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The gravedigger who fears digging his own son’s grave in Nagorno-Karabakh

TThe family of a dead soldier drag a coffin in the back of an electrician’s van. They hurriedly carry him to the cemetery, passing 28 other graves decorated with plastic flowers. Gravedigger Martin Ghulyan walks beside them in silence, carrying two shovels in one hand. He puts down the shovels and removes the lid of the coffin.

For about five minutes, the family take their last look at a young man in his twenties. He is handsome, with a symmetrical face, a beard and golden skin. But he is also a dead man, and because of the war, the living must quickly say goodbye. Everything is rushed, with little time for the ceremony. It is crucial to finish the funeral at the military cemetery quickly, as staying too long could attract an Azerbaijani airstrike, Ghulyan said.

The funeral takes place in Stepanakert, the main town in the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The separatist Republic of Artsakh controls most of the region, which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.

In the early 1990s, a war between Armenians and Azerbaijanis erupted, killing 30,000 people. Ultimately, ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh claimed independence to establish the Republic of Artsakh, which led to several clashes between Armenians on one side and Azerbaijani on the other, turning the borders into front lines. The latest explosion in the fighting was a four-day war in 2016, but in September a regular war began with Turkey providing Azerbaijan with drones, giving them the upper hand.

As Ghulyan walks towards the grave, his phone continues to ring as the family lower the young man’s coffin into the grave and say goodbye to each other. This burial is only one of many today, and Ghulyan is repeatedly requested in other cemeteries. Since war broke out on September 27 between the Armenian-backed Republic of Artsakh and Azerbaijan, Ghulyan, 52, has dug around two to seven graves a day. At the military cemetery, Ghulyan dug four shallow graves which have yet to find new inhabitants. They are dug out as a precaution if frontline killings exceed its ability to dig new ones.

“It’s hard to see all these young people die,” Ghulyan told the Daily Beast, “Of course I think of my son on the front lines at this funeral like everyone else would. Everyone has someone in the war. A son or a husband. We want peace, our children to be happy and the war to end.

After the funeral, Ghulyan returns to his car, passing the graves of the devastating first war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Many gravestones have photos of the dead, and many of these fallen soldiers died in their early twenties. Many of Ghulyan’s friends from the First War are buried here. Today he buries his friend’s sons next to them and prays that he does not have to bury his own.

Ready to go to war

Ghulyan was a section chief during the war almost 30 years ago for a group of 20 soldiers. Armed with an AK-47, he fought for years in the Caucasus Mountains for the independence of the Republic of Artsakh. He accuses Azerbaijan of having started the new war and claims that they are targeting civilians in Artsakh.

The Azerbaijani President has declared that Nagorno-Karabakh must return to Azerbaijani control and claims that Artsakh has started the war. While Artsakh says Azerbaijan targets civilians, Armenia and Artsakh have been accused of targeting civilians in Azerbaijani towns such as Ganja, where 12 civilians died in an attack. According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is trying to negotiate a peace agreement, 5,000 people have already lost their lives in the current war. Russia is an important player in the war because it has a defense pact with Armenia and sells arms to Armenia and Azerbaijan.

According to Ghulyan, this is not a new war. He said the old war was simply suspended.

“We don’t trust the Azerbaijanis. We never believed in this peace, ”says Ghulyan,“ We ​​have always been ready for this and we are ready. I don’t know if there can ever be peace.

Azerbaijan has access to superior military equipment such as Turkish-made attack drones, which weigh heavily on Artsakh’s defenses. It’s a problem, Ghulyan says, but he’s sure of victory. However, the front line shows that Artsakh is under great pressure and losing territory in the southern part of the region, and supply routes are threatened.

Of course, I think of my son on the front lines at this funeral as everyone else would. Everyone has someone in the war. A son or a husband. We want peace, our children to be happy and the war is over

A young soldier, who just lost his brother, told the Daily Beast at the military cemetery that the battles are fierce with the Armenians outnumbered. When asked if he would be willing to come back for a longer interview later, he says he’s not sure how long he’ll be alive. Sometimes “a soldier fights against three tanks,” the soldier says. Ghulyan, however, is confident in victory as the war is not only about military hardware, he says, but also the willingness to sacrifice himself.

“If they come here, I will take my gun and go to war,” Ghulyan said with a smile. “In the first war we fought to the last man and we were ready to shed our last blood. It is no different. “

According to Ghulyan, the spirit of the Armenian people is too strong for Azerbaijanis. It tells of how he and his friends struggled with everything they had in the 1990s and how their people were used to living during the war. He and his wife were married in 1992 during the war and their first daughter was born in 1994 during the bombings. If it weren’t for Turkey’s support, Azerbaijan “wouldn’t stand a chance” in the current war, says Ghulyan.

