The Last Time

The last time,
I will ever go there.
the streets full of people
Children, parents, soldiers, tourists.
This was the last time I would go.
The family, whose father was disabled after the war in 1994,
The suitcases full of clothes that we gave them
The crisp $100 bill that shocked her
the tears of joy,
This was the last time we would go
This was the last time we would see her.
the sky full of lights,
No – bombs! drones! rockets!
The people of Artsakh, native Armenians in their homeland, saw this and had to endure it.
These were their last sights,
This was the last time I saw her
Dead or alive-
They were gone.

The country we all loved – gone! The people we all loved – gone! The restaurants we went to – gone! Everything I had seen was gone. How could a place change so drastically in a year? I wonder now, even years later, if this dear family I met in Shushi survived, died defending their country, or lived as subjugated citizens of a hostile neighboring country.

A year before the disaster, our plane landed in Yerevan and we were greeted by a family friend, a well-known doctor. “Parev! Parev!” After greeting each other in Armenian, we began a 30-minute drive from the small airport to our hotel. The sky was dark, but the streets were lit by shop signs and street lamps. There was a positive and exciting vibe that I don’t remember when I was last in Armenia. I wonder if it was because I was much younger at the time?

Arriving at the hotel was a relief. The hotel looked small from the outside but was huge inside. We had ambitious plans ahead of us, so a good night’s sleep was crucial. But we were so excited that we could hardly sleep after hearing and reading so much about Artsakh, a disputed region inhabited by Armenians for centuries, which was our destination for the next day. The drive of several hours in the back seat of a black Mercedes Sprinter was tedious but pleasant. With an uneasy peace in the region for the last 25 years, we were unaware of any danger and drove into what appeared to be a huge chasm. It was actually a regular road with sandbags set up high to prevent Azerbaijani snipers from getting a clean shot, a hazard we didn’t really take into account as Armenia retained control of the region and surrounding areas.

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After passing mountain by mountain and military post by military post, we finally arrived in Stepanakert, the capital of Artsakh. The excitement on the streets was something I had never seen before. It was shocking considering the city was being rebuilt after Azerbaijani forces damaged it during a terrible six-year conflict that ended in 1994 when the Armenian people took control of the land they had inhabited for so long.

The next day we visited the heart of Artsakh—Shoot. After driving up the mountain on a winding dirt road, we met a family who lived on top of the mountain. They had owned a vineyard for many years. “Tsavut danem” (let me take your pain), they greeted us. It is a common Armenian term for humility, affection and warmth. After speaking with the family, we were sad to hear that the father suffered serious physical and mental damage during the first Nagorno-Karabakh war. They were poor and could not earn much money because the head of the household could not get a job. My father asked if they needed anything. The mother explained in Armenian that they needed clothes for their daughter who started school. We took our two suitcases full of clothes that we had brought as gifts and gave them to the family. They thanked me with tears in their eyes. Knowing they were in trouble, my dad had given them a pair of crisp $100 bills, something they had never seen before. Tears streamed down their cheeks as they repeatedly expressed their gratitude, “Shnorhakalutyun.” We chatted with them for a while and then headed out to see the rest of the area. We hoped we could ease her pain a little.

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The author has depicted the third from the left with members of his family and Armenians from Shushi

I will never forget these moments. They opened my eyes to the struggles of people in developing countries. These Armenian families have endured so much in a region of perpetual oppression since Ottoman times and before. Armenians had to contend with corrupt political leaders influenced by historical Soviet politics. A country where 18-year-old boys (some even younger) are defending a border to protect their families from death or, in happier circumstances, from deportation.

I will not forget the fate of these people either, because just one year after our visit in August 2019 everything has changed. In September 2020, Azerbaijan attacked Artsakhto gain control of Shushi (Artsakh’s strategically high position) and possibly plan to destroy it forever. Much of the capital and surrounding villages were bombed, children were killed in the shelling and families died not only from Azerbaijani attacks but also from COVID-19 that ravaged the community. In the space of six weeks, a generation of 18-20 year old boys, just a few years older than me, died on the battlefield when attacked by Turkish suicide drones. And the world was silent.

The people I met during my trip and the places we visited during my trip are gone now. The beauty and the villages are all gone. They have fallen into the hands of Azerbaijan – a country where the killing of Armenians is glorified and viewed only as a sport. A country where the assassination of an Armenian is celebrated and rewarded with national glory. A country that will join forces with Turkey to wipe out the Armenian race has been fantasized for ages.

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That one family in the mountains is dead – probably dead. My time on the mountain in Shushi is one of many moments I should cherish more, because life is not guaranteed to anyone. I cherish the life I enjoy in the US, where the fear of invasion, deportation, loss of life, property and land is almost unimaginable. I have realized that I live a life of luxury where I don’t have to worry about death, losing my home or my next meal and taking so many things for granted like my family, my home, my school and even them Church (our old Armenian churches were desecrated and in many cases destroyed by Azerbaijanis and Turks). This family in Shushi, on the other hand, cherished every moment, knowing that their happiness could be fleeting and their lives could be taken for a moment. In many ways, her example is one I should embrace, as we must cherish all moments because you never know if you’ll ever experience them again.

Aram Dombalagian

Aram Dombalagian is a junior in high school and the grandson of Weekly writer Knarik Meneshian, who along with her late husband, Murad Meneshian, taught Aram the importance of being Armenian. He attends the Armenian school and enjoys playing baseball and soccer. Aram was the 2021 16U soccer champion for Illinois State.

Aram Dombalagian

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