Blockade. A terrible experience for Nagorno-Karabakh. The mere word is enough to trigger a host of negative emotions. To those who experienced it, the blockade brought not only loss of freedom of movement, hunger, and cold, but also a sense of profound disorientation, physical and mental exhaustion, and deep despair. Trapped, you watched your final hope burn to the ground, only to rise once more, like a phoenix, making you angry with yourself for letting it manipulate you. In such uncertain times, hope robs you of sleep, drives you insane.
Today, though, I would like to talk about light – not at the end of the tunnel, but light that shone right in the midst of our claustrophobic situation. Working its magic, the light fed our hope, our phoenix. Maybe, just maybe, we thought, if we could find food for another day, we might not die here, after all.
In June, a new initiative was set up in Nagorno-Karabakh to support children and parents in dealing with the reality of the blockade. The project included one-to-one and group meetings aimed at helping people to open up, express and deal with their feelings. A number of different methodologies were used. The goal was not to prepare participants for any far-off, unknown outcome, but rather to help them to accept “today”, to learn to deal with life in uncertain circumstances and with an insecure “tomorrow”.
The psychologists working on the project spoke to me about the incidents they had found especially memorable.
One of these was a screening of the film ‘Wonder’. Some children in the group had special needs, and at first, the other children didn’t know how to relate to them. They had no prior experience, and had never been taught how to do this. After watching the film, however, they became more understanding and empathetic. They appeared to realise that these children were neither “good”, nor “bad”: they were simply different, and this was ok. Having watched the film totally absorbed, the children changed. If, before, they had never had any contact with peers with special needs, or even sat next to them at lunch, now, they appeared different.
The psychologists found themselves working with great enthusiasm, despite being in need of support, themselves.
“Ourselves, the children, the parents – we all needed this. We all needed to get away from harsh reality. They say that even when there was no transport, it was raining, and we thought no one from our group would turn up, all the children and parents still came. This was something new in our society. When we asked the children about their dreams, what they wished for, they would all shout out ‘peace’! And I felt so sad that they didn’t have any children’s dreams, any personal dreams of their own. That they had had to grow up so fast and queue for bread at seven years old. All they wanted was to live. As a mother, I found this very hard. I felt disappointed that I couldn’t fulfil my child’s basic needs.”
The project aimed to provide more than just psychological support. It is hard to talk about mental health when people are facing physical extermination. “Dying of hunger” was not just a turn of phrase for them. At every group meeting, participants would be offered modest refreshments – at that time, these were an unimaginable luxury in Nagorno-Karabakh. The food was hard to procure. The psychologists would criss-cross the town on foot, looking for food when there was no fuel or public transport. Some brought food from their own homes, sharing their personal supplies with the children. Some children came specifically to be fed. As soon as they arrived, the psychologists say, their first question would always be “when’s lunch?”
No pies will ever taste as good
The project coordinator told us another story about something that happened in the final months, when everyone was close to breaking point. That day, the team had managed to produce pies (one person had contributed flour, others had brought potatoes, yeast and other ingredients).
“The children arrived and were given one pie each. We told them they could come and get seconds, too. I always tried to make sure we had extra pies, so the children could eat their fill, and we could give some to the staff of the café we met in. A little boy came up and asked his trainer if he could take another pie. The trainer said he could. After a few minutes, he came up to me and asked if he could have another. He was too shy to ask his trainer again, it was already his third pie. He took the pie and hid it under his phone… by then, we no longer had napkins, or plastic bags, or even paper. Then he said goodbye, and left… I realised he must have taken the pie for someone else – his brother or sister, or maybe for his mother… Everyone was hungry in those days… I thought to myself, God, these poor children… So young, and yet having to go through so much…”
These days, most of the children are still seeing psychologists as part of the project, although they are now in Armenia. They’re working on the trauma from those terrible days and months. They say that no pies will ever taste as good as the ones they had, back then.
Author: Lika Zakaryan
Photos: With permission of the team of psychologists leading this initiative.
This is part of Indie Peace’s initiative on Collective Trauma, 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.