War & peace
7 min read

Diary of an invisible war

As her journalism career started, Lika Zarkaryan’s home town was invaded. She kept a diary as she reported and recalls the experience of an invisible war.

Lika Zakaryan is a writer and photographer based in the Republic of Artsakh (Karabakh).

The Stepanakert Monument
The We Are Our Mountains monument, a war memorial in Stepanakert, the capital of the Republic of Artsakh,
Photo: Marcin Konsek, Wikimedia Commons.

Once upon a time in a faraway corner of the world, there was a little republic. It was mountainous and beautiful, located in the South Caucasus. Here was the ancient Amaras monastery, where the creator of the Armenian Alphabet Mesrop Mashtots founded the first-ever school that used his script - the Armenian Letters, in the 4th century. Many other Armenian Christian monasteries and churches from the 4th, 8th, 13th and different centuries are located in this area. 

This is a magical place - the Republic of Artsakh, although you may have heard it called Karabakh. Depending on who you ask that means Black Garden or a Beautiful Garden.

Stalin’s legacy

Nagorno-Karabakh is a disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but for me, it is HOME. The conflict over Karabakh dates back to the early days of the Soviet Union when the boundaries of a new empire were being drawn. It was Joseph Stalin’s idea to award the territory of Karabakh, inhabited by Armenians for centuries, to Soviet Azerbaijan, which produced 60% of the oil of the USSR. But Karabakh would remain semi-autonomous and Armenians actually remained a firm majority there even though ethnic crimes increased over the next decades.

In February 1988 mobs of Azerbaijanis in the seaside town of Sumgait began to attack and kill Armenians in the town. That is when Armenians in Karabakh and in Armenia rose after protests

and in 1991, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, the people of Karabakh voted to regain independence, just like Armenia, Azerbaijan and other Soviet countries. Of course, Azerbaijan didn’t like that. That is how the first war started. In the early 1990s, Armenians from all over the world came to Artsakh to fight in an intense ground war. When a ceasefire was brokered in 1994 Armenians were in control of Artsakh and several surrounding regions. So the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s  Minsk Group, co-chaired by Russia, France, and the United States, was charged with organizing the peace process. But negotiations failed and Artsakh was never recognized. Azerbaijan continued to dream of revenge.

A peaceful capital

This area is not so rich in natural resources, but it seems like heaven on earth. Clean mountain air, green and dense forests, pristine water from the mountains, and kind, smiling people. Here, for example, in public transport, you will never be afraid that someone might steal something from your bag. Such things do not happen in Artsakh. Children can play quietly for hours in the yard, and parents don't even think that someone can harm them. While walking in the capital city - Stepanakert, it is impossible to see any garbage on the street, people keep the environment very clean. People do not usually take their parents to the care home, but take care of them themselves and enjoy the presence of their parents until the last day. Everyone cares about each other and just wants to live peacefully in their homes. I was born in Stepanakert and grew up in just such an environment.

The first day

On September 27, 2020, we woke up in the morning to the sounds of an explosion. At first, I thought it was just a nightmare. But then, when I saw my little sister trembling with fear, I realized that it was real, and the war had begun. Azerbaijan attacked Artsakh and used various prohibited weapons, targeting ordinary people like me. My family and everyone went down to the basements, the first floors of our houses, or wherever we could hide. However, we were aware that we would not be saved in case of a direct hit, of course.

I was working as a journalist in an Armenian media outlet Civilnet at that time and could not sit idly by. My cameraman and I went out into the streets together to see what evidence we could film. I started my work as a journalist only two months before the war and it would be a lie to say that I was the most experienced one. However, at that moment there was no more time, it was necessary to get together and do what you can. Our colleagues from Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, joined us and together we began to tell stories about the war. I turned from a novice journalist into a war correspondent.

The diary of war

All my family was in this war: my mother worked in the hospital and I saw her only several times during those 44 days of the war; my brother was called to the frontline on the first day and was in the war till the end; my father, a veteran and a disabled person from the First Artsakh War, helped transport military equipment. For us it wasn’t like ‘going to war’, for us it was ‘protecting our home’. 

I started to write posts - diaries every day and post them online. Here is a paragraph from the first day: 

‘I couldn’t just sit around and do nothing. No matter how much my parents insisted, I decided to go out into the city and work. I am not a war journalist, of course, but this is not simply a job. These events are happening in my Artsakh. Today, for the first time, I witnessed the traces of explosions, scattered pieces of rockets, wounded people and a drone flying and exploding in the air… I think that’s enough for a day.’

The diaries became quite popular by that time, especially after some days, when my cameraman was also called to the frontline. I couldn’t make video reports myself, and then I started to write and photograph more. I understood that I don’t want to write about politics, but rather about human beings, who suffer, hope, smile, cry, lose, and love. 

