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STEPANAKERT, Artsakh (ChurchMilitant.com) — On July 12, Church Militant reporter Trey Blanton was the first American journalist to enter the Republic of Artsakh since Nov. 10, 2020, when a Russian-brokered cease-fire was signed between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
During the conflict, which has been officially recognized as lasting for seven weeks, Church Militant is credited by members of Artsakh's government with having provided the most prolific and accurate reporting of any Western media, despite conflicting propaganda and misinformation arising from the conflict.
The government of Artsakh invited Church Militant to visit the region to speak with government officials, review official documentation and hear testimony from families who lost husbands and sons, whether from fights for independence in the early '90s or current struggles.
As part of the cease-fire agreement, Russian peacekeepers serve at checkpoints on the main road called the Lachin corridor, leading from Armenia into the Republic of Artsakh; they were not happy to see an American passport.
But Church Militant is committed to reporting the most accurate and extensive details on a war that's frozen but still ongoing.
For access to the full report, with historical perspective and analysis, click here.
Government officials arranged for Church Militant to speak with Arman Asryan. Asryan works with the Union of Relatives of the Fallen and Missing Soldiers of the Third Artsakh War. He is engaged with documenting and recording families who have lost a son or husband during the war.
Asryan described his work and the son he lost:
On Sept. 22, Azerbaijan, with Turkey's support, launched an assault on Artsakh and Armenians who are standing up for their right to live in Artsakh.
My son was a conscript in the war. He served and fought as an artillery soldier. He fought bravely, but fell as a hero with the dream of a peaceful existence for Artsakh, a dream shared by many.
The most painful thing is that, on one hand, our people were struggling and fighting for their rights and their lives and their land. But, on the other hand, the world was, in a way, assisting Turkey and Azerbaijan through indifference and blindness.
These are the pictures of fallen heroes, but this is not a complete list. We're trying to do our best to compile the data and honor their memory.
The people just recently went through a terrible and very destructive war, but we are confident in our decision to stay here in the land of our fathers.
Unfortunately, right now, the question of POWs (Prisoners of War) still remains unsolved. The whereabouts of hundreds of MIAs (Missing in Action) remains unknown. It is unfortunate the international community does not do enough to force Azerbaijan to return the POWs and provide information on the missing.
According to Nov. 9 joint declaration, all prisoners of war were required to be returned home, but Azerbaijan has failed to abide by the document.
After suffering so many casualties, we cannot stop working and continue their work, living here for the good of the country. Here is our birthplace.
I invite the world to this small but beautiful part of the world. Pay attention and show interest to the people here who have dreams and goals. Disregard geopolitical interests and money from Azerbaijan's oil money.
Asryan is honoring the memory of his son by helping other families of the fallen, following his personal motto: "Nothing is forgotten. No one is forgotten." He said:
We are registering the names and contact information of families of the fallen soldiers. We're conducting analysis and visiting the relatives to figure out the socioeconomic conditions for making it easier to target aid and assistance from the government and private donors.
After Asryan was interviewed, a government vehicle drove Asryan and me to a small home to meet a family who had been driven from their home in Hadrut. They were one of the families Asryan has worked with. A woman who lost her son was willing to speak with me but did not want to give her name:
We are from the region of Hadrut and, after the war, we found ourselves in this situation displaced and forced from our home after Azerbaijan took over the region. We were forced to leave our home on Sept. 27.
I have four sons. Three of them fought in the war with my husband. I took my youngest son and left for Stepanakert and lived in basements during the beginning of the war. From Stepanakert, I took my 10-year-old son to Yerevan, Armenia so the men could fight on the front line.
We stayed in Yerevan for 15 days. On Nov. 11, I found out that my son, Aran, was killed at 9 p.m., three hours before the war ended, on Nov. 9. There were five soldiers there. Two were killed and three survived.
Aran was 19 years old. He fought as a machine-gunner. He was sent as reinforcement to where he was killed. An Azeri fired a shot at their trench. Aran's friends saw Aran lying down, so they checked him and discovered he was dead. They placed him in an ambulance and he was transported away.
Aran was very strong, both physically and mentally. Aran never lost at anything in his life. Aran was fearless, and on Nov. 8, when I talked to him, I told him to try to hide and keep his head low, and he said to me, "What is a Turk that I should be afraid of him?"
Aran never feared anything. He never lost in his life until the end, when he experienced his first defeat.
I lost one son to the war. Another of my sons and my husband were wounded in the war. We left everything we had behind in Hadrut. We took nothing with us but what we could fit in our pockets and the clothes on our back.
We are currently living in fear, and we do not have any hope the Turks will ever change.
I want the international community to help us so our kids will never see this again — so there can be peace.
Donara Gabrielyan and Alvina Nersesyan
An anonymous traveling companion who accompanied Church Militant knows many citizens of Artsakh. One friend, Alvina Nersesyan, crossed our path unexpectedly July 14. Nersesyan, a university professor, brought her older colleague, Donara Gabrielyan, to the hotel cafe to speak about their experiences during the three wars with Azerbaijan.
Nersesyan translates for her friend Gabrielyan:
In 1992, my husband died while protecting our land in the war for independence from Azerbaijan. My husband was a driver for a medical vehicle responsible for rescuing the wounded from the combat zone.
