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

Mental Scars of Karabakh War Veterans

Former fighters continue to be traumatised by viciousness of the early Nineties' conflict. By Anahit Danielyan and Seda Muradyan in Stepanakert
By IWPR

Mkhitar Tonyan was injured several times in the Karabakh war, but the harm that stays with him is in his mind.

He is suffering from so-called Karabakh Syndrome that, doctors say, has left thousands of local people suffering from mental disease, which goes largely untreated.

“Our lads who died in the war, and the injured – I see them every day. They are constantly calling to me to save them, to evacuate them from the battlefield,” he said.

One night, he said, he even left his home to help them and started walking into the mountains, pushing his way through bushes and undergrowth. When he came to his senses, he realised his hands and feet were shredded, and he had to limp back home. He is often too scared to leave the house alone, and takes his teenage daughter with him.

“I don’t want to drink, but it is the only way I have to forget all this,” he said.

He has been treated in a hospital in Yerevan, and in Stepanakert. Doctors say that such symptoms are worryingly common. The Armenians of Nagorny Karabakh broke free of Baku’s control at the end of the Soviet period, and declared independence, and the fighting was savage before a ceasefire was agreed in 1994. Their republic has not been recognised, which hinders doctors in getting veterans all the help they need.

Hakob Hakobyan, the head psychiatrist in the local government’s health ministry and executive director of the Stepanakert psycho-narcological dispensary, said that the mental conditions were linked to the horrors people witnessed during the war.

“During a war, a person is in a situation completely different to peacetime conditions: the first shots, the first killings, the first time he risks being killed. Because of this, people get post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said.

The dispensary is a one-storey building in a quiet corner of Stepanakert. Painted white, it is peaceful. Patients can draw, sing, play musical instruments or watch television.

It has a small garden where the patients can tend plants, helping them gradually adjust to normal life as it is lived outside the hospital walls.

Liana Arzumyan, who has worked as a psychologist in the dispensary since 1995, said many veterans did not have the opportunity to talk about their experiences.

“There are people who easily forget the years of war, and there are those who take years to do it. Of course, it is hard to erase all of this from the memory, but we try to make it so they just accept what happened as a fact, and get on with their lives,” she said.

Many of the veterans struggle to accept that they might have been affected by the fighting, and Armen Grigoryan, a former fighter, is rare in his acceptance of the problems the war has left him. He suffers from crippling headaches and struggles to lead a normal life.

“It is no secret that the war affected its direct participants most of all, since they were the ones who passed through the worst battles, were wounded. Their friends and relatives died before their eyes. This cannot but impact on the mind,” he said.

Voskan Azizyan, a veteran who struggled to re-adapt to life after the war, started to become jealous, and accused his wife of being unfaithful. He also began to drink heavily.

He was wounded several times during the war when his tank drove over mines. Once the tank caught fire, and the crew only just escaped with their lives. He sought help in Yerevan, where he was treated for a while, and then in the dispensary.

It is not clear how many other men like him are suffering from mental illness in Karabakh, since there are no proper figures and no clear records of the progress of the 2,000 or so people who have been treated in the dispensary.

Hakobyan said he was trying to coordinate work to achieve a clearer picture of the situation.

“It is a problem for the whole of society, and no one can remain indifferent,” he said, adding that it was crucial to conduct a full analysis of what local doctors have termed Karabakh Syndrome.

“It has left its mark on all the residents of post-war Karabakh,” he said.

Anahit Danielyan is a correspondent for the Hetq media outlet in Stepanakert.
Seda Muradyan is IWPR country director for Armenia.

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