By Gayane Lazarian

31.10.12 | 13:09

The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic greets its visitors with a big sign
reading: "Free Artsakh Welcomes You". This brief sentence is the
quintessence of the two-decade-long fight for independence of this
tiny country - an easternmost 11,458-sq.-km part of the Armenian land
defended by an ethnic Armenian army.

Last week was my first time visiting military outposts along
the frontline in Karabakh as part of a trip by a larger group of
journalists invited by the military authorities. During that journey
I was having some mixed feelings about the whole thing as my son, now
16, will reach the call-up age in two years' time. On the one hand I
indulged in the feeling of rising patriotism inside me, on the other
hand I kept asking myself: "Would I mind Hakob's serving in Artsakh,
going up to combat outposts near frontline positions dug only a few
hundred meters from enemy trenches and under a close watch of enemy
troops keeping their fingers on the trigger?" Am I that brave and
patriotic parent to let my son to be taken to serve in a place where
risks are not only potential, but very, very real?

The NKR Minister of Defense and Commander of the Defense Army Movses
Hakobyan told us, the visiting reporters, that last year nine Karabakh
servicemen were killed by Azeri snipers. This year that number has
decreased, but instead the number of suicides is on the rise. The
authorities do not yet provide figures for that. But even without this
terse statistic it is clear that a single soldier's death is too many
to us. I felt confused for a moment, with a journalist talking inside
me: why should a healthy teenager commit suicide and why should the
number of such suicides be on the rise? Maybe deaths are disguised
as suicides?

Then I looked at things as a parent would view it, convincing myself
that the causes of death were sniper shots or hazing in the ranks. As
a journalist I often had to report on crimes in the army. I remember
writing five years ago about a soldier, Tigran Ohanjanyan, who was
killed in a unit in Armenia's Gegharkunik province. His mother,
Gohar Ohanjanyan, told me: "Don't you let your son go to the army,
do something to get him released of this duty, get him out of the
country." According to the criminal case files, Tigran left his
military unit, was killed by accident after he touched an electric
wire on an antenna and got electrocuted. Little evidence has been
brought so far to substantiate this official version of the events.

In July 2010, Tsovinar Nazaryan, the sister of lieutenant Artak
Nazaryan, who was found dead in one of the combat positions of
Armenia's Tavush province, said: "My mother and I can't bring Artak
back, but at least we can prevent other similar deaths." The official
version of the military investigators is that Artak committed suicide.

Cases are many and my heart is squeezed by these mixed feelings -
the lofty ideas about my homeland, independence, and the fear for my
son's life and future.

My company on the trip included older journalists. The son of one of
them, Gohar, was serving in one of the military units that we visited.

The mother and her son had warm and long hugs and embraces upon their
first meeting and seeing that I was swallowing hard as I got tearful
and overwhelmed with emotions. Gohar's son said he was satisfied with
how his service proceeds in the military unit. The son of another
reporter, Anush, served in Mataghis. We did not get that far, so
Anush was trying to spend more time with other soldiers, which made
her missing her son more bearable. And I got the feeling that all of
them were our children, all were from one big family. What murder,
what suicide? Why wouldn't an officer treat his soldiers like his sons?

There, at the frontline positions, it was our soldiers, our brave
guys who guarded our whole land and secured our peaceful life.

Suddenly I remembered the words of Armenian Defense Ministry spokesman
Artsrun Hovhannisyan: "Every time you visit the frontlines and then
go back to Yerevan, you feel you've become a little bit more Armenian."

Gohar, who had gone strong for two days, eventually was overwhelmed,
seeing her son in every soldier she met and living entirely by their
cares. I was no less emotional and have to confess that the trip has
changed a lot inside me. As a parent I started to get rid of the
stereotypes about the army, but as a reporter I was still on the
outlook for some wrongdoing or abuse. I don't want to think that
our visit was the reason why everything in the unit and otherwise
was shipshape...

The young soldiers in the unit sang patriotic songs during their
evening walk and those seemed the songs that fed the Artsakh mountains
overlooking them. My patriotic feelings were rising again as I heard
them sing, and I remembered my neighbor Mkhitar, who was killed in
the war in the early 1990s. He was only 20, a year older than me...

How can I not send my son to the army now?... The idea of your
homeland is the most elevated thing that a person could have, and
I don't want this idea to break down in my son as it is from there
that betrayal starts... Hakob now is proud of the Armenian victories
and I don't want him to get disillusioned. And when he goes to the
assembly point to be sent to an army unit I want my son to see sons
of rich businessmen and senior officials next to him ready to take
up rifles and do a two-year duty.

Shahen Navasardyan, an officer at a military unit in Martuni,
introduces a serviceman: "Defense Minister Seyran Ohanyan's son." I
am trying to think of other examples, but I can't think of any. This
is a country of all of us and all should serve in the army, even the
sons of the highest ranked officials.

"Like in a family a parent is raising a child in the hope that one
day he can rely on him, so is this trench duty that is one of the
first things that a son can do for his parents," said Navasardyan.

Armenia begins in the Karabakh trenches and my son could, too, be
one of those guarding his country there.