They were not afraid. But perhaps they should have been.
Columnist Fran Lynggaard Hansen’s last day in Armenia, flanked by friends after a going away party.

They were not afraid. But perhaps they should have been.

With Covid spreading wildly and in a city under siege in a complicated war, a U.S. expatriate in Armenia was prepared to leave the country with a bag packed and an exit strategy. Actually doing so in a time of pandemic and during a war is far more complicated.

BRATTLEBORO — Miss Fran, what is a pipe bomb?

I was teaching second grade and was also head of the primary at an international school in Armenia, an Eastern European country, on the day this question was asked of me in October of 2020.

Armenia was in a war with Azerbaijan that began on Sept. 27 of that year. But it wasn't the first war between them, and it certainly won't be the last.

Every Armenian family that I knew had a member of their family in the war that raged about two hours away from Yerevan, the capital city where I was living. Every Armenian man from ages 18 to 50 was fighting for his country.

The day the war officially began, one of my teaching friends said, “Ms. Fran, when we win this war, you will see a party in this city like none you have ever seen. We will be dancing in the streets!”

But they didn't win.

* * *

This war, like all others was complicated. Azerbaijan was backed by the Ottoman Empire (Turkey). Armenia wasn't backed by anyone. Russia sold arms to both sides.

These tensions didn't start that September. They had been boiling under the currents of daily life for so many years that no one is sure when it all began, but the genocide of Armenia's people perpetrated by Turkey in 1915 was a turning point of hatred in what is now a religious war between Muslims and Christians. There is much hatred on both sides.

In the end, 1.5 million Armenians were murdered by Turkey. Hitler would later model his extermination of the Jews during World War II on the success of Turkey's genocide of the Armenian people.

“Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” he said.

Relations have always been strong between Azerbaijan and Turkey, and they are often described as “one nation, two states” by the ex-president of Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev, due to both being Turkic countries. Some Armenians believe that the goal is to unite those two countries, separated from one another on the map only by Armenia.

* * *

Before the war, during the spring of 2019, I was traveling with my family, who had come for a visit; we had passed through eastern Armenia on our way to see an ancient monastery very near the Azerbaijan border that sunny Easter Sunday.

The four of us were riding in the back seat of a van with our guide, who joined the driver in the front seats.

“I'd like all of you to get as far down on the floor as possible,” the guide turned to us and said.

We thought he was joking.

When we didn't move, he spoke calmly.

“Seriously, get down now,” he said. “I'll explain in a minute.”

All of us, except the driver, tucked ourselves below the windows.

On our right were huge mounds of earth that reached above the height of a tall truck. In between these massive mounds, Azerbaijani soldiers stood along the border pointing machine guns at the road.

No one fired at us that day, but this past fall, an Armenian family was killed while driving this same road.

When it was safe to sit up again, the tour guide said, “The soldiers along the border take potshots at Armenian cars passing through here just for fun, and we never know when they will fire.”

* * *

As a volunteer for the U.S. Embassy in Armenia, I had a list of names of U.S. citizens who were living in my area. There weren't many of us.

In the event of an emergency, it would be my job to contact these people and offer emergency medical care if they couldn't get to a hospital, as I was a retired emergency medical technician and did ambulance work in the United States for five years. Or I could be asked to call to give them information that I would get directly from the embassy.

Miss Fran, do you think my uncle is dead? My family whispers that he is, but they won't tell me. Do you think he has died?

* * *

The embassy had advised me to pack a “go bag” that summer, just before the war officially broke out. My duffle bag included my hiking boots, a winter coat, an Army can opener that I'd kept from my backpacking days, some dried food - mostly fruit and nuts and some Russian-made granola bars - and bottled water.

Having lived abroad for many years, I had come to discover that my medicines weren't always available or were of poor quality, so I purchased the next year's worth every summer when I'd visit the United States. Those I carefully placed in the go bag as well.

I also put in a compass, safety glasses, medical kit, and a lightweight space blanket made of a silver color so that I could use it as a signal or to keep warm as winter approached. I also included a headlamp, extra batteries, solar cellphone charger and matches.

I also included an earthquake whistle I had bought when I went to Haiti to offer medical assistance after the big earthquake there in 2010. Earthquakes being common in this part of the world, that was always on my keychain. It could help people find me if I were trapped in rubble.

Covid was running rampant, so I put a bunch of masks and vinyl gloves in the bag, too.

* * *

To the best of my knowledge, none of my Armenian friends had packed go bags. They have lived with wars all their lives, and the how of living during hard times has been passed down the generations for centuries.

Most Armenian families still can grow most of their own foods and dry their meats. Families who live in the city generally get fruits and vegetables from their relatives who live on farms in the countryside. They were already prepared.

When the Soviet Union walked away from Armenia after the Berlin Wall fell, my friends told me stories about their survival. The Russian Ruble was worthless. There was no work to be had as all Soviet-run factories closed.

They had no running water. Power in the country was undependable for two years - that's when most of the trees in the country were cut down for fuel. Nonprofits now work to replant them more than 30 years later.

* * *

Approximately 1 million of Armenia's 2.9 million people live in its capital, Yerevan, which for the most part is a modern city. Others live in the beautiful mountains in this stunning country, which is bordered by Azerbaijan, Turkey, Iran and, to the north, Georgia - the nation that provides some buffer from Mother Russia.