My husband had three brothers and two nephews who also participated in the war. All but one of the brothers fought on the front lines as a soldier.
While my husband was performing his duties, a missile hit the car and he sustained burns over 75% of his body. He was transported to a hospital in Yerevan, but he did not survive.
I managed to speak with him by phone while he was in the hospital. He told me not to visit because I needed to care for the children.
After the war, I raised three children on my own, who are now grown.
We not only managed to survive after the first war — most people managed to make families to enlarge the population — we started businesses, including an educational institute that teaches children how they can serve their country.
During this war, my two sons-in-law and my two grandsons were here, participating in the war. My other grandchildren were too small or girls and so fled to Yerevan for safety.
From the humanitarian point of view, it was smarter to flee the war this time. We stayed here in Artsakh during the first war. We were afraid the Muslims would come and kill us and our children.
The people who stayed in Artsakh during the first war suffered psychological problems. From the moral point of view, people were proud to remain with their husbands. Women were sure husbands would return to their families.
However, sounds of the missiles and gunfire was gravely psychologically damaging. During the second war, it was right to leave for Yerevan so children would not have to suffer the trauma this time.
Staying or going, either way was a difficult choice.
Our country is completely on the front line. We do not have a safe place in our country. We live in fear, but not panic. We understand where we are located. It doesn't matter. We need to remain and develop our country and, eventually, take back what is ours — take back what was stolen by force.News Report: Armenian Genocide 2.0
November was not a just war. We still have a feeling we were betrayed, and we were sold out by both our people and by strangers.
Those who were fighting on the front line were willing to stand until the last minute. When the soldiers were informed Armenia had capitulated and needed to hand over their weapons, they were crying.
My eldest daughter, on Nov. 10, saw on Facebook written, "Forgive us." This is a huge responsibility for us. A lot of people died in the first war to secure our land for us. The fact that we couldn't protect what they left to us bears a responsibility.
We thought on Nov. 9, going into the 10th, we all thought there would be a fight for the city, Shushi, to take it back. The information we were getting during the war was all fake, so it was strange to see the result on the 10th that the fight was over.
Months later, there is still confusion about what happened during the war. We have no concrete information. The only way we will ever know is if there is a change in the government of Armenia.
There should be a change in leadership that will create an objective commission to investigate what happened. Otherwise, everyone will have their own truth.
There's no one in power who we feel we can trust. It's not a question of helping people, but of what is good for the country of Artsakh.
We're a very small country, and we didn't have enough force to overcome Turkey, Azerbaijan and Pakistan. It was a huge army against us. Ukraine, Israel and Belarus sold weapons to our enemy.
We are also to blame for our loss in the war. All Armenians should have known that not just Azerbaijan, but Turkey, would fight against us. Because without Turkey's help, Azerbaijan would never have been able to defeat us.
In the beginning of the war, we were moving forward. After the first four or five days, Azerbaijan asked Turkey for help because their blitzkrieg had failed.
We need to study the statements of our first president in 1994 because what he claimed would happen came to pass.
We believe with a high certainty that President Ilham Aliyev and Turkey's president, Reccep Erdoğan, are working together. Nersesyan, personally, believes Aliyev is subjected to Erdoğan.
It is a question whether Azerbaijan will remain it's own country.
Many countries recognize the 1915 Armenian Genocide, but countries must demand Turkey give an answer for what happened. Turkey and the Ottoman Empire are one in the same. After the war, last year, they praised Enver Pasha, a chief actor in the genocide of 1915. The 2020 war was a continuation of the same genocide.
We are the little Christian nation surrounded by Muslim countries. Georgia is Christian in name, but their allegiances are more flexible. We are a contradiction to the Turks because we try to live out our faith.
Despite the cease-fire, Azerbaijan continues to provoke border incidents and teach their children to hate Armenians. There can be no neighborly peace with Azerbaijan. Artsakh will never be a part of Azerbaijan. It is Armenian land.
Artsakh should be recognized as an independent state. We've proven that we meet all the points to be our own nation. They [Azerbaijan] are a genocidal country. They must recognize Artsakh within its historical borders and eliminate its policy of Armenophobia.
We would welcome international help but, so far, they are all talk and no action. One of our lecturers at university refused to give a lecture on international law because, he said, "In our case, there is no international law."
Nersesyan (who served as translator above) briefly relates her own story:
I moved to Karabakh [Artsakh] in 2005 when I got married. I worked at the university in Stepanakert, but lived in Shushi.
When the 2020 war started, my husband went to war. He told me I don't want you and our two sons, age 12 and 14, to witness the bad things that could happen, so I want you to move to Yerevan.
Having stayed in Artsakh during the little-known war in April 2016, I did not expect I would not have a home to return to. That is why I only took my documents and notebook. I left behind everything else because I was sure I would come back.
Despite everything, I still believe I will one day return home. That hope is the only thing that keeps me here and praying for the future. This war made me believe even more in the Lord. I'm starting to understand that everything is not in vain. We are here to stand for our land and our beliefs. We will stay here till the last minute.
In part II, you will hear from government and media sources in the Republic of Artsakh. They will detail events from a macro level. For access to the full report, with historical perspective and analysis, click here.