Grigor was hard to miss on my first day at Goris High School, with his sparkling eyes and an impish grin, as if he was enjoying some private joke. Tall and awkward as 17-year-old boys tend to be, he speaks English well, in a soft and respectful voice. He is always ready to voice his opinion in class, and undertook on his own to write a creative short story about a squirrel and turtle who started a store, only to run afoul of the forest mafia. Not surprisingly, he took first place in our school for the Write On! Armenia creative writing contest.
Today I helped him write, in English, an application for a prestigious summer fellowship in the U.S., aimed at fostering understanding between cultures. He said he wants to become a diplomat so he can help his country. But first, he is ready to go to war.
“If my country needs me, I will go to the front lines, of course,” he said. All boys in Armenia serve a compulsory two years in the military when they turn 18, but Garen is ready to go now, at 17.
He is not alone.
On Saturday, April 2nd, the so-called “frozen conflict” between Armenia and neighboring Azerbaijan erupted, spewing death, destruction and fear across the Southern Caucasus. At issue is the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, an area of land on the eastern flank of Armenia, caught in a prolonged tug-of-war. Azerbaijan claims it is theirs, while Armenia says the same. The area was included in Azerbaijan by Russia at the breakup of the Soviet Union, without input from the area’s population, the majority of whom claim Armenian heritage.
After the initial skirmish on Saturday things calmed down, but the rhetoric is still flying and it’s far from over. The question is, which way will it go: war or peace?
Who launched the first rocket or killed the most men so far is debatable. The fog of war is thick, and the tension is thicker.
In a country with less than 4 million people, everyone in Armenia knows someone who is involved in the military in some capacity, or who lives or has loved ones living, in the disputed territory.
My counterpart’s brother-in-law is in the army; my tutor’s brother was in Karabakh when the fighting broke out. Another teacher’s husband was killed in the initial fighting in 1992.
“No one wants war,” my counterpart stressed. “Everyone wants peace.”
At school there is no childish laughter in the halls. Students huddle in groups, the girls on the verge of tears. The boys try to look tough in their matching black leather jackets, and like Garen, they are resolved to do their part if needed, but the worry shows on their peach-fuzzed faces.
Classroom attendance is sparse, but the teachers don’t care. School doesn’t seem very important to anyone right now. People huddle around the school computer, or scroll facebook on their phones, searching for the latest news.
There’s a WWII feel as the girls keep busy by stuffing care packages for the men on the front lines. Stacks of lavash are piled on the staff room tables, ready to be shoved into boxes; a little taste of home.
The military teacher, the ROTC equivalent, sits at the staff table with the geography class map of Armenia spread before him. I wonder what is going through his head.
My site, Goris, is on the road to the capital of the disputed territory, Stepanakert. Peace Corps security strictly forbids volunteers from going to that city, or anywhere near the border.
There is also a military base on the outskirts of town. For days trucks loaded with cargo have been streaming east toward the border. Today as I stepped out of my building a large army helicopter slowly moved overhead, also heading for the border. This latest flareup began when the Azerbaijani army reportedly shot down one such helicopter. The Armenian army said it was on a training mission, Azerbaijan says it was attacking military positions.
The Peace Corps, meanwhile, continues to issue security briefings to us via the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan. The word is to stay vigilant and be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice. In the PC version of War Games, during training we practiced being summoned to our consolidation points. We are supposed to have “go bags” packed with all essentials, ready to, well, go at a moment’s notice. At the consolidation point we would then wait to hear if we were going to be evacuated from the country entirely.
It’s not an unknown situation in a corps that serves in politically unstable regions of the world. Poverty and political strife go hand in hand. More than 200 volunteers were evacuated from Ukraine in 2014, while volunteers had to leave three east African countries due to the ebola outbreak that same year.
One of the current Armenia Peace Corps Volunteers was in the group evacuated from Ukraine, and he’s back for more. As he wrote recently in his “Armenian Adventures” blog, “Our emergency action plan says to always keep a ‘hit the road real quick’ bag packed with essentials so I am prepared. I have been through this kind of thing a time or two so I am ready but not concerned. Peace Corps is always ahead of any problem like this and monitors these situations very well.”
Indeed, it’s a surrealistic feeling to be immersed in a community that is literally fearing for their lives, and yet know that you have the backing of your own government, and your own escape plan. It’s sort of like being on the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon in 1975. But let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
Grigor would make a much better diplomat than soldier.
Note: The student’s name was changed to protect his identity.
Update: A fragile ceasefire, called after four days of fighting is still holding. For now.