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Published: 12 april 2021 14:00

Karabakh in the eyes of a teacher: working with children when peace is fragile

S.Vaitonio nuotr. / Sona

When in autumn 2020 Sona Gevorgyan and I started talking about how interesting it would be to film a documentary about her experiences as a teacher in a remote village in Nagorno-Karabakh, we both agreed that we would definitely visit the place where she used to work, together. Despite the fact that Sona had already returned to Yerevan by that time, it seemed that the best place to talk about her work was in that place itself: in Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory far away from Armenia’s capital city and one that has not been officially recognised by the international community. At that time we couldn’t have imagined that less than a week after our conversation, those first shots fired on a sunny morning of September’s last Sunday would start a bloody war, that it would last for a month and a half, and that it would cost at least several thousand lives.

Film: "The Teacher" from Armenia can be found at Lithuanian NGDO Platform’s Youtube channel.

In Nagorno-Karabakh, squeezed in between Armenia and Azerbaijan, routine shootings from both sides and the so-called contact line alertness testing has been a rather common occurrence for the last 30 years, since ceasefire agreements were signed during the first Karabakh war. Local residents were used to it, just as the international community which largely viewed this stalled, unresolved conflict as a boring topic, long forgotten. International peacekeepers have never come here, but the International Committee for the Red Cross has had a presence in the region. And even more important work – demining and deactivating remaining explosives – was for many long years being done by HALO Trust, an international NGO.

Karabakh was “not interesting” until that fateful 27 September, 2020. But even then, during those first days of the conflict, it was expected that the situation would be normalised in two or three days and everything would return to how it was before.

When I arrived in Yerevan in October, the possibility to shoot a film about the experiences of an Armenian teacher in Nagorno-Karabakh didn’t seem of primary importance and was somehow pushed to the background. Sona’s mind was also focused on other things. It didn’t take long for local people to realise that this time, the conflict wouldn’t end so soon but would instead become a serious clash with numerous victims. Tens of thousands of war refugees – women, children, the elderly – started moving from Karabakh to Yerevan and other Armenian cities. Only men fit for military action and the very stubborn remained in the region that was being engulfed by military actions. Children that Sona knew from Hin Shen village where she also used to work, found a temporary shelter in Yerevan too. During all that time Sona kept in contact with them.

Sona spent two years in Nagorno-Karabakh, which Armenians refer to as Artsakh. Having studied the English language in Yerevan and graduated in journalism in England, this young woman has been long dreaming of teaching somewhere far away from home. For many years she has been volunteering with the Armenian Red Cross and joining various education-related initiatives.

She went to Karabakh with the assistance from Teach for Armenia, an organisation that is part of the Teach for All global network. Right after Sona returned from London, this organisation started a programme wherein it would send young pedagogues to the unrecognised yet Armenia-supported Nagorno-Karabakh.

While living in England, Sona had heard lots of positive comments about Teach for Armenia and their activities aimed at reducing regional exclusion and facilitating opportunities for youth in the provinces. Upon her return to motherland, Sona found a job at a photography library. It was there that she one day had a random conversation with another young woman, who told Sona about her teaching experiences through the Teach for Armenia network.

Sona patiently waited for her moment and when it finally came, she chose a remote location not far from the historic city of Shushi. She went there by herself, all alone, determined to achieve her mission that was written down in her two-year contract. In the countryside, there were no comforts that are common in cities, let alone cultural activities or entertainment. Instead of all that, she was met by humble mode of life and rigorous mountain environment. However, Sona was surrounded by friendly locals who showed much respect for “the teacher who had come to the village from a city”. This provided her with a special status in the community, especially because there had not been a single English teacher in the village for more than a decade.

“I have never felt lonely in my life and I know I never will. Why? Because one is always surrounded by people and the world which one inhabits. Living there I felt that I was becoming an important part of the community,” Sona says.

When asked whether she was not bothered by humble daily realities of life in the countryside – bringing water in buckets from outside, lightning fire for cooking and heating on a daily basis, getting her hands dirty in her vegetable garden – Sona firmly replied that constant activities and being in the community made household challenges totally insignificant. “Living there, every day I would be tortured by this thought: have I really done everything that I could today? Perhaps I could have done more?”

