By GAYANE MRZOYAN and GAYANE MKRTCHYAN
Fourteen-year old Tigran Gharakhanyan walks to school in a crouch, flattening himself up against buildings on his village’s main road. He has good reason. His village, Chinari, is barely a kilometer away from Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan, directly in the line of fire of the Azerbaijani armed forces.
“We learn from childhood how to walk safely in the village,” says Gharakhanyan. “Of course, we’ve gotten used to gunfire, but we never know what will happen.”
More than 23 years after the ceasefire that ended full-fledged fighting between the two countries over Nagorno Karabakh, war between Armenia and Azerbaijan is still part of daily life for villages along their border.
Sometimes, it’s just a single shot; at others, steady shelling.
The risks affect all, but adult villagers worry particularly about how this life impacts their children. Though defensive walls shield schools and basements safe room students from attacks, ultimately, locals say, nowhere is safe.
Chinari, a low-lying village of about 1,000 people in northeastern Armenia’s Tavush province, is one of the most dangerous settlements. All of its buildings and roads, as well as its school and kindergarten, are within range of the Azerbaijani military, which controls the surrounding hills.
If gunfire breaks out in the morning, Gharakhanyan, like his classmates, stays home. “We all go into the house’s safest room, with thick walls and no windows, and wait until [the gunfire] ends,” he explains.
“Safest” is a relative term, however. Azerbaijani artillery hit Gharakhanyan’s house twice, once completely destroying the second floor, he says. The family has since rebuilt it, but the house’s roof and walls still bear traces of bullets.
To provide some protection for children on their way to school, Chinari in 2014 erected a 160-meter-long, two-meter-high wall in the center of the village. School windows which face the Azerbaijani lines have been almost completely filled in with stone. Only small slits let light through.
An additional defensive wall was built near the entrance to the kindergarten, which stands just 600 meters from Azerbaijani military positions. Both the kindergarten and school bear the scars of shelling.
“They can see us very well,” elaborates Parandzem Aghasyan, the kindergarten’s principal. “That’s why we never take children out to play in the kindergarten’s yard. From 9am till 5pm, we keep them inside . . . ”
The kindergarten has both an indoor and outdoor safe room for its 21 pupils. The windows of its nap room have been closed up with blocks of tufa. Similar precautions have been taken in other border villages, too.
“When there’s shooting, we turn on loud music to deafen the gunfire or we take the children to the safe room,” continues Aghasyan. Teachers awake sleeping children without telling them the cause, she adds.
No schoolchild has ever died in one of these attacks. But the gunfire, nonetheless, has an effect.
“There is war even in their games; they shoot, they dig positions and hide in trenches,” Aghasyan says of her charges. “They always make tanks and other war items out of putty during class.”
Chinari’s deputy head of government, 28-year-old Gevorg Petrosyan, believes that the Karabakh war haunts his children’s generation like it did his own.
“My three sons can already differentiate between what kinds of weapon the enemy is shooting,” Petrosyan says. He has taken care to make plain that this is not a game.
Thirty kilometers down an unpaved road to the northwest of Chinari, the village of Movses grapples with a similar situation. The settlement of about 2,000 people lies in a gorgenot far from three Azerbaijani villages and within direct range of Azerbaijani guns.
If a house or other village location is hit, word travels quickly. The village school bell tells students when it’s time to head to a safe room.
“Directly after the shooting, the children start to tell each other, analyze, which side shot more, which side less and from what kind of weapons,” says kindergarten principal Arevik Avalyan.
War, she says, runs through these children’s stories “like a red line.”
But even as they seek to shield them, adults believe that children need to understand the reality of this war and to be able to respond. As elsewhere in Armenia, a education-ministry program teaches teenagers in border villages how to fire, disassemble and clean an AK-74, a Russian assault rifle.
“Let’s imagine that the adversary enters the village and there is an unexpected situation. Shouldn’t a person of that age be able to use a gun? “ asks Sargis Arakelyan, the firearms instructor for Movses’ School #116.
During the trainings, students fire at enemy soldiers depicted on a screen. A computer calculates how many shots were fired accurately and announces the results.
Sixteen-year-old Movses student Diana Atabekyan says that she has come to see the AK-74 as a means of self-defense.
“One thing I remember very wellfrom my childhood — the voices of my parents saying ‘Go into the house. There’s shooting!’” she recollects. “Only later did I understand that the adversary lives directly in front of us and that the shooting could be fatal for us.”
“Our adversary cares neither about the school, nor the kindergarten or civilians,” comments Chinari’s military-training instructor, Makaryan. “They shoot whenever they want. We need to be stronger than them, well positioned and be restraining.”
Others might add that showing concern for the larger community should be part of the strategy as well. When the gunfire stops, villagers start to call each other to see if anyone was hurt.
“The most important thing is not to have a loss of human life,” underlines Arevik Avalyan, the Movses kindergarten principal. “We don’t care about material losses. We’ve already gotten used to it.”