I cover women social entrepreneurs, peace builders and change agents.
Journalist Lika Zakaryan considers herself “a child of war” born in 1994 in the capital city of Stepanakert, in the war-torn, predominantly Armenian populated, autonomous region of Artsakh within Azerbaijan, neighboring Armenia. Last September 27, the Turkish-backed Azerbaijan army unleashed a major bombardment on Artsakh violating the global ceasefire due to the pandemic. As heavy bombardment using banned weapons continued, the world stood silent, while in early October NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called for a ceasefire.
“These brutalities, underscored by Erdogan’s promise to ‘fulfill the mission of our grandfathers in the Caucasus’, and his reference to Armenians as “leftovers of the sword,” demonstrate that we are on the verge of another Armenian Genocide,” wrote David L. Phillips last October. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peacebuilding and Rights (PBHR) at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR) that is documenting “Human Rights and Foreign Terrorist Activities in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh)” and has served as a Senior Advisor and Foreign Affairs Expert to the State Department during the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations.
Like thousands of residents who couldn’t be evacuated, Zakaryan took refuge in a makeshift bunker, living through the horrors of a 44-day war, watching her birthplace transform into rubble. Her father, who had lost one eye in the 1994 war, and brother, were at the frontline. She saw her mother, a nurse at a local hospital, a few times during the war and rarely communicated with her younger sister who was evacuated to neighboring Armenia. Having just joined the news team at CivilNet, Zakaryan’s regularly published war journals earned her the title of the ‘Armenian Anne Frank’.
An Alumnus of Peace Work Institute, a volunteer in YMCA-Artsakh NGO where she trained in conflict resolution, peace work and critical thinking, Zakaryan is a graduate of Artsakh State University with a major in conflict resolution/transformation and peace. I held a virtual interview with Zakaryan following the trilateral peace agreement which Russia facilitated between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Jackie Abramian: Tell us about your childhood in Artsakh–you lived with your grandmother while your parents and brother, Albert, moved to Russia to earn an income.
Lika Zakaryan: I felt the effects of war all the time. I understood my parents are gone, not from a good life. I was always feeling lonely. Those were difficult times for simple people of Artsakh: no jobs, no money, no opportunities. My grandparents worked hard to make me feel fine–to have bread to eat. Everything was limited–food, clothes, etc. but there was a lot of love. I think that made me appreciate everything in this life.
Abramian: Did you anticipate a major war in your lifetime?
Zakaryan: No. I knew it was possible, but I didn’t even want to think about it. Especially after the four-day war in April 2016, I thought 21st century wars stopped on the 4th day.
My university studies helped me distinguish fake news–what to believe, what to do in which situation. I was also teaching myself Turkish, so that helped me understand a lot in Azeri websites and so on. Critical thinking helped me to have my eyes open and realize that we are losing the war.
Abramian: Does the cloud of the ongoing conflict with Azerbaijan play a role in your psyche–and for all the Artsakh youth?
Zakaryan: This war changed my life in all possible senses. Like anyone else, my family started to live, create, renovate the house. Our life level and conditions became better, only due to our hard work, of course. But the war made everything worthless. We are not sure that our home will belong to us. I wanted to give my mother a microwave as a Christmas gift–but now I can’t buy it, because we see it as paying for a dead horse. Because one bomb can destroy everything, and the bombings are not gone for us yet. Also, I started to feel fear all the time. I’m even afraid to go to the toilet at night because it seems to me that the enemy is under my balcony.
Abramian: Where were you and your family members when the first bombs fell on September 27?
Zakaryan: I was home–sleeping with my family. We woke up from the sound of bombings. We were very scared. The whole day, I didn’t believe that it was a war. The first week we thought it would stop soon, but it didn’t.
Abramian: How did you start reporting for CivilNet–what were your intentions of keeping a war journal, published by CivilNet?
Zakaryan: I started to work at CivilNet in August 2020. Since December 2019, I had attended journalism classes and loved it a lot. I always thought about journalism, but never tried it. And here I was given a chance to try it, and I decided to do it. I felt I will find myself in journalism. I had worked only for two months as a journalist when the war started. I could say that the war was my teacher.