‘Today my friend Mike from the USA, also a reporter, asked the five-year-old boy Marat what he would do if he had a lot of money. We met the family of Marat in a basement of an old school. He replied, “I would buy a watch and sunglasses.” Mike took his Lacoste glasses out of his bag and gave them to Marat as a gift. “Try them on!” And Marat, not knowing how to put them on, wore them backwards. We all laughed and helped him to do it properly. They were too big for him but he was incredibly happy. We looked at the boy and said, “Marat, you have to be careful, they cost a fortune!” We all had a good laugh…’

Sometimes it was very difficult to stay resilient…

‘Day 15: October 11, 2020

It already feels like Groundhog Day. Stepanakert isn’t being bombed, at least that is how it seems so far since I’m still in the basement. The drones flew and fell, but I did not hear talk of victims. The weather was great today, but it was scary to go outside. Sometimes, it feels like I will never be able to go out into the street. I woke up at midnight and I couldn’t sleep the rest of the night from yesterday’s heavy bombing. We already can distinguish the sounds—when it’s a Smerch, when it’s a drone, when it’s cluster bombs, and when it’s us hitting their drone. It is sad that we can distinguish these sounds. But what can we do? This is our reality for today.’

During the war, I and my diaries experienced a lot. I heard that the hospital where my mother works was bombed. I headed there and found her, thanks to God, safe and sound. I saw a man repairing his garage as cluster bombs were falling; a woman making tea between an intermission of the bombs; the targeting against the civilian population; a human rights defender who could not see asking the world not to be blind; soldiers being baptised in the middle of the war; a man dying in a hospital; houses without faces; closets abandoned; toys left behind; mothers who lost the meaning of the lives - their sons… 

The war was over with our loss… We didn’t win, although we thought we will… Azerbaijan conquered nearly 70% of Artsakh. Thousands of people lost their lives, and thousands lost their homes and became displaced persons. The war continued for 44 days and 150 000 Armenians of Artsakh and millions of Armenians in Armenia and Diaspora will never forget those bloody days.

Writing the diaries for me was a way to express myself, as sometimes it seemed that I could go insane. I also felt that by doing that I am useful to others. And that is a very important factor for me. I, like everyone else, wanted to be useful. Mostly the women and children left for Armenia, to a safer place, than Artsakh. They went there to wait until the war is over, and later they came back home. I felt that people who are outside couldn’t really know what happens there. That is why I wanted to give them information first-hand. 

During the war, I met many wonderful people. I also met a director, Garin Hovannisian, who came to Artsakh from Armenia to film the war and my diaries. After the war, he supported me in publishing the diaries as a book: 44 days: Diary From an Invisible War. Together we made a documentary on the Artsakh war - Invisible Republic, which is now, after taking part in film festivals, available for watching. 

1 min read

How to be (un)successful

Could busyness really be the counterfeit of significance?
A man sits cross legged in a park with a laptop on the grass in front of him. He looks to one side.
Malte Helmhold on Unsplash.

You probably want to be a success. 

That’s OK – it’s a very reasonable thing to desire.  

The questions ‘Am I successful?’ or ‘What is success?’ are deeply significant and to ask such questions is a normal part of the human experience. The yearning for a life of purpose, as elusive as it can seem, is felt acutely by the majority of those who have ever lived – certainly by more than might admit it. (Those feelings of inadequacy you experience may be more common than you think.) And now more than ever it is understandable that you may feel you are not particularly successful, or not successful enough. We are assaulted by a combination of capitalism and consumerism, social media and cancel culture, polarised ideologies and virtue signalling, topped off by the wounds of our parents passed down – all of which can amalgamate into producing some pretty angsty, pressure-driven people. 

It’s not just you; I’m pretty sure we all have a bit of a problem with success (the word itself is so subjective), and our idea of it can often be fuelled by wounds rather than vision, romanticised projections rather than reality. Because we are all somewhat flawed, any worldly contribution we try to make can get precariously entangled with a me-fixated narcissism on a fairly regular basis.  

Most of us know that being successful is not simply about money, looks, large numbers or power. That’s just a caricature to which very few reasonable people actually subscribe, right?  

Well, sure – at least on the surface. 

My social-media feeds are rammed full of early-to-mid-thirties enjoying a kind of spandex-clad transcendence. 

The thing is, despite seeing through it and being repelled by it in others (we see it’s all vanity, inch-deep), something in us longs for success on these terms. But much more interesting than skimming along the surface of ‘success’ is excavating deeper into some of the core motivating beliefs we humans have about ourselves, such as mistaken pride in thinking we each control our destiny, or paranoia that tells us there’s an inherent scarcity of everything in the world. These are the swell that carry along the undercurrent of comparison – where we see the lives of others and long for a different reality for ourselves. And comparison – so often eliciting either pride or despondency – rarely ends well.  

