AW: We are no heroes

Krikor Sahagian was born in Jerusalem and repatriated to Armenia when he was 21 years old. This is the first article for his new column in the Armenian Weekly titled “In Pursuit of Home.” His column will center on people and life in Armenia, repatriation and his continuing discovery of self and where he belongs.

It is only when you grow older that you realize that figuring out the right thing to do is often harder than actually doing it. Socrates was right—with age, we begin to understand that life is infinitely more complex than we initially thought. Its complexity forces us to admit that we know less about the world today than we knew yesterday. 

What would have been the right course of action for us Armenians living in Yerevan, as Aliyev killed our compatriots and completely destroyed our nation’s proudest achievement? More importantly, what could we have done here in Yerevan, as we witnessed the Republic of Artsakh turn the last page of its epic story and rage into the dying of the light? Of the millions of Armenians across the globe, we in Armenia, naturally, felt a stronger responsibility to do something and help change the course of our nation’s history. 

It was an uneventful, ordinary Tuesday in Armenia, the streets visibly emptied of their hustle and bustle as the tourist season drew to a close. The weather was so beautiful that it made a September Tuesday bearable. The sun was bright but mild. The sky was blue, and a gentle breeze reminded all of us of our perennial bond with the Earth. It was a day that would have made anyone fall ever more deeply in love with this incomprehensible, at times infuriating, but mostly sublime country. 

Then, in the afternoon, the news began to trickle in. Artsakh was at war – and this time around, entertaining the chances of victory was simply wishful thinking. Yet, as the saying goes, hope is the last to die – and while rationality urged us to expect defeat, the human spirit in us all pushed us to believe in the improbable, in the nonsensical, in the heroic, in the romantic and in the beautiful. However, this also made sense. Isn’t history written by the triumphs of foolish people embarking on struggles that were deemed foolish to begin with? Isn’t great achievement defined by improbable odds?

When I was young, my Protestant American teachers told my entire class and me that we were all to be future leaders. Even then, as a young child infatuated with Disney movies, I knew that was hardly true. It did not make sense by definition. However, whenever a crisis unfolds around me and I feel like I am expected to act, I think about whether they truly believed that, and if so, on what did they base their conclusion? Was it something they told everyone they met? Was it part of their missionary mantra? Or did God, by demonstrating uncommon and exceptional divine instruction, tell them that my classmates and I were truly the rare and unlikely group of young people that was completely composed of future leaders?

On the afternoon of September 19, people in Armenia were in search of leaders and guidance. Nobody wanted to stand idly by while a part of their world was collapsing and a tragedy of historic proportions unfolded around them. I assume and hope that all of us were consumed by the thought of needing and wanting to do something–to help save lives, to defend that which we believe we love, and, perhaps selfishly, to live up to a defining moment. Were we to be hypocrites for demanding for years that we all fight a fight that we quickly deserted, or were we to valiantly heed the battle cry of generations? 

“We Are Our Mountains” monument, Artsakh (Photo: Araz Boghossian)

Yet, like so many of us, I was paralyzed and lost – not knowing how we could mobilize our resources and talents to protect the survival of a part of our shrinking home. I am feeling even more devastated and guilty for recognizing that such a dire scenario was possible, even probable, but I never prepared a contingency plan. Since I did not plan ahead, at the start of the war I aimlessly ran through my options, knowing full well that history has demonstrated that my hesitant, careful and doubtful soul will only come to a decision when it’s already too late. 

Many of my friends quickly joined VOMA (civilian paramilitary organization) to go through basic training. However, considering the urgency of the situation, this did not make much sense to me. Artsakh was not the size of Russia or Canada, and the fight there would probably be over by the time they were called up to their first training session. One of them, being from America, maybe did not entirely grasp how quickly the enemy force could overrun our country. Or maybe, despite war still raging on and blood being shed, this friend of mine had already accepted the loss of Artsakh and was preparing for the next fight that was to come ever closer to him. Two years ago, he believed that repatriating from the richest and most prosperous country on the planet to a fledgling nation that had just lost a devastating war was to be his greatest contribution to ensuring the survival of his people. By the mere fact of repatriating, he was to be an exemplary figure among our wandering timid nation. Yet he was then slapped in the face with a new, more daunting reality. Moving to Armenia was hardly enough to defend her. Armenia was calling upon him to demonstrate true courage and devotion and to defend her in the most primal of ways – with his physical body in the trenches of Syunik, under the rain and snow, with his shivering hands and feet clinging to a worn out Soviet submachine gun. This is what it would take to defend the dream of building a life in a free Armenia. 

Less than an hour after the fighting began, many slowly made their way to Republic Square. It was not immediately clear what the purpose of this gathering was. Many stood in front of the government building, convinced that the government, with its inaction, was responsible for this crisis in the first place, and thus demanded that it resign. Others, many of whom were students and citizens from Artsakh, alternatively demanded that the government assist our compatriots in Artsakh or get involved somehow in order to stop the bloodshed and save the lives of their families. Granted, nobody knew exactly what the nature of involvement they demanded would look like. 