“The right to defend our life”

However, the impact of the war is visible in Stepanakert, the capital of the Republic of Artsakh, and it paints a different picture. Weeks of drone, missile and plane attacks have injured the city. Several buildings are in ruins and most of the civilian population has fled. Only a few civilians remain hidden in basements and bunkers because they refuse to leave.

Some say they fear genocide if they give up. During and immediately after World War I, around 1.5 million Armenians were wiped out by the Ottoman Empire in territory that now belongs to modern Turkey. Turkey supports Azerbaijan, and this creates fear among the inhabitants of Artsakh.

“We are 150,000 people. Of course, we did not start the war against seven million people in Azerbaijan, ”Albert Tonyan, 77, told the Daily Beast as he hid in a bunker. “Azerbaijan started the war, but Turkey coordinated it.”

Archbishop Pargev Martirosyan is known in Artsakh as a war hero for his support in the 1990s. He wishes peace for both “the Armenian and Azerbaijani people” but says Artsakh has the right to defend itself and that it is impossible to share the earth at all.

“You know, as Christians we hate wars, but Jesus Christ said if you don’t have a sword you can sell your cloak and buy one,” Archbishop tells The Daily Beast , “It means that we have the right to defend our life, our freedom, our relationships and our family. “

“The war is different this time because of the new weapons,” he said, “War is bad for the world because it results in disabled people, orphans and the dead, but we have to defend ourselves. We cannot live together because they want the land for themselves.

Such a thing as a free lunch

All around Stepanakert, people seem certain that Armenia and Artsakh will win the war. The same goes for Hovig Samra, who is an Armenian of Syrian origin and who moved to Stepanakert in 2011 to grow fruit. He has a restaurant in Stepanakert, where he offers everyone a free lunch. It is the only restaurant open in Stepanakert, and he refuses payment.

“I feel bad for the young people who are dying on both sides,” Samra says, “I believe we’re going to win. Whether it is a long war depends on the world. The world can continue to ignore us, like they are doing now, or they can do something and stop the war.

He evokes the toxic situation unfolding, where the war could quickly evolve into a regional conflagration. While Turkey supports Azerbaijan, Russia has a defense pact with Armenia, and Iran on the southern border is also increasingly concerned about events in the north. In Washington, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia to agree to a peace treaty, which broke only hours later.

Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), among others, called for an immediate ceasefire and the potential recognition of the Republic of Artsakh.

“As Azerbaijan continues its attempts to resolve this conflict through the illegal use of military force, the international community will have no choice but to act to recognize the independence of the Republic of Artsakh,” said Markey.

In the first war, we fought to the last man, and we were ready to shed our last blood. It is no different.

Samra says that while the world is still discussing what to do, everyone in the Republic of Artsakh will have to do what they can to help. Every day his restaurant offers free food and is filled with all kinds of people from Stepanakert, looking for a free home cooked meal or a sense of normalcy in a place razed by war and often stricken by the bombardments.

“Not everyone has a weapon to fight. The soldier fights with his weapons, the writer with his writing, and the singer with his songs. I try to give a good image of my nation. It’s simple, ”he said,“ But if Azerbaijan comes here, of course I will fight for our nation, and my wife will fight too. “

‘We made a mistake’

Everyone who speaks to the Daily Beast in Artsakh is sure that the war will end at some point, but if they claim to not hate the Azerbaijani people, they are also not ready to make concessions. Ghulyan, showing The Daily Beast at the cemetery, fears that he will soon have to dig his son’s grave, but he says the new war could only have been avoided by taking more land in the 1990s.

“In 1994, Azerbaijan was losing and begging for peace,” says Ghulyan, who says Armenian soldiers set fire to the homes of the Azerbaijani people in the 1990s to prevent the Azerbaijani population from ever returning. “We made peace, but we should have made more progress, and it is our mistake not to have done so. If we had taken more land, we would be in a better position now.

Now, he said, the people of Artsakh are forced to fight again. He remembers vividly in 1991 when he was transported by helicopter to Stepanakert for the fighting, the intense fighting and the terrible smell of the dead from the first war. For him, death never becomes normal, but that doesn’t mean he’s afraid.

“I’m not afraid and let me tell you why. It’s war, isn’t it? he asks, “If someone kicks you right now, you’re going to fight and not just lie down.” We don’t let them into our home. We will stand firm – our instincts will kick in and we will fight.

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