In Yerevan during our meetings, worried about the news coming from the war zone, Sona was different every time. One day she would be full of optimism and hope that this chaos would end soon and life would return to normal, with its own daily challenges and expectations. On other days she would wake up and receive a call informing her that the situation is getting worse and worse. As all Armenians, during those days Sona always kept her cellphone in her hands and was non-stop connected to the internet. Her Facebook profile was filled with melancholic poetry and photos and memories from Karabakh; she always highlighted the importance of education, which, Sona is convinced, is the key to peace.

“It is very difficult to talk to the children about peace and educate them positively when the images and experiences of the first war are still very much present,” Sona says. “Although this generation was born well after the first war and only hear about it from their parents and grandparents or see it in photographs and war memorials, unfortunately this time they, too, were forced to experience what it means to be a war refugee, to lose one’s home and school.”

In Yerevan I also met with the Teach for Armenia HQ team, who at that time were trying to figure out how to ensure an uninterrupted teaching process under doubly difficult circumstances – a war and a pandemic. The organisation’s interim director Ruiz Clark highlighted several times during our conversation the importance of ensuring proper education in a place where children live in an unrecognised territory under constant threat.

When preparing for filming the interview both Sona and I knew that we wouldn’t be able to travel to Nagorno-Karabakh any time soon. At that time only foreign war correspondents were allowed to enter the war zone, having done numerous rounds in the bureaucratic corridors of various governmental institutions to receive their press accreditation.

I left Armenia just as the ceasefire agreement was being signed. This agreement is considered controversial even today: while some emotionally affected Armenians were angry for their government’s capitulation, others strongly defended the country’s political and military authorities for, in their understanding, rescuing the last chance to save what remained from Karabakh’s territory in their hands. The nation’s unity and cohesion that had lasted for six weeks suddenly turned into a political crisis with no end in sight even more than three months after the normalisation of the conflict.

After this unexpected resolution, Sona withdrew. For some time she was unreachable on email and social networks. Later she told me that she had gone to southern Armenia on the border with Karabakh, where she was helping local people to speedily harvest pomegranates. Agriculture had been left unattended because of the war and the dangers that it creates. For Sona, working the land was a kind of therapy during the time that Armenia was living through a collective trauma.

The Teacher is the short and very simple title I gave to my film. But when I started editing my video material, I realised that what was most lacking were authentic shots from the village where Sona used to work. In this situation I much appreciated the help of Vaghinak Ghazaryan, a press photographer recommended to me by Sona. During the conflict he spent quite a bit of time in Karabakh, documenting how local people live in war conditions. Ghazaryan kindly agreed for me to use parts of video material from his archive, shot during Sona’s teaching in the village period, when local journalists were writing an article about her.

My search for videos of an ordinary Armenian school – to be used as associative material in my film – was also a very interesting experience. During my visit, coronavirus hit again in Armenia. And even though the war in Nagorno-Karabakh pushed the pandemic to the margins, the government imposed restrictive measures in an attempt to prevent overcrowding in hospitals, which were needed for the injured. One of the imposed measures was the closure of schools for an unspecified period of time and moving teaching to digital space.

When I realised that I wouldn’t be officially allowed to film in a school in Yerevan, I decided to try my luck in the countryside and succeeded in my second attempt. First, after trying to speak to a school guard in Gavar town, two cars unmarked in any special way suddenly showed up. Men in uniforms and in civilian clothes got out and politely but firmly started questioning me about what I wanted to film, and why. Later local people explained to me that these were state security officials and that during that tense period they would promptly react to reports about every suspicious foreigner, especially those who were collecting information in remote locations and perhaps spying for enemy states.

I cannot make public the name of the other town that I visited, as that was my promise to the people who helped me. I managed to get them agree to allow me to film in an empty classroom under the strict condition that there would be no references to that specific place. Armenia at that time was living through a very sensible period. Many school halls around the country were filled with portraits of young soldiers who had died during the war. Their photographs had ribbons around them and were drowning in flowers. Most of the soldiers who died on the frontline were unexperienced conscripts – straight-out-of-school 19-year-olds. The elderly man who allowed me inside the school wiped his tears and asked me not to film those photographs of dead youth.

After our conversation, Sona got a job with Teach for Armenia. This time this young woman with versatile experiences is employed as an emergency education manager.

Norėdamas tęsti – užsiregistruok


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