Never in my life had I seen such scenes of helplessness and agonizing stress. The limited information that was coming out of Artsakh, understandably, caused people to expect the worst. After all, Azerbaijan, in the 21st century, for more than nine months had attempted to starve their families and friends under siege. To expect anything less than complete ruthlessness by this regime during this round of fighting would be ill-founded. Of the hundreds that amassed in Republic Square, women and men alike were weeping and sobbing – worried and frightened about what was happening to the people and country they loved. Personally, I have this irrational tendency to expect the worst when a WhatsApp text message doesn’t immediately get delivered to a family member. I cannot imagine how I would cope if I had been in their stead. 

I happen to believe that I love this country. I have been to Artsakh more than a dozen times. I loved how I felt there. Stepanakert, to me, is the most charming Armenian city in the world. My heart ached as I felt Artsakh permanently slip away. But, needless to say, my pain was incomparable to those who grew up in Artsakh, to those who had homes and livelihoods in Artsakh, to those who had loved ones in Artsakh whose lives were in danger, to those who considered Artsakh simply their home and not a symbol of a struggle. They were realizing that everything they had done had amounted to nothing – all those lives lost, all those deprivations and sacrifices that they had endured for decades. 

Destiny was calling us to greatness, but at that moment, we realized we are not the heroes we thought we were. Although this is a tough thing to accept, it profoundly changes the way we view and appreciate our true heroes and leaders.

Imagine all the Artsakhtsis who were told that it is honorable that they miss out on opportunities in order to dedicate their lives to the land, which many of us only saw through our computer screens. Imagine suddenly fearing that your life is being robbed of its meaning. Imagine realizing that you will never find comfort or relative stability in your life anymore, because you were adamant about not abandoning your homeland and missed out on learning new skills that would have equipped you with the knowledge to navigate a life in unknown places. In this new existence, younger people would undoubtedly cope better. However, those of a more advanced age, who, after a long life full of accomplishment and creation, looked forward to finally slowing down to enjoy a peaceful life spent cultivating their gardens and taking pride in their children and grandchildren, would be the most heartbroken of them all.

I wanted to help these people. I wanted to give them solace. But who was I to do that? At a moment when I was required to, first and foremost, be brave, I was justifying inaction by dismissing all my potential solutions as crazy. In pursuit of common sense and sound logic, my mind was persuading me to do nothing, rather than do the wrong thing. Indeed, as I pondered our options to save the crumbling republic, I froze. All of us did. On a personal level, these moments are difficult to bear, as they strip us naked and expose us as the people we truly are, and not the people we would have loved to have been. Destiny was calling us to greatness, but at that moment, we realized we are not the heroes we thought we were. Although this is a tough thing to accept, it profoundly changes the way we view and appreciate our true heroes and leaders.

A day later, in our indecision, Artsakh fell completely, probably permanently. Suddenly, we found ourselves in a completely new reality, a reality that seemed remote just a few hours prior. The dust was yet to settle. The shock was yet to be felt. The magnitude of the loss was yet to be understood. But, as is embarrassingly typical of us, we quickly shifted gears and attempted to try to minimize the impact of yet another defeat. We thought that we could make up for our humiliation by taking the moral high ground and helping all those refugees who were directly impacted by our failure. This way, at least we had a clear conscience and were victors in the eyes of God. Helping our compatriots required no politics, no difficult decisions, no courage, no unique conviction. Everyone was on board, not necessarily because they were nationalists, but because, rather selfishly and quite naturally, people are in constant search for something meaningful to do.

We all failed Artsakh and its beautiful people. There will be no redemption for the mistakes we made that led to this. No one will forgive us for having been unwise and weak.

As cynical as I usually am, I do appreciate that though this plan did not require much daring or fortitude, it was no less important or admirable. Armenians, mostly from Armenia, but also from across the world, went to Syunik to welcome those who were forcibly displaced from their homes. There is no alternative to being here physically with our kin, to offer support, human warmth and elemental kindness, to hug and embrace them, to assist them with finding a new place to live, to give them a lift, to simply be there so that they do not feel alone as they go through this excruciatingly dark time in their lives. There is no alternative to showing the displaced that we are ready to help them rebuild their lives in the very country that many of us have vowed to live in until our dying breath, to demonstrate that our support was not limited to sending money by pushing a few buttons on our phones. 

However, we should not fool ourselves. This won’t make up for when we abandoned a part of our home. We all failed Artsakh and its beautiful people. There will be no redemption for the mistakes we made that led to this. No one will forgive us for having been unwise and weak. No amount of aid will mend the wounds that we inflicted upon her and, ultimately, ourselves. This all happened, because, at least for now, we are not the heroes and heroines we thought we were. 

Krikor Sahagian moved to Armenia from Jerusalem in 2017. He holds a master's degree in political science, but works as a videographer and filmmaker based in Yerevan. His interests include photography and writing. As an ardent believer in repatriation, he mostly writes about Armenia, its people, and the sense of purpose and meaning that the country fills his heart with.