Between 1988-1984, 200 women from the Armenian side of the conflict participated in the Nagorno-Karabakh war, 42 of whom died on the battle field. Information on the recent escalation of fighting in April 2016 on the issue of female fighters has not yet been brought forward. But there is data that shows that, after the Four Day War of April 2016, the number of people who want to receive a military education has practically doubled.
It takes six hours to reach from Yerevan to the Karabakh town of Shushi by car. The driver takes an earring, a small blue flower, out of his pocket.
“Ten days ago I drove a family to Karabakh, a small girl was among them. This is her ring. I keep it in my pocket in the hope I meet them again so I can give it back,” he says.
I don’t know if he has found the owner of the earring or not. I came there to search for another belle -Evgenya Harustamyan.
In Shusha everyone knows Evgenya Harustamyan. A fine wrinkled face and short greying hair – she used to be the beauty of the town. She is ‘Babo’ [grandmother] now, but people still call her Doll.
The home is large and light. It is very clean. So clean that it would appear that she is waiting for guests.
Next to the TV are two photographs – she is in one of them, at 16 years of age. The other photograph is of her son.
“This is my son Armen. My younger son. Look what pretty eyes he had. He died two years ago,” says Babo.
The loss of her son has been very difficult for her to cope with. She believes that the investigation that was done didn’t take all the factors into account. She can’t come to terms with the fact that is not the war but an accident that took her son away.
In order to change the topic I ask: “Babo, did they used to fall in love with you often?”
“No”, she says, “They were afraid of me. I was very sharp and direct. There was a boy I liked. But I married without love, and so did he. That’s life.”
“There was no democracy at the time, and my husband was my ‘master’. My mother had already passed away, and no one was there to help me. I worked, and my three sons grew up. The older sons were crippled by the war, they both had combat wounds. One left for Russia, to Leningrad [ed. St Petersburg] and didn’t come back, the other is still serving. After the death of my husband, Armen and I remained here alone. Everything you see in this house was made by him, but he never got to enjoy it,” says Babo, wiping down the wet door of the washing machine.
She does this after every load. The washing machine was a gift from Armen, and she can’t allow it to break down.
In 1992, two of her sons went to the front as volunteers, as did her four brothers. It was the year the ‘women squad’ was formed, says Babo.
“There were 12 of us in the squad. We shared a sniper rifle and several of automatic guns. I was the sniper. On the night of 23 August 1992, we carried out an operation near the village of Kubatlu. On that day we lost one of our girls, two were injured, one of them was me,” she says and pulls up the skirt to show a scar – a rough thread zigzagging all the way from her knee to her chest.
“We would fight for three days, and then go home to stay there for three days – to cook, to clean, to take care of the injured. I tried to help them, what else was there to do? I had two soldiers at war too.”
Knowing that we are going to drop by the military outpost, she gives us a box of cookies and candy and a bag of herbs, which she has collected herself to use for tea. We are to pass it on to the soldiers there.
I look at Narine – a petite, smiling student who has been to the war. We are going together to her home village Nerkin Karmirakhbyur in the Tavush district of Armenia. One can see the Azerbaijani positions with the naked eye from this village.
I look at Narine and I think: how could she have carried a weapon around her shoulder – surely the barrel reached below her knees.
“See here, this is a unique vehicle. It has two roofs – a main one, and a temporary one. In the main one, there is a hole from a projectile. We shore it up with the temporary roof, in order to protect the car from rain and snow. My father goes on this car to the vineyards to gather the harvest. Our gardens are right underneath the Azerbaijani positions. The snipers probably already know our car – red with a big hole in the roof,” says Narine when we get to the village.
The day the 2016 April war broke out she told her family she was leaving for Karabakh to join the fight as a volunteer.
“We know about the people on the other side of the border from books alone. I remember that as a child I used to think that Turks were something wild and terrifying, not really people. When we understand that the people over there are just like us, that they have the same dreams and fears – then something may start to change,” Narine says.
Light almost doesn’t make it into the bedroom window – her father has boarded it up with a large stone because the window can be easily seen from Azerbaijani positions. Several times snipers targeted it. One bullet is still stuck in the window frame.
But Narine hasn’t moved her bed.
“Two years ago, in August, when the situation was very tense, people tried to make things safer at least for their children. But my parents couldn’t get me out of the house. I knew that if I were to go out of the home, I wouldn’t return because I would be ashamed.”
“Nar, can you imagine peace?” I ask.
“Peace? One day without shooting, without victims – that’s the closest we come to peace,” she says. “I would like for this issue to be resolved by peaceful means, negotiations. The problem is that people don’t know what the negotiations are for.”
The next morning, in addition to the smell of hot tea and baked potatoes, Narine proffers a smile – her friend has given birth to a girl. Now peace for Narine is even more important: the weight of this new-born girl has been added to the weight of her scales.
Eva was the first girl to be admitted to the military academy in Stepanakert. It was two years ago. Now she is the pride of the academy.
“I’d always wanted to become a military lawyer. Then it turned out that girls couldn’t study to become one either in Armenia or in Russia. And so I ended up going for air defence,” says Eva.
She is the only girl in the academy whose parents were not against her choice. Her father and her uncles were all military men.
“I’ve never seen peace. We live on the border: some days are good, some days are bad. We are always on the alert.”
“During the April war [in 2016] we found out about those who were injured or those who lost their lives every day. Kids my own age, a year or two older. It was horrible. One day, we organised an event to honour the memory of the academy graduates who had lost their lives. I had the photograph of one of them in my hands. After the event, his mother came up to me, hugged me and cried. I didn’t know what to tell her,” Eva recalls.
Eva carefully puts her awards in a folder. One for good singing and another for sports achievements. She puts on a large coat and walks outside. The bus stop is right next to the academy. They are already used to seeing this fragile girl in the military uniform, they’ve long stopped being surprised at the sight of her. Several minutes later, she’s home.
At home, her mother and sister have been waiting for her. Her father is still on his duty on the border.
“Eva, what are you studying for? For war?” I ask.
“I’m studying to be ready,” she says. Then she adds:
“I hope I’ll never need to put this knowledge to practice. I don’t want war. But politicians and lawyers have been struggling to solve this issue for over two decades now. This war is older than me,” says Eva.