Published in Pilgrimage Magazine
Hovsep opened the wooden door slowly, careful not to make a sound. The room was dark, with only a little moonlight filtering through the thin white curtains, but enough for him to see the two little beds placed against opposite walls of the bedroom. He walked over to Hrant’s bed on the left and sat down. He pushed back his son’s brown curls gently, looking down at his pale face, smiling in his sleep.
Hovsep heard a noise like a firework overhead and flinched. He looked at Hrant, and then at Norayr across the room. Norayr moved a little in his sleep, but Hovsep thanked God that neither of them woke up. At least tonight they wouldn't have to hear the shooting. On other nights, when it started earlier, or they went to bed later, he wished that he could just cover their ears and make it go away, but instead he taught them to stay strong. They were stoic, and never complained, but he knew they were afraid. They were only children; how could they not be?
He’d been afraid when he first heard shooting at night too. Before that, his little Armenian village was the best place on earth. He could run through the neat leafy rows of bean and tomato plants whenever he wanted to, or cross the border to challenge the Azeri boys to a football match. He could walk with his friends over to the airport and watch the planes take off. He could catch his father on his way home from work at the brandy factory and regale him with tales of close soccer victories, or a new animal he’d found in his best friend’s garden.
Hovsep was twelve when he heard the first shots. They shattered his peaceful, quiet village and for twenty-five years he’d been trying to put it back together. But it was like the windows that shattered and lay in a million pieces on the floor: you could never put it back to the way it was before. He remembered the first time a window shattered in his house, and his mother just stood there, looking at the glass shards on the kitchen floor. After that he used to bury his head under the covers at night, not wanting to see the moment when he was sure the bullets would come through his bedroom window and shatter him too. It was a real war back then, and the planes got as far as Berd city. But Aygepar was on the very border, so close you could throw a soccer ball across it, so for them there was no rest.
He remembered asking his father the question that went around and around in his mind: why? He knew that the Soviet Union was collapsing—that was why the factories and the airport were empty and his father was at home. He knew that glasnost and perestroika and all that hope had ended in empty factories, a new president, and all the electricity turning off, but he didn’t understand how that could make people who had worked next to his father on the factory line and come to share coffee in his home suddenly want nothing more than to kill him.
“Do you know about the Karabakh movement?” His father asked.
Hovsep nodded. He’d read in the newspapers that people in Karabakh were protesting. He’d overheard his math teacher telling the woman at the bakery that his cousins were coming to stay with them after seeing their parents burned alive by an angry mob in Baku. He’d heard of the war when his parents discussed it, and then seen it roll into his life like a metal thunderstorm.
“You know, Karabakh was always Armenian land,” his father began. “Armenian people and their parents and grandparents thousands of years back lived on that land, just like we’ve always lived here. But back in 1920, when Stalin was still hoping the Turks would embrace Communism, he gave it to Azerbaijan, their new ally that he’d just created. But now, with all the reforms, the Armenians wanted to rejoin Armenia. So they did what good Soviet citizens do: they made a petition, collected signatures, organized peaceful demonstrations. But Azerbaijan answered by killing every Armenian in Baku. They threw old people from balconies, they took the women, they drowned people at the beach, and they made a list of names and addresses and sent the mobs out to find them. It was like the Genocide all over again. But when the Azeris went to the villages with their weapons, the Armenians fought back. They made guns out of metal shovels and formed militia groups and now there is a war.”
Hovsep nodded and was silent for a moment, looking at the wooden dining room table between them. “But dad...the war is in Karabakh. We’re in Armenia—why are they shooting at us?”
His father sighed. “It’s their leaders,” he said. “They want power, and they want all that oil money so they drum up hatred between us. And now we’re shooting at each other, and for what? I never wanted to kill anybody I worked on a factory line with, but if this keeps going, I’m going to have to volunteer.”
A few years later, there were military parades celebrating the victory that made Karabakh, or Artsakh, as it was traditionally called in Armenian, an independent country. A government was set up in the capital city, and people started to rebuild their churches, houses, everything. The ceasefire promised peace. Hovsep’s father came home in a military uniform and his mother cried and thanked God that her family was safe. But the shooting didn’t stop in Aygepar. Everyone talked about Artsakh, but nobody even seemed to remember Aygepar. And the shooting continued, so long that it became a permanent fixture of life, like the wind and thunderstorms, and seemed to fade out of other people’s memories.
Twenty-five years later, Hovsep knew how his father must have felt. It was horrible to know that something was trying to kill your children that you couldn’t protect them from. He hated having to explain to his sons that the cracking in the sky was men he had once kicked a soccer ball with trying to kill them.
As mayor of the village, he had to explain it to a lot of other people too. He had to explain to an NGO that they needed a blast wall around the kindergarten because the Azeri soldiers had chosen five-year-olds as their newest target. He had to explain it to the Red Cross volunteers, who left because they were afraid of the shooting. He had to explain it to investors, who then excused themselves politely and went back to the capital in Yerevan. He had to explain it to representatives from the OSCE, who came, saw the bullet holes in people’s houses, looked at the picture of the girl who had been shot in her living room, met the children who didn't go to school every Thursday to avoid getting shot in the road, and left. He read the report a few days later, saying the OSCE had found no evidence of the Azeris shooting across the border.
Sometimes, he looked at the crumbling shells of factories and read the reports, and felt that they were utterly forgotten. He knew the people felt it too. Men would come to him with their eyes to the ground and their voices too quiet, pleading for something to feed their families. He would take money out of his paycheck and do what he could, but there was never enough. It hurt him most to have to turn people away, see the anguish when they looked at him, and feel utterly helpless.
“I’m sorry,” he had said so many times, looking earnestly at the man across his desk. “I’ll see what I can do.”
But sometimes people remembered. An NGO restored the kindergarten, and put more walls up in the streets so that the children could walk to school safely. A woman with three children moved into the village so her husband could work as a soldier on the border. A woman from Berd came with food and clothes and medicine, and finally he could look at a man across his desk smiling and thanking him. Four brothers came back from Russia to build a church that they had seen in their dreams.
He was the mayor of a village that was under fire, but a village that was still standing. The factories were empty, but the people were doing everything they could to stay. And that in itself was a cause for hope. That was enough to keep him working, to keep him reaching out to organizations, posting videos of the shooting, telling everyone he could so that maybe one day he could shake hands with the mayor across the border, just as they had after a soccer match twenty-five years ago.