And her fight against violence in the army.
I meet with Tsovinar Nazaryan at the relaxed decorated restaurant Square One, close to Republic Square in down town. The restaurant is popular among NGO-staffers, diplomats and expats. During lunch time it is crowded. She gives me a welcoming smile when she sees me walking through the door; we had been introduced through Facebook.
Tsovinar is a 36 years old young Armenian woman who for 16 years worked as a journalist, but recently graduated from Howard University in Washington DC. A master degree in Mass communications and media studies was the result of her years in the US. She is now back in Yerevan and works for Eurasia Partnership Foundation but most of her time is spend on the fight for human rights in the army. More exactly, the fight against the violence in the army. Violence that in 2010 took statistically more than one boy’s life every week. But sometimes it is three a week or even six. 54 boys’ life in 2010. 8 lives so far this year.
“According to the government, they all committed suicide…”
The blame is many times put on the victims. When not explaining the deaths as suicide the government blames the death on car accidents or Azerbaijani snipers.
A statement that Tsovinar does not believe in. And neither do many Armenians. The deaths are not related to combat, which was my first thought when I heard about the numbers. No, the deaths are a result of abuse and violence in the army, among the soldiers. On the bodies, signs of abuse and torture are mostly found. Signs that also were found on Tsovinar’s brother’s body.
In Juli 2010, while Tsovinar studied
in the US, her brother was murdered in the army. Also in this case, the blame was put on the victim.
“They tell you that someone abused your brother or son and therefore he took his life”
She tells me about how the stories about her brother’s death were always changing. The same in all cases. Were he was found and how the “suicide” had been performed. The one less likely than the other.
“The army is a tough world, and your son or brother was not tough enough, he was weak…”
A common explanation for the committed suicide, expressed by the government and superiors in the army.
While we are sitting there, drinking coffee and talking, Tsovinar receives a phone call that confirms her theory of a death of a boy in the military just a few hours earlier. The same sign was found.
Her brother’s death was the starting point of becoming active against the violence in the army. She is active in a group called Army in Reality that fights against the taboo to criticize the army or talk about the violence. The group has around 300 members and 30 who are more active. Through different activities they fight to raise the awareness of this problem. It is mostly women who fights. Mothers of lost sons, worrying mother of sons who will soon join the army but also people who have not lost anyone but fighting for a good cause. Tsovinar tells me but about fighting mothers who are afraid of never seeing their sons again when they will perform their military service. A military service that is mandatory for boys turning eighteen. Some succeed in finding permission to be excused, but very few. Some also succeed to bribe their way of their obligation.
Tsovinar tells me about her meeting with the mothers.
“They do not know how to raise their boys, to be victims or perpetrators”
I ask if it exist any laws against this violence. It does, but still very few are being punished. Most of the cases do not even result in a trial. And since no one has never seen anything or know anything about the incident, we can never know if right person is being punished. I ask why? And the answer I receive is corruption. Corruption is the answer of many of my questions.
So why is this violence going on in the army? Her answer is that the army is an institution, and as all institutions, it is consisted by norms and culture that is rather difficult to change.
“The army has a masculine and patriarchal culture filled with corruption”
In many Armenian men’s eyes, you are not a man until you have entered the army. You become a man in the military. And if you do not prove to be a man while you are there, you may become the victim.
Tsovinar tells me that this culture is not only found in the army, but also found in the Armenian culture. Boys have to be raised to sooner or later become a “man” in the military. And if not, they have to be prepared of dealing with others who has performed their military service in this culture.
So I ask Tsovinar if she believes that the army is a reflection of the society or if the society is a reflection of the army. She answers:
“The army is a reflection of the authorities.”
I ask her if she believes there will be a change, and she answers that the last year it has actually been a change. – Probably not in the army, but in the way of speaking about it. Today you can talk about it, the awareness is raised and many journalists write about the incidents, which did never happened before. She also believes activism in general has become more visible but there is still a long way to go.
After two pleasant hours of talking about not only violence in the army but also about feminism, discourses, experiences and the Armenian society, I ask her my final question; do you have any role model? She has three. Her female professor during her studies in the US who had been active in everything from feminism to LGBTQ-rights and environmental questions. The other is her mother who never gives up fighting. And the third is Anahit Bayandur, a famous Armenian translator and human rights activist who received the Olof Palme award for her peace efforts during the war. She died in 2011 in the age of 71.
But Tsovinar also find inspiration in young brave girls who have a strong belief in something and are not afraid of standing up for them. A picture that I would use to describe Tsovinar. A strong woman who are not afraid of entering “masculine” spheres, who speak up for herself and others and fight for human rights.
I thank Tsovinar for her time and for the new knowledge and inspiration she has given me. On my way home I see some young military boys on the subway. Today I look at them differently.
Cathérine Söderberg, intern at Society Without Violence, Yerevan.