“What I love about being in Armenia, everyone is obsessed with kids and they freak out when they see a baby,” Aris laughs.
Leaning back in my rigid chair at Tumanyan Khinkali in Yerevan last month, my friend and Lavash Life meme machine Aris Mardirossian lamented about what makes our homeland unique.
“Everyone is your grandparent!”
For 120,000 Artsakh Armenians, what makes their homeland unique is now a memory. Those who did not live it will now call it a piece of history.
The United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees reported early Friday that 88,000 refugees have now crossed into Armenia as a result of Azerbaijan military attacks and humanitarian aid blockade.
Nearly a third of them are children, UN officials said in a briefing. The Press Secretary of Armenia followed up with a report that 97,735 total refugees have now come through Armenia. The number continues to rise.
When Aris and I were on the phone this week analyzing the past week’s events, he asked if I at MIASEEN was seeing any stories that could provide hope for our future. I reminded him of our conversation at dinner.
Originally from Canada and now living in Armenia, Shant was in Kornidzor, Armenia as the first dozens of refugees made their way into town across the Hakari Bridge, the only connecting road between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
“Behind me there are Artsakh children who were just reciting poems and singing songs,” Shant reports. “The mood here is wonderful. There is a sense of relief.”
Graced around a picnic table sprawled with apples and bottles of Jermuk water, soft high-pitch voices swayed under the shade of a lonesome tree. Little kids with big eyes scanned around the patches of dirt and grass curiously, unafraid or self-conscious of staring at journalists and Red Cross volunteers.
Children were seen being chased by their father, laughing the whole way until they fell to their knees, before being clawed away with a big hug.
Not more than a week prior, Azerbaijan began shelling and invading towns of Nagorno-Karabakh, the ethnically Armenian land known as Artsakh. Tens of thousands were forced to flee their homes. Hundreds were killed, children included.
The local government was cornered into a ceasefire deal that has led to the dissolving of the government. Authorities have told residents they must decide if they should leave for Armenia or stay to live under Azerbaijan rule.
For many children, already vile conditions from Azerbaijan’s blockade of the Lachin Corridor and not-so-distant memories of the 2020 war making fleeing their homeland incomprehensible for an adult eye.
Yet here the children were, running around with a smile, eating their first proper meal in God knows how long.
As Shant and I were finishing his video report, he texts me that everyone is going nuts over the Artsakh kids playing. I thought about the joy the children are bringing everyone for just being themselves, which they have been deprived of by powers bigger than them.
While they were the first dozen children to cross into Kornidzor, tens of thousands were about to follow, and not all may be as joyous.
By Wednesday, 50-some thousand Artsakh refugees had made their way through Red Cross and government check-in stations in Kornidzor and Goris, Armenia.
Thousands were unable to receive proper medical attention following Azerbaijan’s attacks, many of whom had extremely severe injuries. While some were fortunate to be rushed to Yerevan’s hospitals via Armenian ambulances, many others were not.
“We saw two severe injuries here. In one case, the situation was so bad that the man could lose his leg,” Dr. Jacqueline Avetisyan tells Katia Galati for MIASEEN. “He moved to the hospital immediately. But as the condition was really bad, and the traffic was heavy - it took 10 hours - he was about to lose his leg.”
Dr. Avetisyan is a family doctor for the surrounding border villages near Kornidzor. As the refugees came through the town, Dr. Avetisyan and a team of medical professionals set up at the first check-in tent. They are the first medical personnel thousands have seen.
“When they arrive, they are in very bad conditions, they need help because of chronic diseases, they haven’t had the necessary medications for a long time,” Dr. Avetisyan tells us in an interview. She pauses for a moment.
“They are hungry, very stressed, and depressed.”
When Azerbaijan set up their illegal checkpoint at the Lachin Corridor 10 months ago, food and medicine began to dwindle in supply, coming to a complete halt earlier in the summer. Vardges Osipov, executive director of the“Mother and Child Health Care Center” in Stepanakert, Artsakh, reported that because of a lack of a balanced diet, miscarriages had tripled during the blockade. Other mothers lost their children because there was no fuel to get them to the hospital.
Despite this, births continued. At least four mothers in Artsakh were reported to have given birth during Azerbaijan’s drone strikes on civilian homes, and unverified reports relay that some mothers gave birth during the hours-long traffic jam fleeing to Armenia, which was incredibly hard on young children, too.
“A child swooned in a car because of a low level of blood sugar in blood - hypoglycemia,” describes Dr. Avetisyan. “The situation is very bad, especially for the children. They mostly have a cold. And as you know, they hadn't had access to food and had been hungry for a long time before coming.”
Being a family doctor with pediatric expertise, Dr. Avetisyan and her team are the first to provide this care to the children. As refugees come in around the clock, Dr. Avetisyan and the medical staff do as well, focusing on keeping the utmost care in mind, no matter what it takes.
Katia and Shant ask Dr. Avetisyan how long she expects to stay at the checkpoint.
“We’ll be here as long as the people will pass this road.”
As families pass through check-in stations, their next stop is finding their next home. Thousands have been staying in hotels both in the border villages and in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital where many families continued their journey.
In Goris, another border town near Kornidzor, hotels were flocked with families and suitcases, many containing all the belongings they had time to pack before leaving their homes for the last time.
Shant is at one of these hotels, and relays once again: children are playing everywhere.
Many families are still figuring out their next move. While adults do the talking, the kids find each other.
Fin and Katia were in Kornidzor where they stumbled upon children each eating their own loaf of bread, smiling ear to ear.
In their footage, you can see older kids doing their best to make young kids smile. It’s an easy task with some.
Katia and Fin interviewed four cousins who had all landed in Kornidzor. With baby teeth missing and dramatic adult-like gestures, the kids describe in enthusiastic terms their journey from Artsakh here.
“The drive… give it gas, and then it stops. Give it gas, and then it stops,” exclaims one of the cousins, who’s glassy skin and picturesque smile make you want to squeeze him.
His cousin sits next to him smiling incessantly, gnawing at a piece of bread bigger than her head. While going through the footage of their conversation, I couldn’t stop watching the same clip over and again of this little girl smiling. She just couldn’t stop smiling! Softly staring into the camera, chewing on her bread, and being okay with just being there with her family.
There are some hours where you lose hope reporting on this situation. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. Seeing this kid's smile, not knowing what she had seen, what she had heard, or what she had felt, made me tear up.
It goes without saying the psychological effects have been inflicted on our young generation of Armenians. Yet seeing this child smile alongside her cousins was so pure. So untouched, despite her dirt smeared sweater and her grass stained jeans.
She was a beam of light through all the darkness.
One thing, of many, that unites Armenians is how we find that beam of light in every child. How despite everything we may have seen, they offer us hope. They remind us of a new beginning.
As antidotes continue to pile up about children taking care of each other, children show us the way to happiness, even if just one glimmer of a smile that dissipates moments later.
Armenian children give us hope, as we gave our parents and grandparents through their dark times. And still, we are.