During meals, Gor would set a plate in front of his father's picture. At times, in the middle of the night, he would wake up shouting that papa was thirsty. He wouldn’t settle down until we placed a cup of water beside the picture.
The malevolent impact of war on innocent children has never been lost on governments, educators, psycho-social professionals and family members. The United Nations Children’s Fund, otherwise known as UNICEF, has encapsulated this truth best: “Children bear invisible scars and trauma that may take a lifetime to heal.”
When the disastrous 2020 Artsakh War ended with a Russia-brokered ceasefire in November 2020, numerous stories of traumatized children began to surface throughout the Armenian World and the international media. Civilian injuries went beyond the physical, especially for the youth—a generation that only knew Artsakh as a symbol of victory from the first Artsakh War, with its own independent government and hitting its stride economically after 30 years of rebuilding.
A Broken Heart and Empty Seat
The Tonoyans are one such family that typifies what thousands of Armenian civilians experienced during those harrowing 44-days when the war was raging on, destroying lives far beyond the battlefield.
Meri, the mother of Gor and Ani, ages 9 and 11, carries a soul-stirring memory of losing her husband Vahan, who voluntarily joined the war immediately after its outbreak. “He called me asking to prepare his clothes for an urgent appointment with his old acquaintance,” she recalls. “I sensed that something was wrong. In the next couple of hours, the phone was silent. When he finally called again, he was already on his way to the frontline, commissioning me to take care of our children. From that second, everything changed.”
Shortly thereafter, Meri received what would be the last phone call from Vahan. Not knowing his status, for over two months she searched the morgues from dawn till dusk, trying to identify him among hundreds of corpses. “It was an earthly hell that seemed endless,” she recalled. On January 7, 2021, his identity was confirmed through a DNA test. The burial soon followed at a family cemetery.
The family’s immense pain was compounded by economic hardships, which also weighed on the children’s damaged psyches. Gor, in particular, wasn’t in a state to comprehend the loss of his father. As Meri recounts the story, “During meals, Gor would set a plate in front of his father's picture. At times, in the middle of the night, he would wake up shouting that papa was thirsty. He wouldn’t settle down until we placed a cup of water beside the picture.”
The trauma was exacerbated when Meri was forced to sell her late husband’s car, which was Gor’s sole physical remnant of the good old days when they used to take family rides. In dire need of money, she managed to find a buyer from their neighborhood. Gor’s heart raced every time he saw his father’s car driven by someone else, clinging to the idea that his father might be behind the wheel.
“The car had stickers on it that made it easily recognizable to Gor from afar. I explained the situation to the new owner, who showed deep understanding and immediately removed the stickers, though it offered my son little relief. Sometimes, Gor would recognize the car just from the sound of the engine. I hope one day he will forgive me; I just had to sell that car to ensure the children’s daily food and sustenance,” said Meri with a tone of regret.
Welcome to AGBU Camp Nairi
Gor’s psychological indicators were worrying, yet a lack of money prevented Meri from seeking out professional assistance. Then one day she stumbled upon an announcement for AGBU Camp Nairi. She immediately applied, hoping that it would alleviate her children’s pain to some extent.
With AGBU’s century of experience helping genocide, earthquake, and other disaster survivors recover their broken lives, stories like Meri’s were all too familiar. This prompted the organization to take action before another generation of youth would suffer from life-long unresolved mental and emotional wounds. For the first year, there was an outpouring of donations raised mostly by AGBU Toronto. In August of 2021, the first cohort of 250 children, including Gor and Ani Tonoyan, were welcomed to AGBU Camp Nairi. Since then, funds have been raised across the world.
“AGBU will never abandon those in critical need,” remarked AGBU Armenia President Vasken Yacoubian. “For these families to pick up their pieces, they need many things including emotional support and access to mental health services. We are proud to offer both to families with loved ones who made the ultimate sacrifice.”