Keeping a journal wasn’t a planned action. On October 11, my cameraman, who is also my boyfriend, was called to the frontline. Before that I didn’t have a lot of time to be alone with my thoughts, but when he left, I felt very lonely and needed to write and share–it helped me a lot. People started calling it “a war diary” I didn’t name it. I felt my journal was helping people–they liked reading the chronicles. I felt useful and continued writing. And I continue it even now, sometimes.
Abramian: How many days did you take shelter in a bunker? And what was life like in a bunker–where did you sleep, shower, how did you find food?
Zakaryan: I can’t say for sure. Probably over 35 days I was in a bunker which was a storage space of a school. There were 3 or 4 people with me. My cameraman, his parents, and CiviliNet staff when some of them were here in Artsakh.
Showering was a problem, actually. I can’t even tell you what it exactly looked like. (she laughs). Going out depended on the bombings. If they were quiet for some hours, I would go out, take pictures, or go home to see my family. My father and I would go to the municipality to get some food since shops were closed. We did it even under the bombs. We took food to other people who don’t have a car.
Abramian: Were there days that you didn’t think you would survive the war?
Zakaryan: Every day.
Abramian: How often did you write in your diary?
Zakaryan: Every day after the 11th day, except for one day, I guess.
Abramian: How does it feel to be known as the Armenian ‘Anne Frank’ which someone called you. In your diary on Day 15 you wrote:
It already looks like Groundhog Day. I woke up at midnight because I couldn’t sleep all night from yesterday’s heavy bombings. We can already distinguish the sounds–when it’s a Smertch, when it’s a drone, when it’s cluster bombs, and when ours hit the drone. It is very sad that we can all distinguish this. But what can we do? This is our reality today.
I keep track of days only when I am going to write the day’s post. We rarely look at the clock. It seems that for half a century I have not gone to the office, have not cooked vegetarian pizza, have not eaten Nutella on a crepe and have not seen children in the city. Today a friend suggested saving all this as an archive, like Anne Frank’s diary. We decided to do so and call it a diary. It helps to dispel the fear, thanks to a friend for the idea. In a few years, we’ll watch and read, tell the children and grandchildren.
Zakaryan: I hoped the world would care about it as they care about Anne Frank. But I think they don’t. I hoped to bring attention to the Karabakh conflict from the Armenian side.
Abramian: On Day 25 your diary speaks of the endearment for your family–missing your brother Albert fighting at the frontline…you recall your childhood, how you saved your lunch money to get him a toy limousine while he lived in Russia.
If he was reading this now, I would like to tell him one thing – If the war made you sad, come back soon, I will give you a million limousines, I will heal all the wounds in your soul. You just come back as soon as possible.
Zakaryan: Albert is fine, thank God–he’s alive. He is in Stepanakert, working in a window-making company. I was missing him a lot–we are very close to each other.
Abramian: Your diary on Day 30 chronicles the hours and the human losses very systematically. What was it like to count the hours, the casualties who were more than just numbers? You wrote:
For 744 hours we have been living and going through war. We have lost 1006 of our best men. We’ve lost almost a whole generation of men born between 2000 and 2002. Thirty-nine civilians who were living their lives have died, including children, the elderly, and people with disabilities. Ninety thousand people (60% of Artsakh’s population) were forced to leave their homes and find refuge. More than 20,000 children are deprived of their right to education. Mothers lost their sons, who they carried for nine months, and then protected them through all their lives. Children are left orphans.
Zakaryan: I felt we are the only humans in the world, and we are getting less and less. It was awful to read the lists of the dead soldiers–born in 2000-2002. They’re children. I felt guilty for breathing and existing in this world.
Abramian: You wrote about losing a close friend and not being able to cry. Have you cried yet? Were there any outlets for the immense trauma you experienced?
Zakaryan: I didn’t cry, I was like a stone. I wish I cried. That still remains in me and will remain if I don’t let it go, I know. But I’m still like a stone.
Abramian: You write resentfully about how others took pity at the displaced Artsakh children. How do you want the world to look at Artsakh children–what’s unique about them that the world should know?
