On a hillside speckled with headstones and tricolours on the outskirts of the Armenian capital, Yerevan, a thin man in aviator sunglasses sits silently in front of his son’s grave, breathing in the smell of incense.
Artur Kirakosyan keeps a photo of his son Artyom taking his military oath at the age of 19. He dreams of avenging him at the military positions outside his native Jermuk, close to the Azerbaijani lines, showing the knife he keeps tucked in his belt buckle.
“There is no summer, no winter, no sun, nothing for me,” he said, wiping his eyes. “No one. I put on these sunglasses so that nobody sees my tears. It is such terrible pain, I won’t wish it on anyone.”
Artyom’s death in the 2020 war with Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh wounded his father deeply. Artur believed the army sent him to the frontlines too soon and wants his commanding officers tried for negligence.
“He dreamed of being a soldier since when he was a child,” he said. “But they had no right taking him to the frontlines after serving for just one month and 15 days.”
Now, in the week that a ceasefire was declared following a 24-hour Azerbaijani offensive that Baku claims has put it in full control of the enclave, that pain is compounded by the thought that his son died in a lost war.
“We demand justice for our children,” he said. “If Nagorno-Karabakh is admitted to be part of Azerbaijan now, then who is going to take the responsibility for having sent our children to serve there?”
The Yerablur military cemetery grows with each round of conflict over the territories in Karabakh, which is populated by ethnic Armenians, many of whom refer to it as Artsakh. The graves go back to the first war, from 1988-94, then through decades of border clashes and up to the present. The gravestones from the 2020 war, a defeat for Armenia in which Azerbaijan took the historic city of Shusha, sprawl on to the hillside in a sea of white stone.
On Thursday, it was Independence Day – Armenia’s largest holiday, marking independence from the Soviet Union – and thousands of relatives visited the cemetery to pay their respects. And as Armenia in effect accepted Azerbaijani control of the region, ending a 30-year period of self-rule after the 1994 war, it was a time of soul-searching for those who had given their fathers, brothers and sons to the war for almost three decades.
“Everybody is mine, I consider all of them relatives,” said Inga Karapetyan, a young woman who walked among the graves sprinkling incense into small stone urns. “I came to apologise to all of these guys because they fought and died for us but the result is what we see today.”
There is palpable anger over the result of the conflict. Thousands attend nightly protests that have ended with demonstrators blocking streets and hurling stones at parliament. Anger spilled over at the cemetery as family members threw punches at two MPs from the Civil Contract party led by the prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan.
Many said they felt the international community had ignored their plight, including a nine-month blockade of the region that caused shortages of basic goods, such as fuel and bread. Others said the government of Armenia had abandoned the ethnic Armenians in Karabakh after the 2020 war. Still more felt the only thing left to do was to ensure safe passage for the people of the region who were now kennelled in by Azerbaijani troops.
Samvel Asryan said of his brother, who died in October 2020: “He would go crazy if he saw what was going on these days. We can’t do anything for the people or the nation. We don’t know what to do to make it right.”
Ella Asryan remembered how her son Hrayr had fallen in love with the region through his grandparents, moving there and working as the chief architect for a regional council for three years. When the war began, he volunteered without his family knowing. He was killed in heavy shelling on 31 October, she said, but “we don’t know who killed him or how”.
“He loved Artsakh very much,” she said. “He said: ‘What are you doing there? Come live here in Artsakh, in Karabakh.’”
Every week, she visits the cemetery and cleans his gravestone, a marble-like memorial decorated with symbols of the region and an engraving of a beach scene showing him embracing his girlfriend in the sea.
His older brother, Samwel, said: “This was not a fair fight. It was like fighting with your hands tied behind your back. Because Artsakh’s people are strong people and in a fair fight it is hard to beat them.”
The scale of the losses have been enormous. Maria Galstyan, a musician and conductor who teaches at a Yerevan musical college, said 10 of her former students were buried at the cemetery. All of them were aged between 18 and 20.
“The saddest thing is that the international community just makes some calls but actually does nothing to stop the dictator [Azerbaijani president, Ilham] Aliyev,” she said. She called the war the “worst atrocity of the 21st century”.
Normally celebrations are planned on the holiday, but the mood on Thursday was sombre.
“I just hope that someday there are no more victims and this place will never grow again,” said Karapetyan.