Statistics about numbers of civilians and young conscripts killed in conflict can sometimes seem impersonal and even mask the true magnitude of human loss. This is the story of one family’s generational struggle through multiple Artsakh wars.
Diana Harutyunyan was born in wartime on May 28, 1993 in a village near the city of Askeran, about 15 km away from Stepanakert, the capital city of Artsakh. Her father Yura Aghajanyan was killed in action soon after in 1994, in the closing days of Artsakh’s war for independence in the early 1990s.
She was raised by her mother and grandmother, whose roots are from Askeran but had lived in Baku until the last days of the Soviet years. In 1988, when the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast began to call for reunification with the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, Armenians in Baku and the nearby oil town of Sumgait were subjected to ethnic pogroms. Those who survived were driven out of the city. Diana’s family returned to Artsakh’s Askeran region but it was not long until Azerbaijani troops sought to empty the Armenians of Artsakh from their historic homeland as well.
Diana was too young to remember the 1990s war. Part of the “Independence Generation,” she has only known the freedom of the self-declared Republic of Artsakh, under which the ethnic Armenian residents of the region have been kept safe, with crucial assistance and support from the Republic of Armenia.
Diana grew up in modest surroundings. They lived off her mother’s income, working at the electric utility, and a $60/month survivor pension that her grandmother has been receiving since the death of her grandfather, an army figure who passed away after the 1994 ceasefire was in place.
She went on to study law at Artsakh State University and, now 27, works as legal counsel for a bank in Stepanakert. Last year, on her own birthday, she and her husband, Harut Harutyunyan, were blessed with a baby girl, Sofia. Sofia was born three months premature on May 28, 2019, weighing only 780 grams (1 pound, 11 ounces). She is now 16-months-old and up to 8 kg (almost 18 pounds) and still has a hole in her heart. Doctors have told them that they can attempt surgery after she has grown to be at least 10 kg.
The Cycle Repeats
On Sunday, September 27, 2020, Diana woke up shortly after 7 a.m. from a loud sound. At first, they thought it was an earthquake. Ceasefire violations occurred regularly along the Line of Contact with Azerbaijan, but Stepanakert itself had not come under shelling for years. However, upon going out to the balcony, they saw smoke rising from nearby buildings and realized that they were under attack. With drones visible in the air, the family took cover in the cellar under their building as a makeshift bomb shelter, although it had not been designed for that purpose. For the following two hours, the bombing was extremely intense. Despite the damp dirt floor and cold of the cellar, it was too dangerous to go outside. Soon, it was clear that baby Sofia was getting sick and that they needed a better solution.
A general mobilization had been announced and all men over 18 were being called to report to the Artsakh Defense Army, including Diana’s husband Harut.
Diana took Sofia to a nearby rural village, to escape the barrage and find more appropriate shelter. Though it was not too far, the roads had been damaged by the bombing, making the journey difficult.
Garik is a family friend of the Harutyunyans. He lives in Ijevan, the capital of Armenia’s Tavush region. When he heard about the Azerbaijani attack on Sunday, he drove his vehicle to Stepanakert that day. Understanding the infant’s health situation, he found them in the village and drove Diana, her baby Sofia, her mother, grandmother and sister-in-law, with her own 5 month old Tigran and 3 year old Mary (Diana’s nephew and niece) to Yerevan. There, all seven squeezed together for one night with another friend in their studio apartment but, again, this was not a sustainable solution. At the same time, he was not sure if the baby would be able to receive the medical care she needs in Ijevan, especially if the hostilities expanded to the Tavush region, which had come under attack in July.
In the meantime, spontaneous volunteer efforts across Armenia sprang into action to do their part to help their brothers and sisters in Artsakh. Of course, many men went to the front line as volunteers and as part of Armenia’s own partial mobilization. Many others began collecting aid to send off. The staff of Yerevan’s Chamber Theater, next door to the Matenadaran Manuscript Museum, started an exceptionally large effort. Besides collecting blankets, clothing, first aid equipment, medication, food and water, they also helped to connect those who needed shelter with those who were offering it.
They connected Diana, through a chain of intermediaries, with a couple who live in California and also have a two-bedroom apartment in Yerevan. They graciously offered to let the family use it temporarily.
When the family walked in the door, Diana’s 70-year-old grandmother exclaimed “Thank you, Lord, for your providence.” They held video calls with Diana’s husband and brother, who had stayed behind to defend their homeland, assuring them that they were safe and warm and comfortable.
Part of a second “Independence Generation,” baby Sofia will probably not remember fleeing a war zone. But the unity of the Armenian people when times are hardest will not be forgotten.
Donations to the Hayastan All-Armenia Fund’s We Are Our Borders; All for Artsakh fundraiser can be made at www.himnadram.org.