Narek Hayrapetyan never intended to be a soldier or to fight in any war. But given where he’s from, being prepared for that is something of a necessity.
At a schoolyard in the small city of Sisian, about four hours south of the capital Yerevan, Hayrapetyan leads a group of two dozen volunteers in nighttime training.
In two columns, the trainees advance forward at Hayrapetyan’s command – hunched over, their wooden practice rifles sweeping across the landscape.
“Spread out! If there was a Bayraktar, you’d all be dead!” he shouts, referring to the Turkish-made armed combat drones that wreaked such devastation on Armenian forces in last year’s war.
As the exercise continues, command is delegated to two participants in the exercise – the ones who will lead them in any real-life combat and the closest this group gets to officers.
“Follow Narek’s command!” Hayrapetyan intones at one of the columns. “In a real war, your lives will depend on him!”
The recruits duly oblige, and for the next 10 minutes the group runs a series of defensive tactical manoeuvres in the moonlight.
This is life in Syunik, Armenia’s southernmost province, which is sandwiched between two parts of Azerbaijan and has been the subject of multiple Azerbaijani incursions in recent months.
Hayrapetyan is a local instructor at a volunteer corps known as VOMA, an abbreviation of the group’s Armenian name that translates as “the art of staying alive”. The semi-official outfit gained fame for co-ordinating groups of volunteers who wanted to aid the Armenian military in its 44-day fight against Azerbaijan in Karabakh last year. It has since opened offices in all major settlements of Armenia, organising local military and first aid training for volunteers ranging from teenagers to septuagenarians.
For Hayrapetyan, 30, it was necessary to do his part.
“I joined VOMA in January, and received training to be an instructor,” he says. “We are a small country, and enemies are all around us. The mission of every Armenian should be to be a soldier,” he says.
Shortly thereafter, the group’s Sisian branch was opened, with Hayrapetyan as an instructor.
“When the branch here was opened, it had about 70 participants,” Hayrapetyan says. “But there was a big age difference between those interested, so we split it into several groups. The main group, about 25 people, has now been training for about eight months. I can assure you that all of them are now well prepared,” he says.
Aside from military and tactical drills, along with first aid, much of the training consists of fitness regimens.
“The course is quite effective in part because of the amount of physical and strength training incorporated into it,” Hayrapetyan says. “The programme includes marksmanship, physical exercise, alpinism, first aid training and other things. Even during a natural disaster, those who participated will now be able to help,” he adds.
New geopolitical realities
Sisian’s location, and the new geopolitical reality following last year’s war, has reinforced to locals the necessity of military preparations.
Forming a narrow wedge thrusting towards the Iranian border, Armenia’s southernmost province of Syunik is bordered by Azerbaijan on two sides: the exclave of Nakhchivan to the west, and the mainland to the east.
The latter was never a problem before – the First Karabakh War (1991-94) saw Armenian forces capture the Azerbaijani provinces that lay to Syunik’s east, holding them as a depopulated buffer zone for nearly three decades. During and after last year’s war, however, those regions returned to Azerbaijani control – and with them, Azerbaijani soldiers who have sought to make life along Syunik’s borders as difficult as possible.
Problems began in earnest this May, when Azerbaijani troops advanced across the newly relevant border as the snows melted and occupied Armenian territory around a lake known as Sev Lich, about 15 km northeast of Sisian. In other areas, Azerbaijan blockaded roads whose paths crossed the haphazard Soviet-drawn border, and Azeri servicemen seized cattle from shepherds whose herds wandered too near the boundary.
Then, last week, fighting erupted. Using artillery and armoured vehicles, Azerbaijani troops launched an assault across the border on November 16, just 10 km north of Sisian. Heavy fighting ensued that left dozens of casualties and prisoners in the worst clash since last year’s war.
Ishkhanasar mountain (the site of last week's fighting) as seen from Sisian (Photo Neil Hauer).
The sound of artillery shelling, audible in Sisian itself, spurred more locals into action.
