In May 1994, Vachik Melkumyan pointed his rifle Into the air and fired a victory shot into the empty Karabakh sky. The 34-year-old Armenian soldier and his comrades had just heard the news that Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed on a cease-fire. The war was over—or so it seemed.
Like so many of his countrymen, Melkumyan rallied behind the call to reclaim Armenia’s lost land. Josef Stalin had transferred Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan in 1923 and for nearly 70 years, the territory remained under Azeri rule as one of several disputed ethnic enclaves throughout the vast Soviet Union.
But when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) began to fall apart in the late 1980s, Armenians renewed their claim of ownership over the tiny, rugged and fertile land called the “Black Garden,” an area the size of the state of Rhode Island.
In 1988 the Karabakh Movement sprang from Freedom Square in Yerevan and spread southeast to reach Stepanakert, about 200 miles away, fueling passionate patriotism and determination. No Armenian army existed at that point, but a group of Armenian fighters, including Melkumyan, were ready to take up arms in a bid to take back their land.
“I kept guard on the border right from the beginning of the war,” recalled Melkumyan, now 54. “Back then we went to war without the slightest idea of where we were going, with hunting rifles against machine guns. It was our will—nobody forced us to take up arms—but how could we not? How could I not protect my two-year-old child, my aging parents?”
After years of intense fighting, a cease-fire was proclaimed on May 12, 1994. While the agreement signaled the war was over, it failed to put an end to the conflict.
Eighteen years later, Melkumyan was tending to his vineyard in the border village of Nerkin Karmir Aghbyur in the Tavush province, when an Azeri sniper’s bullet pierced his leg, leaving him crippled. Like many other farmers in neighboring border villages, Melkumyan carries the evidence of a tenuous cease-fire that continues to inflict casualties today as surely as the war itself.
“During all the years of active hostilities, I received not a single wound or injury. And now, during the time of so-called peace, while working in my vineyard, I was turned into an invalid, because of a hostile bullet.”
Melkumyan now relies on crutches to walk, but his physical suffering is compounded by the loss of his livelihood—about 4,000 square meters of land that produced grapes and vegetables that he sold in markets.
“I worked day and night. The soil was very fertile,” Melkumyan remembered. “We were gathering crops to last an entire year. Our relatives would come from Yerevan, we would slaughter a pig and a sheep and hold a huge feast.”
Villagers such as Melkumyan have learned the painful lesson that harvest season makes them easy targets for snipers on the Azeri front, no more than 500 meters away. Nearly every harvest season since the conflict began, Armenian peasants have been killed or wounded while attempting to gather crops. One of the latest reported victims was 30-year-old Navur Kosakyan, who was shot in the chest by a sniper while farming in the Tavush province last October. Those who still tend the land now do so under the cover of darkness.
During six years of war, both sides suffered thousands of casualties. No official count has been released, but various international agencies estimate the toll to be around 25,000 deaths, with as many as 4,000 still missing. While for the most part the cease-fire put an end to both sides’ advances to claim or re-claim territory, it ushered in a “frozen conflict” marked by ongoing uncertainty and anxiety.
On May 5, 1994, in the Kyrgyzstan capital of Bishkek, Parliament leaders from Azerbaijan, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh signed what later became known as the “Bishkek Protocol,” which called for a cease-fire effective May 9. The same day, Vladimir Kazimirov, Russia’s representative to Nagorno-Karabakh drafted a cease-fire agreement for an indefinite period of time. It was signed by the defense ministers of the three principle warring parties: first, Azerbaijan’s Mamedrafi Mamedov; then, Armenia’s Serzh Sargsyan on May 10; and on May 11 in Nagorno-Karabakh by Army Commander Samvel Babayan. All parties agreed to cease hostilities and vowed to observe a cease-fire that would go into effect at 12:01 a.m. on May 12.
Vahan Papazyan, the foreign minister of Armenia from 1993 to 1996, recalled that more than 10 attempts had been made before reaching that final cease-fire agreement. There had been one or two-week periods of cease-fire beforehand as a result of previous Russian-mediated negotiations between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh.
“Azerbaijan always was the main party to reject a cease-fire, trying to take back what it had lost by military force,” Papazyan said in a recent interview. “ [By 1994] the state of affairs was such that with Russia’s active mediation, Azerbaijan finally agreed to cease hostilities indefinitely. Many claim today that if the political leadership did not sign the cease-fire, ëwe would have done this, we would have done that.’ But the truth is that both parties were exhausted and for months our military leaders had been persistently telling our country’s leadership that a cease-fire should be signed.”
The former diplomat noted that despite the tragic loss of so many lives over the past two decades, the cease-fire is still observed in one way or another, and that in itself, he insists, is one the greatest achievements of Armenian diplomacy.
“Not only was the trilateral cease-fire established, which spared many young lives, but in December of 1994 in Budapest during the OSCE summit, a resolution was adopted assigning Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan as the negotiating parties in this issue. This format was kept for two and a half years and was terminated in 1998 after the state turnover in Armenia, when the new leadership made claims that it could successfully represent both Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. That is the main reason, I believe, why there is no progress in the negotiations today,” said Papazyan.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group—co-chaired by France, the United States and Russia—is tasked with reaching a peaceful settlement to the ongoing conflict and has repeatedly urged both sides to actively negotiate a lasting peace. After 20 years, however, that prospect feels as distant today as it has ever been.
