and beligerent acts against our young and beautiful men of arms who are doing their service to our country by doing time as well as protecting her. There is absolutely no excuse for the commanders in chief or supervisors to act in a beastly beligerent fashion towards our youth our “zavagner”. There must be a far better system from the top down to protect our youth and make them feel welcomed and “safe” within the army ranks at all times.

  7. john papazian said:

    This young American-Armenian was in over his head. He went from wanting for nothing in America to being an outsider in his own homeland wich was very much a culture shock. Hazing is as much a part of military life as it is in colledge or street gangs. I’m sure this kid thought his American “thug life” would give some status or respect. I would bet any amount of money that there are alot of people close to this that are not talking.

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