“We heard the bombing from Sisian, but not everyone realises the seriousness of the situation,” says Gevorg Asatryan, 69, a retired bank manager who joined VOMA in March.
“We must immediately become a nation-army, and the country must become a fortress,” he says. “Unfortunately, only strength can guarantee peace. And those who want peace must always be ready for war,” he adds.
Another volunteer, two generations his junior, echoes these thoughts.
“I was interested in these courses because I like military life, and I always wanted to be a soldier,” says Basentsi Azoyan, 15. “My father was a soldier, and his father as well. I’m too young still to fight but I want to help however I can and be ready when the time comes. It’s a war situation, and we have to be ready” he says.
The trainings are not gender exclusive: plenty of women are participating as well.
Katya Babayan, 37, is a medical assistant and certified first aid trainer in her day-to-day life. She left her job and joined VOMA full-time this summer after realising her skills were needed.
“The physical regimen was very demanding at first. My whole body was sore,” she says, describing the rigorous exercise programmes involved in VOMA trainings. “Now I teach [the volunteers] how to stop bleeding, apply pressure bandages, safely revive the unconscious – all things necessary not only on the battlefield but in everyday life,” Babayan says.
These sorts of training programmes, while expanded in scope in recent months, have long been present in Syunik, where seemingly nearly every man is a veteran of one conflict or another.
Syunik is one of the strongholds of the Yerkrapah veterans’ organisation, a political and paramilitary group that played a large role in Armenian politics in the 1990s. The group has regularly organised its own trainings as well as directing local manpower to aid the army in Karabakh in times of war. They also occupy positions on the border, aiming to bolster the military’s capabilities of their own volition.
Fighters from Sisian have regularly borne the brunt of casualties when the conflict flares up, too.
In April 2016, a group of volunteers from the town headed to Karabakh on the second day of fighting in what became known as the ‘Four Day War’. The day after arriving, they were arrayed in a rear area awaiting commands on where to deploy when they noticed a strange craft circling overhead. Minutes later, it picked up speed and descended towards them, slamming into their group in one of the first documented uses of a ‘suicide drone’ – in this case, an Israeli-made IAI Harop, an ominous precursor to the hundreds of casualties such drones would cause in autumn 2020.
Those 2016 losses would be repeated on a greater scale in last year’s war.
Hasmik Azoyan, a local hotel owner, tells that Sisian suffered the most dead of anywhere outside of the capital Yerevan in autumn 2020.
“We lost at least 80 dead, maybe even 90, as there are still some missing,” Azoyan says. For a city of barely 12,000, that was more than enough to ensure everyone knew at least one of those killed.
Azoyan’s own husband is a veteran, as with so many other Sisian men.
“Already on the 14th, we were expecting something to happen following the tensions in Artsakh [the Armenian name for Karabakh],” Azoyan says. “My husband told me to get his uniform ready, but the army managed to contain [the Azerbaijani attack] on its own,” she says.
The terrors of 21st-century warfare, with its devastating drones, is a lesson Sisian’s residents have learned early – and one they continue to take heed of.
“We are always ready in spirit, but it’s not enough,” says Azoyan. “You need training – even participating in the last wars is not enough. The changes in military technology happen so fast, as we saw last year. It’s like we were fighting with swords against Bayraktars,” she says.
Meanwhile, the exposed geographic position of Sisian – situated just 15 km from two different Azerbaijani borders – looms large in people’s thoughts.
“We are like a bone in the throat of Turkey and Azerbaijan and their pan-Turkic plans,” Azoyan says. “They make it clear enough by their maps that they want this land.”
And for locals, the fate of the parts of Karabakh seized by Azerbaijan last year provides cold comfort.
“We hosted about 100 refugees from Artsakh last year,” says Azoyan. “There was one man among them last year who kept saying, ‘they won’t stop with [Karabakh]. If they beat us, they’ll come for Syunik’. Maybe he was onto something.”