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In the Name of Her Son: The Story Behind Artsakh's Museum of Fallen

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  • In the Name of Her Son: The Story Behind Artsakh's Museum of Fallen

    In the Name of Her Son: The Story Behind Artsakh's Museum of Fallen Soldiers
    By Nanore Barsoumian // August 31, 2013

    The Armenian Weekly August 2013 Magazine

    Black and white photographs of men - and some women - hang on the walls of
    Stepanakert's Museum of Fallen Soldiers, reminding visitors of their
    absence. Tucked in a simple wooden frame, a picture of a man with a
    thin mustache and a Soviet-era cap stares back at Galya Arustamyan.
    `He was 17 when he joined the liberation movement,' says Galya of her
    son, Krikor, the young man in the picture. At 21, he was killed in
    battle. Ten years later, in 2002, Galya opened the doors to her
    museum, a tribute to those who lost their lives fighting for
    Karabagh's self-determination. What was paid for with the blood of her
    son is non-negotiable, and that is the message she wants to convey to
    the international community.

    Galya Arustamyan stands before pictures of fallen soldiers. (Photo by
    Nanore Barsoumian)

    The portraits of the 3,250 soldiers killed and the 132 missing lock
    eyes with visitors to the museum. The atmosphere there is somber. `The
    pictures of all are here,' confirmed Galya. She would know; after all,
    she compiled the list of the soldiers, contacted their relatives,
    gathered their pictures, and took them to Yerevan where she had them
    enlarged and framed.

    Personal items discovered on the soldiers - clothing, helmets, letters,
    books, weapons - are displayed in glass cases. A small shrine stands in
    a corner, and includes an accordion and helmets. The words, `Your
    Bravery Is Immortal,' are painted on one wall, above the soldiers'
    pictures and besides a painting of the Mother Mary, cradling the naked
    and limp body of her adult son.

    Galya established the museum together with the Karabagh's Fallen
    Soldiers' Relatives Union, which she also heads. The organization
    provides support to the families of deceased soldiers. But Galya
    wasn't always an activist. Born and raised in a village in Askeran in
    Karabagh, she moved to the capital of Stepanakert after completing
    middle school. Sometime in 1958, she began working in a textile
    factory, and kept the job until the factory burned down during the
    bombings in 1992.

    `They were shelling the city all day long. You couldn't find shelter
    anywhere. Buildings didn't have bomb shelters. We just put up sand
    barriers. The situation was really bad. We were sur- rounded,
    completely encircled. There were no roads that led to Yerevan,' she

    Soon, the war would claim what was most precious to her, and that led
    her to her current work. `I lost my son. He was born in 1971. I lost
    two nephews and my brother-in-law. Those were difficult years.
    Sometime later, I got involved in this museum. The work I did helped
    ease my pain a bit,' she said.

    Galya hoped her efforts would also help others with their pain.
    `Parents continue to visit this museum. Their pain is heavy. Even
    though they say that their child died as a hero on the battlefield,
    they can't help but think about how their kids weren't married; how
    they didn't have children; or if they did, how difficult it was to
    raise them...' In 2009, Galya published an 895- page book, titled RMK
    National Liberation Struggle, 1988-2009, which provides the profiles
    and pictures of the deceased or missing soldiers.

    Against all odds

    The museum serves both as a memorial to the fallen soldiers and as a
    tribute to their ingenuity. Homemade weapons, constructed with
    ordinary items such as forks and

    A small shrine stands in one corner of the museum, made of an
    accordion, helmets, and a few other items.

    screwdrivers, are a source of pride. Outnumbered, outgunned, and
    fighting from disadvantaged positions, the Armenian soldiers, Galya's
    son among them, accomplished what many considered impossible. `They
    were unarmed men facing tanks,' said Galya. `While the Azeris had
    Soviet weapons and ammunition - after all they were a Soviet republic,
    we were merely a province - they also had technical help from the
    outside and mercenaries. They managed to drive Armenians out of
    Kedashen and Mardounashen. But our eagle boys were able to regroup,
    and they engaged in a massive counter-attack.'

    Galya recalled the words of Chechen commander Shamil Basayev who
    fought on behalf of the Azeris. `He said that he was one of the last
    fighters to leave Shushi. He said that there was so much ammunition
    with them that for a whole year, 100 fighters could defend the city.
    They had the advantage of a high ground. Our men climbed, and they
    seized the town,' she said. `Now, we're also a republic.'

    `There wasn't even 150,000 of us in Karabagh - counting the infants and
    the elderly - and we had 7 million against us,' she continued. The right
    to determine their own fate and to live securely and without fear was
    the driving force behind the liberation movement. News of the pogroms
    in Sumgait, Baku, and elsewhere seemed like a distant echo from the
    Armenian Genocide.

    `We defended ourselves. Did they expect us to sit back and suffer the
    fate of the Armenians in Western Armenia? They massacred them all.
    Were we supposed to watch them massacre us all as well?' she asked.
    For Galya, Azeris are synonymous with Turks, and the Azeri pogroms
    were just another chapter in the bloody fate Armenians encountered
    under Turkish rule from well before and after the Genocide.

