Personal Histories of Trauma: The war that steals childhood

Continuing the series on collective trauma after the second Karabakh war, Indie Peace asked journalist Lika Zakaryan to share her personal reflections on how war affects children.

Children from Nagorny Karabakh. Real children. Living children. No worse than those born in the safer lands of Norway or Australia. No less clever than those who go to Montessori schools. They’ve done nothing wrong. But at night, they wake from the sound of gunshots, and in the day, they play war games. They have every right to become artists, writers, doctors, or scientists. But, wrapped up in their war games, they don’t even notice the time fly. They turn eighteen, and they’re still playing war games, except now, the “toys” are real.

In Karabakh, it all comes down to war and fighting. When I speak with children, I always ask them what they would like to be. The answer is almost always the same: soldiers. That’s all they’ve seen, and all they know. The reason is clear. Yet how unbearably sad this is! The wise look in their eyes tells me that they are not really children anymore, although they had every right to a childhood.

War steals everything: lives, families, emotions, time, and, of course, childhood. Going through life, at some point people may discover inner problems linked to childhood trauma. As children, we are exceptionally sensitive to the outside world.

So what is it that war can inflict?

First and foremost – fear. Fear of bombings, fear of losing one’s parents and loved ones, fear of losing one’s home. I’ve met so many people who still cannot bear loud music, especially with a beat, as it reminds them of explosions. Living in today’s ever-changing world, I found myself having strange thoughts. Often, I would picture myself on my own, as if my entire family had been killed in the war, and I was the only one to survive. My thoughts continued in my dreams, which haunted me all my life. The danger of losing my loved ones was so real, that my brain saw it as highly likely, and began, on an unconscious level, to prepare me for this.

Partings. Yes – children lose their fathers and mothers. Some lose them on the battlefield, others lose them after the war ends, because of poverty or lack of work.

The first group, you could talk about for a long time. They’re referred to as the children of the war dead. It’s like a tag. Not only has the child lost his father, but he then gets singled out on the very first day of school. “Meet Aram – he lost his father in the war!” The child hasn’t even had a chance to find himself, to work out what sort of person he is, and how society might perceive him, but society has already decided this for him. At school, he gets given free textbooks, while the other children pay 200 Drams for each book. When he goes to university, he studies there for free. These things are great, of course, but they can also make people insecure. “Can I actually achieve anything myself?” they might wonder. Others might have a different reaction, concluding that they will always be offered special attention and perks. When they don’t get these, they can break down.

Children in the second group have also been through a very particular kind of experience. I belong to this group. After the first Karabakh war, which ended in 1994, Karabakh, like Armenia, was very poor. When the USSR collapsed, a lot of countries ended up in that state. My father was injured in the war, he lost his sight in one eye, but he still managed to work as a long-haul trucker. He was a very good, experienced driver, so he was allowed to carry on working. But there was no work. When I was six, he went to Russia to find work in order to feed us. My mother and younger brother went to join him. I was raised by my grandmother, who had to take everybody else’s place. It wasn’t really right. When they had parents’ meetings at school, the other children’s parents were present – their mothers, mostly. I was the only one who had a grandmother, instead. So it looked strange. I couldn’t show how much I missed my parents, either. As I’ve said, children in Karabakh are forced to grow up fast, and although I was only six, I realised that I mustn’t let me grandmother see how much I missed my parents. I realised she would get upset and think she was doing something wrong. Although actually, she was perfect. But as a six-year-old, I was forced to keep all this bottled up, and eventually I began to get fevers: my mental state began to affect my physical body. War stops life. It stops people’s daily routines. A really painful thing is that children are deprived of the opportunity to study.

Sheltering in basements when the schools close, children have enough to worry about besides their studies. For the children of Karabakh, 2020 was certainly not a year of knowledge. At the start of September, the schools were closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. After two weeks, they opened, but then war broke out. Some children were forced to shelter in basements for forty-four days. Other families managed to make it to Armenia, which was safe. Some of their children began to go to school in Armenia, where they would be introduced: “children, meet Ayk, he is a refugee from Karabakh”.  Another tag, pitying glances, and the children begin to develop victim mentality. After the war, many returned, but in Karabakh it was already winter, and there was no stable electricity supply. People struggled to heat their own homes, let alone the schools. Some of the schools had come under fire, too. And so the year wore on. The children lost a whole year of school.

Lost homes. Many lost their homes, and may never be able to return.

This little girl’s name is Nare. She’s from the Gadrut region. I met her at the end of the war, when it was not yet known that her home had been lost. “You know, Lika, my grandma spent all summer preparing vegetables for the winter. There are all these jars in the cupboard now. So I’m just wondering what will happen to all that? My room looks really beautiful now, too. I stuck lots of drawings on the walls. I should have brought them with me. And, I have a dog. Mummy and my sister and I left our village as soon as the war started, but my grandpa and daddy and our dog were left behind. I just hope grandpa is managing to feed him. And if our village has already been taken, I just hope that they won’t harm our doggy. They won’t harm him, will they? He’s a little doggy, people should love him,” she finished, with tears in her eyes now. Remembering their home and those who used to live in it, and imagining those who will take their place, can be extremely painful for children.

Today, many of them live in all but wrecked flats, or in nursing homes. This is their new reality, which they constantly compare with the past, wishing that, somehow, they could be transported back.

All photo credits: Lika Zakaryan – a journalist and photographer from Nagorny Karabakh, who during the war last year started to keep a diary, posting online about the war and the people caught up in it. The diary became widely read and is now published in a book: 44 Days: Diary from an Invisible War.

Read another article by the same author on ‘Violence after War’.

These articles are part of the Healing Collective Trauma initiative implemented by Indie Peace and funded by the European Union. The views expressed in the article are the sole responsibility of Indie Peace and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union. Toponyms used reflect the toponyms used by the subject of the article.