You see, because we are a small community and we literally know everyone, when we learn that someone’s brother, sister, or relative was killed, we die with each piece of sad news. And especially now, we are afraid to ask anyone, ‘How are you?’ because in each family there is a tragedy.
Laura L. Constantine
Rosa Sayadyan was born in Russia to parents who are natives of Artsakh. They returned to Stepanakert when she was age five. She completed her studies in English and German at Artsakh State University. For eight years, she worked for the HALO Trust, the international landmine clearing organization. After starting a family with her husband, she was hired by AGBU to work as a project coordinator for AGBU LEAP. With the outbreak of the 2020 Artsakh War, Sayadyan and her friends and neighbors realized that the tides of history were turning against them. Three years later, she and her family found themselves stuck in gridlock for 35 hours, exposed to many tragic events along the road out of Artsakh.
Sayadyan took time out from her new position in Armenia, where she works for AGBU as the coordinator of volunteers for the warm meal program set up by AGBU in partnership with World Central Kitchen (WCK).
AGBU: Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and feelings about what you and your community have experienced during this historic crisis.
SAYADYAN: First, I am very honored to be given the opportunity to tell my story, but I must confess that my story is really nothing that special except that I am alive to tell it. I know how lucky I am to have survived some very dangerous situations. My family has been very fortunate many times, but too many other people in Artsakh were not. I always say that I am grateful to my faith in God for sparing me and my family. But then I wish everyone had guardian angels watching over them too. You see, because we are a small community and we literally know everyone, when we learn that someone’s brother, sister, or relative was killed, we die with each piece of sad news. And especially now, we are afraid to ask anyone, ‘How are you?’ because in each family there is a tragedy. This last attack in September was terrible, but then there was the explosion at the gas station that killed many people who were simply trying to fill their tanks with petrol and find safety in Armenia. This was the last straw. There was no turning back.
AGBU: Can you give some examples of how fate was on your side over these difficult years?
SAYADYAN: I will start with the miracle of my husband, who was responsible for telecommunications when the 2020 War broke out. He was there to make sure the Internet was working properly, which was critical for the people to use their phones and devices to stay in touch and receive news from their families. But then the Azeri forces bombed the building where my husband was stationed. It was terrible. But he survived.
Another moment of grace was when the gas station exploded on the way out of Artsakh. Very few people survived and were burned to ashes. The few that lived were left severely injured including my uncle. He’s now in hospital in Yerevan with severe burns all over his body. He has a long recovery ahead, but the doctor says he will live and so we know it could have been much worse.
That wasn’t the only blessing on that journey. As we passed the checkpoint to enter Armenia, we ran out of petrol. Our car just stopped. But believe it or not, there were Armenians waiting for us on the side of the road with tanks of petrol. They filled our car immediately so we could proceed. Had we run out of petrol any earlier in the journey, we would have been stranded as many others were.
Once we arrived in Armenia, we were welcomed by strangers and friends alike. In fact, within five minutes of arriving in Yerevan, three perfect strangers approached our car, asking if we needed a place to stay. Thankfully, AGBU had already arranged housing for our family. But I want everyone to be lucky enough to have a place to stay and live a dignified life. We all once had normal lives, good lives.
AGBU: Can you describe the last days before your journey to Armenia? When the attacks began on September 19, how did people cope?
SAYADYAN: Obviously, the bombing was intense and we were all caught off guard. My family and I hid in a basement with many others who were not coping well. They were extremely distraught, crying, praying, shouting out of sheer terror. I was concerned for my two daughters, one 18 and one 11, and my six-year old son. But they took their cues from me and I kept my bearings. But when they saw my sister-in-law’s 12-year old daughter in a panic, they began to panic. She was terrified and screaming. When I told my son not to worry, he said, ‘I am not worried about us, I am worried about all these other people.’ He wanted to help them be less anxious. I was proud of him, but it is also traumatic for young children to see their elders in such a vulnerable state.
AGBU: How did the community cope with the blockade? Were people competing for food, medicine, and petrol? Did that cause tensions? What did people subsist on?
SAYADYAN: Unfortunately, eggs were very scarce as were vegetables, fruit, even bread. We mostly ate rice, buckwheat, and pasta. And, in summer, we had only watermelon, which was grown in Artsakh. And it cost maybe four, five times more than before the war. We also had grapes. But again, they were expensive due to a lack of petrol to deliver them to Stepanakert. Sometimes they used horses to transport it. By the time it arrived at market, most was spoiled with flies all over the produce. Still, some people bought this rotten food at high prices because it was all they had. But even with all of this, we tried to move forward. People did not compete for food or resort to crime like you see in other parts of the world. In fact, through my job, I could see that the spirit of the people persisted. We continued our English language courses through AGBU LEAP. Despite the cold weather and being hungry, standing in long queues for bread and other products, they kept coming to class. The women entrepreneurs participants traveled long distances to attend their trainings. Of course we had challenges, but we made it work.
AGBU:What was it like when you entered Armenia and there was so much food accessible to you?
SAYADYAN: When we arrived in Goris and my children saw that the shops were open, they begged to go to the shops. Even I was shocked that the shelves were not empty. You could buy everything. And the kids were amazed that there are so many varieties of candy. And sunflower oil. You see, during the blockade, we had no oil to cook the food. The kids were thrilled, saying, ‘Look at all the sunflower oil you can buy here.’
AGBU: Last question. What would you like to tell the world about Artsakh and what happened to your people?
SAYADYAN: My personal wish is that people would at last understand that they only have one life. They only live for maybe 80, 90 years if they are lucky. I don’t understand why they fight for territories, why they want more territories. Why can’t they live in their homes and let other people live in theirs? Why didn’t they let me live in the land of my deceased relatives and be able to visit their graves? Why did they hide behind this artificial territorial integrity? And why did the world let this happen? Sorry, I am responding to your question with many questions. The world has much to answer for.
This article was featured in the 2023 release of AGBU Impact Magazine. For more information on the AGBU Global Relief Fund, click here.