A cursory glance through the wisdom of online articles on the matter tells us millennials typically understand that material wealth isn’t the marker of success – there are enough old, sad, rich people to show that. Instead, success has now become synonymous with living a life that others want. Chase an experience. Go adventure. Wanderlust. #yolo. To succeed in life is to publicly consume as many unique experiences as you can during your short time on earth.  

I don’t know about you, but my social-media feeds are rammed full of early-to-mid-thirties enjoying a kind of spandex-clad transcendence. Success for today’s generation would seem to look a lot less like the overweight suit-clad city trader selling their soul to the system, making shedloads of cash to buy a slice of suburban real estate with a Porsche in the drive, and more like the lithe and mindful global citizen doing ‘life on my terms’. Think coastal living, yoga on a stand-up paddleboard in the morning, slaying the emails in your industrial co-working space, eating a superfood lunch, nailing a couple of zoom calls early evening before smashing some gua bao and margaritas with ‘your peeps’ at the latest pop-up restaurant before taking an Uber home. #squadgoals  

There’s no escaping the fact that technology has shrunk the world and as James Mumford notes, ‘global capitalism has brought so many different ways of life closer to us than ever before. We can see vividly a greater number of people who we want to be.’ This can bring up hidden feelings we thought we’d buried long ago.  

I often feel unfulfilled. Sometimes completely lost. For years I haven’t been able to admit that. Until fairly recently I would find myself looking at others and thinking: ‘Don’t they ever struggle with life’s big questions? Don’t they ever want to give up? Surely, I can’t be the only one sinking under the weight of comparison?’ Far from freeing me from my broken sense of self, the version of faith I was trying to live by was exacerbating the core wound I recognised in myself. That wound was a sense of feeling a failure, unsuccessful. And like an unwelcome parasite, it fed on comparison to others.  

Read any random couple of articles on ‘successful’ people talking about how ‘successful’ they are, and a lot of what’s conveyed is a profoundly angsty relationship with time: ‘You only have one shot at life’; ‘I don’t want to waste my time on earth’; ‘You can never get it back.’  

It’s as though we have an inherent recognition – and for some, dread – of the physical limits placed on us by virtue of being mortal and human. But what if unencumbered productivity, unceasing activity and unrelenting progress – however that is defined – are signs less of success than of self-centred insecurity? Could busyness really be the counterfeit of significance?  

It’s as if we have, left unchecked, an insatiable appetite for accomplishment. It’s not hard to see where this comes from. Paul Kingsnorth comments that: “Modern economies thrive by encouraging ever-increasing consumption of harmful junk, and our hyper-liberal culture encourages us to satiate any and all of our appetites in our pursuit of happiness. If that pursuit turns out to make us unhappy instead – well, that’s probably just because some limits remain un-busted.” He goes on to suggest that this is a fundamentally spiritual problem, because ‘a crisis of limits is a crisis of culture, and a crisis of culture is a crisis of spirit.’ 

So far so depressing? 

It needn’t be. 

Fullness of life – true success, if you like - is found in living to serve others above ourselves. 

Despite my continued struggle with all of the above, (neatly summarised by the inner critic’s voice asking me ‘what have you got to show for your life?’), I am beginning to learn that ‘life in its fullness’ (as Jesus once described what he came to offer) is found elsewhere. So, what does this look like and how do we successfully access this fullness of life? This quote can come across – and I’ve heard it used as such – like a marketing slogan, dangling a golden carrot in front of sad or vulnerable people to recruit them into church. Presumably that wasn’t what Jesus had in mind.  

Now there’s no denying the fact that Jesus was one of the most influential people who ever lived. Arguably THE most influential. Generally, even those who don’t follow him recognize that what he taught was pretty timeless. (Also evidenced by the 2.6 billion people today who are happy to be called Christian.) All of this suggests he had some fairly wise takes on how to live life well, and that his perspectives have stood the test of time. So, when he is recorded as teaching about how to discover what he described as ‘life in its fullness’, the chances are there is something valuable and insightful for those of us searching for success.  

The thing is, in this particular speech, Jesus conceptualized ‘life in its fullness’ as a shepherd who ‘lays down his life for the sheep’. Sure, he was talking about himself, but he was also talking more broadly about the human experience. Jesus’ point is that fullness of life – true success, if you like - is found in living to serve others above ourselves. This flies in the face of much conventional ‘self-help’ wisdom, but it would seem you cannot find true abundance any other way.  

We might well think: ‘Well hang on a minute, Jesus claimed to die for the sins of humanity – we can’t all do that!’ Absolutely right, and please don’t try. But in dying and raising to life again, Jesus foreshadowed the journey of surrender and rebirth that each person who chooses true success must go through. As C. S. Lewis said: ‘Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead.’ This new life of serving others above ourselves – where we seek to align our desires, loves and motivations, our use of time and energy, words and actions with those of Jesus – comes to resemble the promise of life in its fullness. Discovering that would seem fairly successful wouldn’t it? 


How to be (UnSuccessful) is published by SPCK.