Varos Boyajyan’s family waits with the mobile phone nearby, hoping to hear from the family’s eldest son, who has been deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh since fighting started two weeks ago between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Eight days ago, 24-year-old Boyajyan, who spent his formative years in Kolkata, went to the local military office in Yerevan to volunteer in the Armenian military, so that he could do something for his country just like his older brother.
The latest fighting between the two countries over the disputed region has prompted dozens of Armenian army reservists and volunteers between the ages of 20 and 60 to wait in long lines outside army offices to sign up for deployment, with those who have been selected, boarding buses headed towards the Nagorno-Karabakh border.
“My brother was just enjoying life in Armenia. Suddenly this situation happened,” he says. “He just woke up one morning and said he was going to go (to the army). My parents were shocked, but he just wore his clothes and left.”
Boyajyan’s brother went to register on the third day of fighting and was immediately enlisted for active duty. “He calls once a day. Today he called and said he was fine. But we can see the situation for ourselves.” Boyajyan had completed his mandatory 24-month military service in July last year, and by law, can only volunteer to serve in the army since he was discharged recently. “I am waiting for orders to join.”
Boyajyan studied at the 199-year-old Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy in Kolkata, one of the most important centers for primary education for the Armenian diaspora. He completed his high school education at La Martiniere in the city, another institution that many Armenians turn to for their final school years. In 2017, immediately after he returned to Yerevan from Kolkata, Boyajyan joined the military.
The earliest presence of Armenians in India can be traced to the late 8th century, and over the years, assimilation led to the development of a unique Indian-Armenian community. Although this community was largely centered around Kolkata for centuries, over the past three decades, their numbers have dwindled, with many relocating to Armenia, the US, Australia and the UK. Today, the Armenian College in Kolkata is one of the most important centers for primary education for the Armenian diaspora and the approximately 200 students who are enrolled in the institution, along with the city’s Armenian church, are preserving the community’s heritage, traditions and culture.
“Everyone must defend their motherland. If I don’t defend my homeland, who will do it? I’m just defending my brothers and sisters—there is no other explanation,” he says.
This latest fighting has been the worst since the 1991-1994 war that killed approximately 30,000 people and had ended with a ceasefire that has been violated several times. On October 10, however, the two sides agreed to a ceasefire.
In Etchmiadzin, approximately 18 km west from Yerevan, 21-year-old Tigran Hovsepyan registered on September 27 along with his brothers, with the oldest having already been deployed to the borders. “It is our sacred duty to protect our land and history. I am ready to give my life for this country, for Artsakh, for the Armenian people.”
Hovsepyan too has lived for close to a decade in Kolkata, studying at the Armenian College, and enlisted for conscription soon after his return from India. “I stayed on for an extra year in the army to serve,” he explains, describing non-combative roles that he undertook during his final year of service.
The recent fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh has stirred not only people in Armenia, but even those in the diaspora. “Nationalism surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh is very deep-rooted in Armenia. The first three presidents of mainland Armenia have origins there. Nagorno-Karabakh elicits nationalism, patriotism and Armenian brotherhood. Even women are signing up for enrollment,” says Achal Malhotra, who served as India’s Ambassador to Armenia and Georgia between 2009 and 2012.
Armenia’s population is approximately 3 million, but the diaspora may just be double that number, if not more. If Armenia’s youth has chosen to go to the frontlines, the diaspora has been fighting online, using social media platforms to generate awareness of the conflict in the South Caucasus, and has been contributing to fundraising efforts. Hashtags like #ArtsakhStrong, #StopAzerbaijaniAgression and #WeWillWin have been trending for days.
Not everyone has or can register to pick up arms, explains Karen Mkrtchyan, a member of Bright Armenia, a political party founded in 2015. When he returned to Armenia sometime in 2016 after living and studying in India for close to a decade, Mkrtchyan found he could not enlist for conscription due to problems with his eyesight.
But after the fighting started in Nagorno-Karabakh, he went to sign up at the local army office. “There is an organisation that provides voluntary training and they have an understanding with the military so that you can serve after training. They train you for four days on handling guns etc.,” Mkrtchyan, declining to name the organisation, citing national security. “You will be at the second or third line of defence, assisting wounded soldiers or getting rations. If you know how to drive, they’ll make you do that.”
Hovsepyan checks in with his local army office everyday to ask when he can go to serve, but has been told that new recruits are not necessary for now. Mkrtchyan has been getting similar responses from his local army office in Yerevan. “Literally everyone has signed up to help, but they aren’t being taken in at the moment. On the first day, half of my friends were gone. Everyone is ready to contribute. We are in war mode.”