    This perspective isn't far from that of Azeri (or Turkish)
    authorities. It was Heydar Aliyev, the former president of Azerbaijan
    and father to current president Ilham Aliyev, who uttered the now
    famous words, `One nation, two states,' in describing the close
    relationship and ethnic loyalty shared between Turkey and Azerbaijan.
    The feeling seemed mutual. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
    has evoked those words before his `brother Aliyev' (while not
    forgetting to pay homage to the words of Kemal Ataturk): `Azerbaijan's
    joy is ours, Azerbaijan's grief is ours too.' And it was based on
    these principles that Turkey imposed a blockade on Armenia in 1993,
    and continues to do so until today.

    Oil has bought Azerbaijan tremendous support in the inter- national
    arena, said Galya. `We don't have oil, and so they think of us as a
    weak state, while they consider Azerbaijan economically more
    developed. But we have good spirits, and good ideals. This was the war
    fought by our boys whose pictures hang on these walls. They're all in
    civilian clothes. They were common people. We were a peaceful people.
    They forced us to fight,' she said.

    Galya has one message for the international community: `Let them come
    to this museum and see what price we have paid in this war. Let them
    see how much we've bled. How could we live under Turkish rule again?'
    she said. `I always say, let the [Organization for Security and
    Co-operation in Europe] Minsk Group representatives visit this museum.
    Let them come and see what we have lost; how we have liberated
    Karabagh; how many men have sacrificed their lives, have been wounded,
    or have survived through miracles.'

    Unity in time of crisis

    Galya has another important message, this one to Armenians the world
    over: Strength, exhibited in the liberation of Shushi, was rooted in
    unity. If Armenians lose their unity, they will lose their strength.
    `After all we've been through we have to keep our unity. We have to
    stick together.'

    Black and white photographs of men - and some women - hang on the walls of
    the Museum of Fallen Soldiers.

    Victory wouldn't have been possible if it weren't for help sent by the
    diaspora, she said, adding that she is grateful to the Armenian
    Revolutionary Federation (ARF), a party revered by many in Karabagh.
    `They helped us in every way, and we were able to survive. They didn't
    leave us to face our fate alone. The Turks, until today, say that we
    are pompous because of the Armenian Diaspora. We are not pompous, but
    we are proud that Diasporan Armenians stand by our side. We love them
    dearly. They have seen genocide, they are dispersed all over the
    world, but they unite when circumstances call for it,' she said.

    Galya recalled one summer day in 1992, when her son came home with two
    men she had never met before. All three had black ribbons tied around
    their arms. `My son came to me and said, `Mom, fix us some food. We're
    starved!' I began preparing food in the kitchen. They were chatting,
    and then they were singing. I left what I was doing and came into the
    room where they were sitting, and gazed at the three of them. My son
    turned to me and said `Mom, come with us to the battlefield. You
    fight, while they sing.' Later I found out that they were Dashnak
    boys. At that time, they had all come here. They were helping us,' she

    The mere knowledge that Karabagh was in the hearts and minds of
    Armenians across the globe gave the people of Karabagh strength, said
    Galia. `From every corner of the world, Armenians came to our aid.
    Even until today, they [collect aid] and bring it here, so that
    Karabagh gets back on its feet - and it is. The war was in 1992. Now I
    get out on the streets and I can't believe that this is our city,
    because it was destroyed, buildings were in ruins - the pictures are
    hanging right over there. That was our situation then. There were days
    that 70 or more people were killed. But we persevered because we were
    not alone. If we had been left alone, the Turks would have destroyed
    us long ago,' she said, and pointed to the portrait of Monte
    Melkonian, the Armenian- American commander who died in Karabagh. `We
    have the entire Armenian nation on our side.'

    For Galya, that unity is critical, especially when the threat of
    renewed bloodshed is very real. `You see, [the Azeri author- ities]
    haven't let up. They haven't accepted defeat. Day after day, their
    warmongering rhetoric continues. They constantly fire on our soldiers
    and our villages, and don't allow our boys on the border to get any
    rest,' she said.

    `They are our soldiers...'

    Once a month, Galya goes to the border to meet with the soldiers, and
    to offer them encouragement. She is, after all, the president of the
    coordinating body of the non-governmental organizations that cooperate
    with the army. She visits each battalion and, as a mother figure,
    never goes empty-handed. `We bring them sweets. We spend time with
    them, talk to them. They are our soldiers; we have to encourage them,
    and look after them. We are faced with our old enemies who don't want
    us to exist,' she said.

    Although there has been a ceasefire for two decades, Galya is wary of
    the language used by Azeri authorities. `They have become more
    insolent now and better armed, with expensive technology and aerial
    powers,' she said. `On May 12, 1994, it was the Azeris who asked for a
    ceasefire when they saw that they were going to lose more land. We
    shouldn't have agreed to it... Now they have started mouthing off again.
    They want our lands again. But how could we give them any land? Every
    inch of this land is mixed with blood. How many boys have we lost? How
    many innocent civilians have we lost?'

    It's not uncommon for visitors to the museum to ask Galya what she
    thinks of Aliyev's recent rhetoric regarding Karabagh. `Go ask folks
    on the street!' she always says. `Ask those mothers who have lost sons
    in the war! If Aliyev wants another war in Karabagh, let him send his
    own son to the front lines. See if he'll want his war then. They are
    keeping their own children safe, while sending the kids of common folk
    to fight.'

    This article appeared in the Armenian Weekly magazine issue (Aug.
    2013) dedicated to the 25th anniversary of the Artsakh liberation

    From: Baghdasarian