They woke up to the sound of bombing. Just over a week later, Maryam fled from Nagorny-Karabakh with her daughter. Now, she’s supporting other displaced women and children in the aftermath of the war.
The picture in the video call freezes and Maryam* logs in and out a couple of times, before we find a steady connection. All of the pandemic home offices are putting a strain on her network. Maryam is calling from Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, late in the evening. Her workdays as head of a local women’s rights organisation are busy. Not least in the aftermath of the most recent war in and around Nagorny-Karabakh.
It was on September 27th last year, that a new war between Armenia and Azerbaijan broke out. Maryam recalls the day vividly. The organisation had had a busy period in September, trying to make up for lost work during the pandemic. They had planned to increase their support for women’s economic independence; sorely needed in light of covid-19.
“We had arranged to pick up new equipment on Monday. I remember I was very happy and satisfied, heading home that Saturday,” says Maryam.
But Maryam never went back to work that coming Monday. Instead, she and her husband, woke up on Sunday morning in their hometown to loud noises which Maryam describes as “coming from everywhere”.
“We understood that it couldn’t be thunder. This was bombing,” says Maryam.
She doesn’t remember exactly where they received the news of the war, but that they were constantly searching for information online and listening for the sound of drones, to try and estimate how close they were.
“We didn’t sleep that first night. We didn’t know what was going to happen in the morning.”
The next day, Maryam’s oldest son, was called to a military unit. Everyone was being mobilized. For several days, Maryam couldn’t move or eat. She sat almost paralyzed on the sofa, checking for updates online. All the while, the ear deafening noise outside continued.
“I remember thinking that I never realised how much weaponry there actually is, there was so much of it being used,” she recalls.
After a few days, displaced people started arriving to the town. Humanitarian and emergency assistance came from Yerevan. Maryam recalls a girl who needed help reaching a nearby city. But no public transportation or taxis were available. People were too afraid to be struck by drones. Finally, they found some journalists whose car they borrowed. For several days, Maryam helped transporting more people to emergency assistance.
Soon, Maryam and her daughter moved to a shelter, while the men in the family, her husband and their younger son, remained in their house.
“People started leaving the area, because they were afraid. In early October, a car came to our shelter, asking if my daughter and I shouldn’t leave. I didn’t know what to do. I felt torn between my children. I couldn’t bear to leave my sons,” says Maryam.
Maryam consulted with her husband, who said that he didn’t want them to stay. He told her not to worry—as soon as everything had settled down, they would come back. Maryam talked with her youngest son, making him promise to stay at home, unless he was officially called to join the military troops.
“We stood there, crying. We went to the car, crying. All the way to Armenia, we kept saying ‘we don’t want to go’, but we were going. The whole night, we were on the road. The next day, we reached Yerevan.”
Once in Yerevan, Maryam kept waiting for her oldest son’s calls from the military post.
“I wanted to hear his voice. But I was afraid of speaking for too long, that his signal would be trackable, exposing his whereabouts. So, I told him: ‘just say that you’re OK’,” says Maryam.
She worried sick about and tried to imagine what would happen if he died, was injured or taken prisoner. She had heard it was better to die than to become a prisoner of war.
Then came the news that the fighting had reached their hometown. Maryam tried to get information from her husband and son about their wellbeing and the state of their house. From the bits and pieces she saw on TV, it was hard to tell which parts of the city were damaged.
“I kept asking about the windows, if they were broken, because I knew that there had been a lot of shelling, but they just answered very vaguely that ‘it’s OK’ and that I shouldn’t worry. It was only afterwards they told me that a missile had hit our house too,” says Maryam, tears streaming down her cheeks.
Maryam and her family are amongst the thousands who have been displaced in a war where many are still missing. Maryam and her daughter are still in Yerevan and were joined there by her sons when the war ended. Maryam’s husband has stayed behind.
All the while, Maryam has continued to support displaced women and children, offering psychological support, providing information on which institutions and organisations to turn to for humanitarian aid and assistance. Maryam explains that people are staying in over-crowded hotel rooms, sleeping in schools and that living conditions with few toilets can be rough.
“We, ourselves, don’t know how to go back. Because there’s no place to live,” she says.
Describing what the situation has been like for women is difficult. Maryam explains that asking people how they are, has lost its meaning.
“First there was a war, a cruel, political war, where you had no political influence or value. And now, apart from being without housing, women are continuing to work with wounded people and are very much psychologically affected by this,” says Maryam.
She explains that many women are carrying war traumas of the past, as children, and are now suffering from losses in this new war too. That history repeats itself.
“I just know that I can’t handle another war. I don’t want to, and I know that I can’t.”
*To protect Maryam and her family members, we have replaced her name & removed the names of different locations.
Kvinna till Kvinna has worked for women’s rights in the South Caucasus since 2004 with an office in Georgia. We support and work with several local women’s rights organisations.