Zakaryan: That they are no less clever or less talented, they are not victims; they are children who need love and care, like everyone else. That they deserve the same opportunities as others do.
Abramian: You make no secret of your resentment against the international community. What would you tell the international community and the human rights organizations that ignored Artsakh’s calls for help? You wrote:
We learned the true face of the international community and all organizations that constantly deliver big words, speak about values, human rights, peace… We learned that people in this conflict zone are not human beings, because their lives have no value, unlike those who live in a powerful state. We realized once again that our only defenders are the 18-year-old boys standing in front of the fire. How can we live to be worthy of them?
Zakaryan: I think that was a vivid failure of international law, organizations, order, and ideals. If an aggressor wants to kill many civilians, he will kill many civilians, and nobody can do anything.
I would say that the world is small, and one day life can build for them these kinds of challenges, and they will get what they did themselves–the ignorance. Maybe then they will understand how it feels to be alone in the whole civilized world.
Abramian: Amidst the “chaos and grief” you said you listened to Joan Baez’s song ‘Donna Donna’ as your “friend in war.” Do you know that this Yiddish folksong is about a calf being led to slaughter which some consider a metaphor for the Jewish Holocaust–symbolic of genocidal war of Artsakh?
Zakaryan: Yes, I still listen to Baez’s song, that is still my favorite, my friend in war. I think it has a connection with all these issues about genocides, even if I didn’t realize it fully then.
Abramian: After living through the tumults of war, on Day 35 you left Artsakh to join your sister in Armenia, and described your refugee status most descriptively–reflective of what over 80 million refugees in our world must’ve lived through. You wrote:
It’s an indescribably awful feeling. It seems that a dangerous moment has passed, security is ahead. But you don’t want to go ahead. How can this be? Doesn’t man act instinctively? On the one hand, this thrust back into the fire, and on the other, the vagueness of where you are going. Where to go? Who should I go to? I don’t even want to bother other people with my war… But the car is going, and no one asks you. Build your whole life and lose it in a moment. Today has been my worst day since the war began. I will continue to write about refugee life and tell a story from the last war, but now I will only say one thing: no security can replace my cozy basement if the enemy shells my house…
Zakaryan: Actually, I was forced to leave Artsakh, but wasn’t allowed to write about it. I was afraid that I would make trouble for the authorities with my statement of evacuation. But I didn’t want to leave… I think many refugees in the world felt these exact emotions.
Abramian: On Day 1 Peace you write about the “revised map of Artsakh.” What would you like to tell those “men in suits” who remapped your homeland? You wrote:
I lived 44 days in ignorance of who is where, who controls what. Who am I? The citizen of which country? Where will I live? I ponder that there is a corridor between Armenian and Artsakh with a view to Karvachar. Men in suits decided that they’ll give it away on November 15.
Zakaryan: I still can’t believe my eyes. I can’t accept it. I think I live in Stepanakert now and try not to see what happens. I travelled to the new borders to make myself believe, but even that didn’t help. I can’t accept it, not now…
I wouldn’t like even spending a word for the men in suits. I realized that pink sunglasses have to be broken, people’s lives are not interesting for decision-makers, only fuel, gas, Dollars. I don’t know what to say about my identity. I still don’t know a citizen of which country I am now. But one thing I know for sure–I am a Karabakhian Armenian. I am happy for that, even though I had to go through all this.
Abramian: Have you shed tears and mourned your territorial loss which you compare to losing your grandmother who was your “mom, dad, grandmother, and friend. She was everything to” you, yet you couldn’t cry until you saw her in a coffin.
Zakaryan: I still don’t accept it. For me, it didn’t get to the ‘’coffin time’’ yet.
Abramian: What do you want the world to know about Artsakh and its significance?
Zakaryan: Artsakh is not an area, it’s a home for people. It’s not even home, it’s PEOPLE ITSELF.
Abramian: What are your future plans? Will you publish your diary?
Zakaryan: Yes. I am new in all of this, so I will need help and support to see how it has to be done. I’m planning to do a fundraising for it. I am still in Artsakh and planning to stay here yet. It depends on the situation. We cannot plan out ‘tomorrow’ nowadays.