Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Legacy of Trauma in Karabakh

Armenian veterans continue to feel the shock of the conflict as if it ended yesterday.
By Ashot Beglarian

"This is how we live," said Gennady, a weathered former soldier, as he ushered us into a modest home furnished with only the bare essentials - a table and a couple of chairs in the middle, and beds by the walls.


"I've never craved fame or wealth, and I never treasured life that much, never feared death," he told IWPR. "I just want my children to live. And I pray to God that their lives will be different from ours. We saw too much blood."


Gennady is intense and gesticulates a lot when he speaks, but he appears preoccupied rather than intimidating. "Sometimes dad's mind wanders off," said his son, and Gennady himself did not disagree.


Ten years after a ceasefire was called, the Armenians of Nagorny Karabakh still live in daily recollection of the war fought over their territory. The memories are especially fresh among men - every male between the ages of 18 and 45 was called up to fight.


Even though they ended up on the winning side, they have bad memories of the war.


Zoya Mailian, a psychologist who often sees patients haunted by the horrors of the war, said ex-combatants most commonly suffer from chronic post-traumatic stress, which creates a range of psychiatric disorders.


"The stress factor can hit you a few days, months or even years later," she explained. "In most cases, it makes itself felt through haunting memories and recurring nightmares. Not infrequently, people suffering from this kind of trauma lose interest in activities that made sense to them before. Others may become wary to the point of paranoia, or very tense and irritable. This condition can be treated by psychotherapy, but it's important to see a doctor at an early stage."


War veteran Mikhail Sarkisian still hears the noises of war. "I was an artillery gunner, and all that horrendous noise had a terrible effect on me. Now I can't stand the slightest sound. I'm very irritable."


Sarkisian admitted that, "At times I have an inexplicable yearning for the sound of an artillery barrage."


Another veteran said, "Whenever I hear a noise, my arm seems to hear it first - any sudden loud noise echoes with pain in my old bullet wounds. It's as if you expect a punch out of nowhere all the time. It must be a subliminal memory of the Azerbaijani gunfire and bombardment, which used to start out of the blue."


Life in peacetime has hit many veterans hard as they have tried to adjust to new conditions and find employment. Shortly before Karabakh celebrated May 9, the anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, the local parliament passed a law granting a 20 per cent pension raise worth between 700 and 2,000 dram (1.2-3.5 US dollars) for former soldiers maimed on active service, as well as the families of those killed. Invalids and families are expected to receive extra help next year.


But this hasn't cured the sense of alienation experienced by many veterans.


"I'm so ashamed to be staying at home, looking after the kids while my wife is at work. I don't have a job," said Gennady resignedly, stroking his two sons' hair.


As the years have gone by, veterans have had to cope with growing indifference from the society around them.


In 2000, Nagorny Karabakh's government launched a memorial campaign entitled "No one is forgotten, nothing is forgotten", designed to extend social benefits to all registered war veterans, including those who fought as guerrillas before a regular army was formed in 1992. However, very few have benefited so far.


Sergei Khachikian, who received several combat awards, is unable to find a steady job, and lives in poverty.


"I've been trying forever to renovate my place, which is pretty small as you can see," he complained. "It looks terrible, like a war ruin. The government pledged some help, but nothing's happened yet."


Retired general Zhora Gasparian is adamant that veterans shouldn't wait for the government to help them, but should look after themselves.


"Laziness and reluctance to work causes a lot of problems," he said. "We have really good, fertile soil, but it needs care. I have retained my love for farm work since my schooldays...and I still work hard," he said, displaying his hardened, blistered hands.


A career officer with 40 years of service behind him, Gasparian receives a pension of 120 dollars from the government, which is hardly enough to live on - certainly not if you want to live like a general. But he manages, and also helps out several war-widowed families. "We've got to help them in every way," he said.


Major-General Vitaly Balasanian, who chairs the Union of Karabakh War Veterans, believes the veterans do need help and recognition. "The armed forces and the soldiers of yesterday - the army's chief reserves - must always be at the centre of the government's attention. It is important that our veterans are valued and esteemed by everyone," he said.


Karabakh remains unrecognised as a state, and the tense atmosphere of "neither war nor peace" which has characterised the truce since 1994 has created a sense of continuing unease and sensitivity to any change in the status quo.


Despite the reconstruction work, economic growth and improved living standards seen over the last 10 years, the legacy of war continues to make itself felt as people suffer from deprivation, the threat of sniping along the ceasefire line, and unexploded mines.


Many people in Karabakh believe these problems - including the tough situation facing veterans - can only be resolved properly once there is a lasting peace deal in place - whenever that might happen.


Ashot Beglarian is a freelance journalist and regular IWPR contributor in Stepanakert