In its annual report for 2013, OSCE acknowledged that the search for a lasting and comprehensive political settlement to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains “one of the most complex challenges” in the OSCE region, which includes most of the northern hemisphere. During the first four months of 2014, Armenian armed forces suffered six losses due to cease-fire violations. Ministry of Defense spokesperson Artsrun Hovhannisyan confirmed that every year up to 10 Armenian soldiers are killed on the line of contact—the point where Armenian and Azeri soldiers can see one other from their trenches and bunkers.
Land Bought by Blood
“Oh, I was so incredibly happy, as if the world were mine, when my husband came home and told me that finally a cease-fire agreement had been signed,” said Aghavni Ghukasyan. “I had two sons and I wished at least for them to grow up and live in peace. But years passed and both my sons went into the army. The elder has returned… and…well, I am still waiting for my younger son’s return…”
20-year-old Narek Margaryan never came home. He was shot dead by a sniper on January 25, 2010.
Every year on that day Ghukasyan leaves for Nagorno-Karabakh, considering it her duty to spend at least a few days a year on the land her son paid for with his life.
“After my son’s death many visited me angry and frustrated and said ëwe did not need that never-ending war, we did not need those damned lands, let them concede and be done with it.’ But believe me, no parent of a son who fell in this fight would ever agree to give up even an inch of that land. My child’s blood is now mixed with that soil, my son’s blood is in that land.” said the late soldier’s mother.
Manvel Sargsyan heads the Armenian Center for National and International Studies, and from 1992-1995, was the permanent representative of Nagorno-Karabakh. In 1994, as an advisor to the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic’s foreign minister, he also took part in the post-war negotiations. Sargsyan insists the war never really ended; it was only suspended due to the strength of the Armenian army. “We were able to create the most important thing—a viable army—and have succeeded in keeping the balance due to the power of our army, which is essential. It is historically unprecedented when we can protect ourselves on our own,” said Sargsyan.
When the Soviet Union collapsed and Russian forces left the country, Azerbaijan was left without an army. Independent Armenia, meanwhile, had made it a priority to establish a military force. Less than six months after independence in January 1992, the Armed Forces of Armenia were officially formed and quickly grew from the few thousand remnants of the Soviet army service to 50,000.
As Deputy Chief of the Commonwealth of Independent States from 1992 to 1996, Vagharshak Harutyunyan was responsible for and helped unite the various military forces that would become the Armenian army. He argues the result is independent Armenia’s greatest achievement. “As the Soviet Union still existed and armed subdivisions were allowed only within the national security structure, that’s where it started forming… we were defending our borders, while at the same time sending detachments to Karabakh to protect the local population.” According to Harutyunyan, the willingness to fight and the patriotic spirit among the men who enlisted was very strong, helping the army overcome an opponent that had significantly more military machinery.
A New Role
The effect of a twenty-year cease-fire has substantially changed the culture within Armenia’s military. During that time, the army has faced several internal challenges. Reports by soldiers of young men being subjected to abuse by officers and conditions akin to gang warfare within the ranks have also changed the way many now see the army. Many parents, in particular, now consider conscription a prison sentence. The result is that families who have the means find ways to get their sons exempted from conscription, usually by bribing officers to forge documents. According to Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly Vanadzor office leader Artur Sakunts, the Armed Forces, established and proven in the challenges of war, have now become “the captive and the victim of the authorities’ disgraceful leadership.” Furthermore, contends Sakunts, the army “is now forced to face the challenges of migration and the monopolization of the economy when there is no economic growth or social welfare, which has resulted in large-scale emigration…a cause for deep concern, since young men with health issues are conscripted, leading, in turn, to increasing deaths in the army.”
It is a challenge the government has so far refused to acknowledge, at least not publicly. In his January 28 army address, President Serzh Sargsyan had only the highest praise for the country’s armed forces.
“For two decades now, our army and the entire Armenian people have lived in a state of neither war, nor peace, it is a particularly difficult situation for any army and for every soldier and officer. Nonetheless, all this while our army has fulfilled its mission with honor.”
The people of Tavush’s border villages of Nerkin Karmir Aghbyur, Aygepar, Chinari and Movses share this faith. Despite frequent enemy fire and extreme poverty, they guard the state border and said that regardless of issues within the army, it still has their unconditional trust.
Every family in this border area has a soldier among them: some are conscripts, while others are contract-based servicemen, the most common type of employment in the region.
For the past two years, the state has been providing assistance by offering land and water subsidies to households on the border in areas where military activity hinders farming. Such support is critical to the farmers in these villages who risk their lives to provide for their families. On June 18, 2008, Chinari village residents Levon Petrosyan, 21, and Rafik Saghoyan, 50, were killed by Azeri snipers while working in the field.
The economic impact of these ongoing attacks is plainly visible in places like the once busy road from Nerkin Karmir Aghbyur to Aygepar. Blocked now due to intense sniper fire, the villagers were forced to abandon the vineyards that used to line the road. Just like Vachik Melkumyan, shot in his field while farming, Aygepar village resident David Gabrielyan was forced to give up farming after being wounded by sniper fire on February 20, 2013. The same fate awaited 30-year-old Navur village farmer Hayk Kosakyan just seven months later.
“We are not border villages, we are border-guard villages. Today, if not for Karmir Aghbyur, Aygepar, Chinari, Movses, tomorrow there wouldn’t be Ijevan, the next day there wouldn’t be Yerevan,” said Melkumyan.
He then took his 18-month-old granddaughter into his arms. “She is too young still and knows nothing of shootings and guns, but my daughter-in-law grew up in a city and is not used to the sound of gunshots,” he said. “The poor thing jumps up with fear every time she hears them. How can youth stay in these villages? And even if they do, how can they stay safe?”