Artsakh Frontline 2016: Fallen Soldiers
The date was April 1, 2016.
In a telephone conversation with his parents, 20-year-old Rafik told them that he didn’t want a welcoming home party upon his being discharged from the army.
“I asked him, ‘my dear, why not?’ He said we didn’t have much money. I told him not to worry about money, just come home. Just stay safe.” These were the last words Naira exchanged with her son.
Rafik Hakobyan was killed the following evening during combat in the Talish village region of Artsakh.
Of the Armenian soldiers who died during the fighting in April 2016 on the border separating Artsakh and Azerbaijan, 51.3% came from poor families and 32.4% from extremely poor families. (According to National Statistical Service criteria)
Hetq’s research shows that the average monthly income of each member of families of the Armenian soldiers killed is 29,810 AMD (US$61.60), or 54% of the minimum consumer basket in Armenia.
Naira told me their family’s story during my visit to the Aragatzotn village of Karmrashen. Rafik’s uncle lives here in a three room house with ten family members.
The family moved to Russia from Karmrashen five years ago. Naira worked at a printers in St. Petersburg. Her husband, Khlghat, worked in construction. Rafik, their son, lived there for 2-3 years, working in a shoe factory. Naira tells me that Rafik’s employer offered to get him freed from military service and to deduct the cost from his wages, but Rafik refused.
Naira and Khlghat
Rafik’s parents heard the news about their son’s death on April 4. They flew to Armenia. The plane fare was provided by Armenians living in St. Petersburg. Their other two children, Alisa (18) and Narek (16), stayed in Russia. The parents returned to Russia one month after Rafik’s burial.
Last May, when I visited the family, three of Rafik’s classmates were serving on the frontline in Artsakh.
Like residents of many Armenian villages, those of Karmrashen scrape by raising animals and growing potatoes and grains. They sell the cheese and potatoes. Deputy Mayor Samvel Torosyan says 50-60% of families have someone working in Russia. This number was greater before the devaluation of the Russian ruble.
In every third family that took part in Hetq's survey, no one was employed. As for those with jobs, the average wage was 108,000 AMD ($223); 58% of the nominal monthly wage in Armenia for April.
There’s at least one person in 40% of the families who travels to Russia for seasonal work.
Like many others, Arayik, father of 20-year-old Aram Abrahamyan, returned from Russia upon hearing news of his son’s death in battle
Norik Sargsyan was another soldier killed last April. I visited the Gegharkunik village of Yeranos, where his relatives live. Norik’s two older brothers, who work in Russia, financially take care of the family of ten.
When I visited, Norik’s father had left for Yerevan to find work. I asked Lena, Norik’s mother, what her son planned to do after being discharged from the army. “Here, they mostly all leave for Russia,” she answered.
“I have twenty families in Russia alone. They’re all relatives of one sort – cousins, nieces, nephews. They left a long time ago. They couldn’t meet their needs here,” says Kamo, father of Misha Aghajanyan, who died on April 4 of last year on the Artsakh border.
Before being conscripted, Misha worked a month in Russia. With the money he saved and other wages from field work, Misha purchased a tractor for his father. “He said, ‘I want to buy you a tractor so you can keep busy until I get back, so you days pass quickly.’ He returned too early,” says Kamo.
Misha was the family’s only child. Javahir, Misha’s mother, works as a cleaning attendant in the Vardablour village school. Kamo works as a security guard at a local forestry.
“We just get by,” says Kamo. “My son wanted to come home, fix the house, get a job, marry, and raise a family. We had high hopes for him,” Kamo says.
Seeing me off, Misha’s father turns to me and says, “Photograph the roads. Show everyone that this is the village of a hero.”
Gor Kirakosyan also died last April along the Artsakh frontline. His father and elder brother returned from Russia upon hearing the news. Gor’s relatives live in the Armavir village of Arevik, together with his uncle’s family.
Gor’s mother is a teacher. The rest of the family farm the land. The uncle says that last year he got 20 drams per kilogram of grapes. The family’s other source of income are the pensions received by grandma and grandpa.
Boris Ozmanyan’s family lives two villages away. They get by with what they grow on the small garden plot, coupled with the 39,000 monthly pension of the grandfather.
“I’d use my pension to buy a shirt and a pair of socks and send them every month. I’d send one extra, telling him to give it to needy friends,” says Boris’ Yezidi grandfather, Mraz Ozmanyan.
Mraz says that he urged Boris to serve in the army.
20% of the relatives of soldiers we talked to said that the young men had medical problems when conscripted.
Lilit, mother of Aramayis Mikayelyan, said her son had knee and ribcage deformities when conscripted. She was told her son wouldn’t be sent to the frontline.
“They wanted to make him a sergeant, but he had these medical issues. They also shouldn’t have sent him to a frontline post. That’s what makes me mad,” says Lilit, who lives in the Armavir village of Voskehat.
Before entering the army, Aramayis studied radio communications in Etchmiadzin. Lilit says her son never used that knowledge in the army, although it might have come in handy on the frontline.
Aramayis was the eldest child. His brother Arsen will soon be drafted into the army. Lilit says she will not allow it.
“Let them accuse me of this or that. I will not allow them to take Arsen. I will not lose him,” she proclaims.
The parents of 23-year-old Robert Abrahamyan, a contract soldier since March 2016, with his new baby.
One of every three conscript soldiers who died last April had been accepted to some type of institution of higher learning. A similar number had graduated high school.
Only one conscript soldier killed last April had a university degree. Regarding the matter, then Armenian defense minister Seyran Ohanyan said that mainly those from middle and upper class families could receive higher education, be accepted for post-degree programs, and receive a service waiver. They would then become sergeants. Ohanyan said this was an “objective factor” to explain why members of mostly needy families serve on the frontline, adding that this situation “really doesn’t correspond to reality”.
The father and grandmother of Aghasi Asatryan at their house. The last photo shows the foundations of a new house built by Aghasi.
Most of the soldiers killed in last April’s fighting were from Artsakh. They were mainly contract soldiers. Most of the conscripts killed hailed from Yerevan and the provinces of Kotayk, Aragatzotn and Shirak. Of note here is that Shirak and Kotayk are the poorest of Armenia’s provinces. The poverty rate in Shirak is 44.2% and 37.2% in Kotayk.
Hetq presented its findings to the defense minister last July, asking for clarification. The ministry’s chief of staff replied that the data, showing that a large number of soldiers killed came from the provinces with high poverty rates “didn’t correspond to reality”.
“In addition,” noted the official, “placement has been conducted on a lottery basis as of 2013. This rules out any possibility of corruption or outside intervention.”
 According to Armenia’s National Statistical Service (NSS), a person is classified as “poor” if their level of consumption, on an adult basis, is less than the upper overall poverty line (40,264 AMD or $83.22 per month). The “extremely poor” are those whose consumption is less than the foodstuff or extreme poverty line (23,384 or $48.33).
 In April and May of 2016, Hetq conducted interviews, both in person and by telephone, with families of soldiers (contract and conscript) killed during the month of April. The survey included families of 77 soldiers killed during combat. Three of them refused to participate.
Infographic by Marine Madatyan
Photos by Narek Aleksanyan and Hrant Galstyan
Contributing to the article: Knar Babayan, Diana Ghazaryan, Yeranuhi Soghoyan, Larisa Paremuzyan, Hermine Virabyan, Gayane Sargsyan, Tigran Hovakimyan, Azatuhi Khachatryan, Sara Petrosyan, Ani Hovhannisyan, Eva Constantaras