The tanks in the squares of my city
Published: Saturday March 08, 2008 in Living in Armenia
The city of my dreams was not a place where armored vehicles and tanks roamed. It was not a place where armed soldiers guarded bridges, underpasses, government buildings. It was not a city divided. It was not a city that looted. Or burned cars. Or destroyed public property. It is no longer the city of dreams. It is a city in shock and in a state of emergency.
People go to work, children attend school, construction workers continue to build buildings, villagers sell vegetables, and newstands sell newspapers which report only what the authorities say they can.
The sequence of events are not important. Every local news agency reported them. International media reported them, although eventually even they were censored in Armenia. What is important are the moments of dignity amidst the chaos and destruction. I was a witness to both.
Early Saturday morning, only a few hours after Opera Square was cleared out of Levon Ter-Petrossian supporters, my friend and I walked around the police cordons, all the way around the square. Large garbage trucks were clearing the debris - wooden sticks, mattresses, metal rods, hacked up benches, garbage. Water trucks then moved in to water down the entire square. In no time at all no one would have guessed that Opera Square had been a scene of fighting - of Armenian against Armenian, brother against brother. The only reminder of what had come to pass were the armored vehicles and army personnel that continue to man the square.
Had authorites foreseen the reaction of the protestors, things might have been different. If the former president had the foresight to put an end to the street battles and call his comrades-in-arms to pull back, perhaps we would not have lost eight of our sons. Perhaps our children would have been less scared. Perhaps the damage to the city and to our international reputation would not have been so severely tarnished. In a blink of an eye we were no longer the most stable country in the region. We fell like the Georgians and Ukrainians to pressures from within and from outside our borders. Our history should have reminded us that we are at the mercy, not only of internal domestic strife, but to the whim of larger, more influential forces playing games at our expense. It seems we are destined never to learn from our past even though we beat our chests and demand justice. We should have been searching for justice among our own ranks.
I have tried to remain objective throughout the last several weeks. I have tried to put aside personal beliefs and opinions and witness the images unfolding before me through the eyes of a disinterested observer. It has become impossible.
Many of us suspected that there would be unrest but none of us believed that it would be as devastating as it was. On February 29, one day before the riots, the president of the country, Robert Kocharian in a meeting with students from Yerevan State University said, "Certainly, the desirable way out would be if people would go back to their homes out of sheer boredom and there wouldn't be the necessity to use force. As for the use of force, the police use force when they are offered resistance... And naturally, no one has a special desire to resort to violent measures. The people at the square are our people and we must try to disabuse them, to give this political process a chance to logically outlive itself."
We had all hoped, perhaps naively that calm heads would prevail, and that the political forces would have had the sense to initiate dialogue and manage to find a way out of the impasse. So when my friend called me early Saturday morning and told me that Opera Square had been cleared of Levon Ter-Petrossian's supporters and was being guarded by police and internal security forces shock is a word that doesn't come close to what I felt.
That whole day we were on the streets, following the protestors, investigating explosions which seemingly had nothing to do with the protestors and shaking our heads in stunned disbelief at the presence of riot police, internal and special forces throughout the city. When we approached Miasnikian Square where the protestors had begun gathering it was a scene of chaos.
Right before us a public transporation bus was commandeered and driven in front of Congress Hotel to serve as a barricade. A young man, not even twenty, ran toward the bus with the Armenian flag in his hand, climbed on top of the roof and placed the flag on the bus to the cheers of his compatriots below. I too might have rejoiced with the swelling crowd if I felt that this was my fight. But I was not one of Levon Ter-Petrossian's supporters. I had only been to his rallies out of curiosity. I did not share his views, did not appreciate his tactics nor his demagogery. But he had moved people who were tired of corruption, fear, and injustice. His movement would have been noble had his intentions been noble. He promised a whole generation a brighter future but without a road map or a clearly, defined destination. He spewed hatred and poison but not once did I hear what his specific plans were. And now what will he say to all those families who lost their children? What will he say to an army of young people who really believed that he could change the country? He inspired hope but how can he now deliver?
And what about the authorities? How long did they think they could run the country like it was their private dominion? As they got more powerful and amassed greater wealth did they stop to think that this country, with its structures and institutions was not created to serve their personal ambitions?
There are no winners in this game. Today our country is the only loser. Yes, we have all seen images on our television screens of looting and rioting in other countries. But we should have known better. We should have understood that we don't have the luxury to destroy that which was built by the sweat and blood of all those before us. Every soul is precious, every young person is a bright light in our universe and to lose even one is a national tragedy in which we all share the blame.
Will this impasse force the creation of a new Armenia where justice, transparency, rule of law, equality and fairness prevail? I am not sure. What I am sure of is that we don't have a choice. We have to hurl ourselves into the 21st century kicking and screaming but we have to get there for the sake of the country.