Among those lining up to fight in Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenian youth with a strong Kolkata connect 

Written by Neha Banka

Updated: October 10, 2020 3:10:56 pm

A meeting in Yerevan, Armenia, on September 27 to recruit military volunteers. (Photo: Reuters)

Varos Boyajyan’s family waits with the mobile phone nearby, hoping to hear from the family’s eldest son, who has been deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh since fighting started two weeks ago between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Eight days ago, 24-year-old Boyajyan, who spent his formative years in Kolkata, went to the local military office in Yerevan to volunteer in the Armenian military, so that he could do something for his country just like his older brother.

The latest fighting between the two countries over the disputed region has prompted dozens of Armenian army reservists and volunteers between the ages of 20 and 60 to wait in long lines outside army offices to sign up for deployment, with those selected boarding buses headed towards the Nagorno-Karabakh border.

“My brother was just enjoying life in Armenia. Suddenly this situation happened,” he says. “He just woke up one morning and said he was going to go (to the army). My parents were shocked, but he just wore his clothes and left.”

Boyajyan’s brother went to register on the third day of fighting and was immediately enlisted for active duty. “He calls once a day. Today he called and said he was fine. But we can see the situation for ourselves.” Boyajyan had completed his mandatory 24-month military service in July last year, and by law, can only volunteer to serve in the army since he was discharged recently. “I am waiting for orders to join.”

The entrance to the 199-year-old Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy in Kolkata. Express photo by Neha Banka

Boyajyan studied at the 199-year-old Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy in the city, one of the most important centers for primary education for the Armenian diaspora. He completed his high school education at La Martiniere in Kolkata, another institution that many Armenians turn to for their final school years. Immediately after returning to Yerevan from Kolkata in 2017, Boyajyan joined the military.

The earliest presence of Armenians in India can be traced to the late 8th century, and over the years, assimilation led to the development of a unique Indian-Armenian community. Although this community was largely centered around Kolkata for centuries, over the past three decades, their numbers have dwindled, with many relocating to Armenia, the US, Australia and the UK. Today, the Armenian College in Kolkata is one of the most important centers for primary education for the Armenian diaspora and the approximately 200 students who are enrolled in the institution, along with the city’s Armenian church, are preserving the community’s heritage, traditions and culture.

Read | In midst of Nagorno-Karabakh clashes, Indians are backing Armenia, on the ground, and online

“Everyone must defend their motherland. If I don’t defend my homeland, who will do it? I’m just defending my brothers and sisters—there is no other explanation,” he says.

This latest fighting has been the worst since the 1991-94 war that killed approximately 30,000 people and had ended with a ceasefire that has been violated several times. However, on October 10, the two sides agreed to a ceasefire.

Armenians sign up for the military in Yerevan, following clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh. Photo credit: Reuters

In Etchmiadzin, approximately 18 km west from Yerevan, 21-year-old Tigran Hovsepyan registered on September 27 along with his brothers, with the oldest having already been deployed to the borders. “It is our sacred duty to protect our land and history. I am ready to give my life for this country, for Artsakh, for the Armenian people.”

Hovsepyan too has lived for close to a decade in Kolkata, studying at the Armenian College, and enlisted for conscription soon after his return from India. “I stayed on for an extra year in the army to serve,” he explains, describing non-combative roles that he undertook during his final year of service.

The recent fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh has stirred not only people in Armenia, but even those in the diaspora. “Nationalism surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh is very deep-rooted in Armenia. The first three presidents of mainland Armenia have origins there. Nagorno-Karabakh elicits nationalism, patriotism and Armenian brotherhood. Even women are signing up for enrollment,” says Achal Malhotra, who served as India’s Ambassador to Armenia and Georgia between 2009 and 2012.

Armenia’s population is approximately 3 million, but the diaspora may just be double in numbers, if not more. If Armenia’s youth has chosen to go to the frontlines, the diaspora has been fighting online, using social media platforms to generate awareness of the conflict in the South Caucasus, and has been contributing to fundraising efforts. Hashtags like #ArtsakhStrong, #StopAzerbaijaniAgression and #WeWillWin have been trending for days.

Not everyone has or can register to pick up arms, explains Karen Mkrtchyan, a member of Bright Armenia, a political party founded in 2015. When he returned to Armenia sometime in 2016 after living and studying in India for close to a decade, Mkrtchyan found he could not enlist for conscription due to problems with his eyesight.