Located in the pastoral region of Kotayk, Armenia, the two-week camp sessions are offered free of charge exclusively to children, ages 7 to 13, who have experienced the loss of a fallen or captured family member or are adjusting to a parent or close relative returning home with disfiguring and/or disabling injuries.
According to Hermine Duzian, the director of Camp Nairi, “This sleepaway retreat offers qualifying children a safe and supportive environment with confidence-building activities. With special programming led by certified psychologists and the presence of a welcoming clergy in addition to a specially-trained camp staff, Camp Nairi children receive top-quality care. They enjoy ample outlets for self-expression and much needed healing. Although many behavioral expressions of childhood trauma are similar, each child’s case is unique and a personalized therapeutic plan is part of the process.”
Learning to Trust Again
Duzian shared the team’s initial concerns regarding establishing trust with the parents. “In the first year, we had long, explanatory conversations with them, convincing them to allow their children to attend the Camp. We knew that gaining their trust would become easier once the session was underway.” She went on to say, “To my satisfaction, when we announced this year’s new cohort of the camp, we received an immediate flood of over 100 applications on the first day. Additionally, alongside the increasing number of attendees, it’s noteworthy that 70% of the children have participated in either the first or the second years of the Camp—a testament to the many positive outcomes.”
For children attending the first year, their pain was still fresh, and their fragile psyches would sometimes become resistant to the new environment. Duzian recalls that the staff spent nights comforting children who woke up in the middle of the night crying for their lost fathers and brothers. “Now they feel much better,” Duzian reported. “They enjoy the entire experience, from educational and fun activities to leisure time. They have also become accustomed to the discipline, which will stay with them throughout their adult lives,” she added.
The educational focus of the Camp revolves around Armenian heritage and culture, national music, and crafts. After three years of regular attendance, Gor expressed his feelings about Camp Nairi in the most innocent way, by making a wish: “I love everything here. I wish I could join the second cohort of this year, but I know it’s impossible.” He even has a favorite Armenian dance that he learned at the Camp. “I love Tamzara and I can dance it quite well,” he adds with a hint of pride.
His mom Meri agreed: “I knew Camp Nairi would have a temporary positive impact, but I never thought it would help my son rise above his pain for the long term.”
Coping with Unknowns
It might seem that the worst challenges were left behind after the camp’s inaugural year, but new ones have arisen, due to the Azeri aggressions erupting out of nowhere to remind victims and survivors that peace cannot be taken for granted. Duzian explained that last year they had to terminate the camp halfway into the session for the children from Artsakh. “The Azeri government was threatening to block the Lachin Corridor at any moment. The camp had the responsibility to ensure the safe return of the children to their homes before that would happen.”
Staying true to its sinister objective of committing ethnic cleansing in Artsakh, Azerbaijan blocked the Lachin Corridor, Artsakh’s only lifeline to the outside world, in early December 2022. As a preemptive approach, in May 2023, AGBU trained specialists in Artsakh to operate the Camp locally for the August session. Unfortunately, due to severe food and fuel shortages, the gathered resources were sufficient for five days out of the usual two weeks.
To date, Camp Nairi has been a haven for over 250 children and continues to reach out to hundreds more during the year. While Azerbaijan has concluded its unlawful mission of cleansing Artsakh of Armenians, reopening deep wounds, with ongoing donor support, AGBU Camp Nairi can carry on. Children like Gor Tonoyan have learned how to manage their fears, grief, and emotions so that their trauma doesn’t keep them stuck in the past.
Camp Nairi is a place where these emotionally fragile children can feel free to dream again, which AGBU believes is the right of all children
Duzian was emphatic. “Camp Nairi is a place where these emotionally fragile children can feel free to dream again, which AGBU believes is the right of all children.”
Update: In light of the exodus of 100,000 Armenians from Artsakh to Armenia last fall, AGBU is extending its Camp Nairi therapeutic outreach for all family members throughout the year. To help fund this special initiative, please donate today at agbu.org/camp-nairi.
This article was featured in the 2023 release of AGBU Impact Magazine. For more information on the AGBU Global Relief Fund, click here.