Also read | Amid Nagorno-Karabakh clashes, an Indian restaurant is helping displaced Armenians

But after the fighting started in Nagorno-Karabakh, he went to sign up at the local army office. “There is an organisation that provides voluntary training and they have an understanding with the military, so that you can serve after training. They train you for four days on handling guns etc.,” Mkrtchyan, declining to name the organisation, citing national security. “You will be at the second or third line of defence, assisting wounded soldiers or getting ration. If you know how to drive, they’ll make you do that.”

Hovsepyan  checks in with his local army office everyday to ask when he can go to serve, but has been told that new recruits are not necessary for now. Mkrtchyan has been getting similar responses from his local army office in Yerevan. “Literally everyone has signed up to help, but they aren’t being taken in at the moment. On the first day, half of my friends were gone. Everyone is ready to contribute. We are in war mode.”

Armen Makarian, 32, has lived most of his life in India, but his visits to Armenia have become more frequent over the past two years. For him now, the three-decade-long conflict is no longer one that is distant. Hours after clashes erupted in Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia declared martial law and initiated total military mobilisation.

Cars stuck in traffic caused by the fighting on the Yerevan-Goris-Stepanakert highway. Photo credit: Hermine Balayan

Makarian had just travelled from Kolkata to Yerevan in August when the fighting began. “Within two days, the government said this (conflict) was about our existence. It was a shock to everyone,” he says. When clashes last occurred in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2016, Makarian was in India, watching from afar. Now witnessing the conflict and its impact unfold in person has had a more severe impact, he says.

“I was travelling from Yerevan to Sisian and soldiers were digging the ground, building military posts on the highway. I saw many ambulances, police cars and soldiers helping the wounded. Young boys, 18-19 years old, were on buses going to the border. The police stopped us and checked our passports,” he says. “This was the first time I’ve seen something like this in my life.”

When his wife wanted to be with her family, Makarian enlisted her cousin to help them drive from Yerevan down to Sisian. “His father is at the border,” Makarian says, recalling the conversation they had during the car-ride on the Yerevan-Meghri highway. “His father is almost 60 but he didn’t want his young son to die. All the older people are signing up to register in the army because they don’t want their sons to die.”

In the midst of the interview, a siren goes off and Makarian abruptly ends the call. He returns the call minutes later, explaining that the siren was a test run. The family has been living this way, on edge, ever since the fighting started.

One morning, the family woke up to find a government notice on their doors, with instructions for evacuation in case it is required. Makarian did not serve in the military and the military mobilisation and the country being on high alert has been an unusual experience for him. “I know at least people on the frontlines. Ten is a big number.”

A government notice pasted outside Armen Makarian’s home in Sisian, with instructions for evacuation. Photo credit: Armen Makarian

Sisian is a town located in southern Armenia and Makarian says many of its residents, young and old, have registered to volunteer in the army. “My wife asked why so many people from south Armenia go (to the army). I said it is because this is our home. If we don’t go, our children will.”

The sentiments of the Armenian diaspora have been nurtured in part due to the generational displacement and trauma that the Aremenians have experienced. Some Armenians have attributed this national identity to the Armenian Genocide, even among people in the diaspora who have never lived or visited the country.

A photo of Varos Boyajyan in northern Nagorno-Karabakh where he served during his military conscription between 2017 to 2019. Photo credit: Varos Boyajyan

Although international travel has become challenging due to the coronavirus outbreak, social media posts and sources indicate that many in the diaspora have been wanting to travel to Armenia to fight for and support their motherland. “It doesn’t matter where Armenians are in the world. We will come together for our country. Even people who can’t register or travel are protesting against Azerbaijan in their own way. Nobody is forcing us,” Boyajyan says. “What else can we do?”

When Hovsepyan had been conscripted, he had served in Martuni Province in Nagorno-Karabakh. After the clashes began, he began scouring images and videos of the region where he had once served. “I am not able to recognise the place,” he says of the destruction. “If they allow me, I would like to go back there and serve.”

Deployment in the Martuni Province is difficult, but Hovsepyan says he still wants to go back. “The Armenian military is a tough place to be. But for me it was good. The Armenian College has made me tough,” he says with a laugh.

People lining up to defend their country was expected; many Armenians say that it is a question of their very existence. Makarian says: “This is not the first time we have survived this kind of thing. We have survived genocide. If we lose, we will praise our soldiers. But of course, we want to survive.”

“All parents are afraid for their children, but we don’t go, they’ll come for our parents,” says Boyajyan

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