In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia, and U.S. troops were brought in after that attack. As is the case in Ukraine, part of Georgia is still occupied by Russia illegally.

The aid from the United States that followed has been a blessing and a curse to Georgia: its roads and infrastructure are superior to Armenia's roads, but U.S. corporations have also bought up a lot of the country, and Georgia looks, at least in its capital city of Tbilisi, increasingly American.

When I first visited Tbilisi in the fall of 2019, I saw Georgians protesting Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had been meddling in their open and free elections, spreading disinformation, and trying to install one of his goons into government.

* * *

I was thinking that if I would need to leave Armenia, Georgia would be my best bet. Old Soviet-style trains left a couple of times per day from Yerevan, and if I could get to the airport, it would be only a 45-minute flight into Tbilisi. From there, with a little luck, I could stay in a hotel until I could get a flight to the U.S.

By this time, I was the only person I knew who was making such plans. Those who wanted to leave and saw the war coming had already left.

Two of my students' families withdrew their children from school and went to live with relatives in Russia. Many others had done the same.

Miss Fran, why won't you let us play war on the playground? Why can't I bring my toy gun to school?

Even though the war did not reach the city of Yerevan, I began to grow more concerned when the president of Azerbaijan announced that if Armenia would not surrender, he would send rockets to explode the Chernobyl-era nuclear power plant on the city border, which provided most of our electricity.

I asked my friends about that threat.

“His announcement is designed to make us afraid,” they said. “We are not afraid.”

Perhaps you should be, I thought.

* * *

The next day, I found an official-looking document, written in Armenian, posted on the door to my old-style Soviet-built apartment building. I sent a photo to a friend who could tell me what it said.

Her text said that I was looking at directions to the bomb shelter in the basement of my building, built during the Cold War to protect the Soviet Union from U.S. missiles.


It went on to explain that I was to listen for the air raid sirens, then shut off my gas, electricity, and water and proceed to the basement. I knew I would likely never do that, even if I heard the sirens.

There were upwards of 2,500 new cases of Covid being diagnosed every day in the city. In the bomb shelters, which many other cities and towns were forced to use as rockets hit buildings during the war, people weren't wearing masks.

Preventing the spread of Covid was the last thing on anyone's mind, and the virus was exploding along with the bombs. Refugees were dying of both Covid and war.

Many were already streaming into the city. They had nothing but the clothes on their backs, and most had walked from the center of the fighting into Yerevan, a journey of several days. Most had burned their homes before they left so that Azerbaijani soldiers could find no shelter.

These people had lost everything. They were dirty, hungry, and tired. Many were begging on the streets with nowhere else to go.

I saw them daily. My Armenian friends and our school gathered clothing, food, and monetary donations for these frightened and sad refugees.

It was hardest to see the children.

* * *

Now, six months after the beginning of the pandemic, no vaccine is on the horizon. As the head of primary, I can barely keep the school open with the numbers of teachers sick with Covid.

Most of the hospitals in this tiny country are in Yerevan. All the beds are filling with injured soldiers. Only 300 ventilators serve the entire country, and of those, only 15 are reserved for Covid patients.

On this day, 482 people with serious Covid are on the waiting list for a hospital bed. Anyone who can afford to was hiring a private nurse to care for the ill at home, but they are expensive, and few nurses are available because of the war. It is hard to get X-rays as they went first to soldiers. Many are dying daily of Covid pneumonia.

A text message comes in.

“Dear Ms. Fran,” it reads. “I won't be coming into school today. I just found out that my boyfriend is severely wounded. I must find him in the hospitals. No one knows which one he is in.”

“I'm sorry. I don't know when I will be able to return to work. There aren't enough nurses. When I find him, I will have to stay at the hospital to feed and bathe him if he is still alive.”

Meanwhile, the Armenian dram is losing value, and the landlord will accept my rent only in U.S. dollars. My rent is supposed to be $550 per month; today, because the dram was devalued, it's now $622. I wonder how long I'd be able to afford to live in my home.

An Armenian friend outside the city says I can live with her, but I fear I won't be able to get a cab into work each day. The streets are filling with protestors. There have already been general strikes to protest how the government is handling the war.

I continue to ride my bicycle to work, as I live a couple of miles away from school, which remains open and won't close. I've been discussing plans with the school director how to keep the children safe in the basement if we're bombed.

I receive a text from a friend at 2 a.m. “The Armenian Army is in my backyard shooting down Azerbaijani drones. Listen for the air raid signal and be ready to go to the bomb shelter.”

My friend has called the police in the middle of the night to report the sighting. They've been able to down two drones but can't find the third.

I take out my go bag and slip back into my bed fully dressed. The Army thinks the drones are mapping the streets of Yerevan to be ready to aim Azerbaijani rockets in our direction. I live a block away from the government buildings.

The next day, I find one of my teaching staff in a puddle of tears in the staircase. Her best friend's husband has been killed. Her friend is six months pregnant with their third child. I send her home with another teacher to care for her. She is inconsolable. They had given him a sendoff party just the week before.

I take out a significant amount of cash from an ATM to put in my go bag and check the flights and train schedule. As I walk away from the ATM, I am surrounded by two men. One of them bumps into me, and the other slashes my purse with a razor and tries to put his hand into my bag to steal my wallet.

I grab his hand, twist it, and yell “Police! Help!” They take off up the street. No one stops to help me.

I'm told by friends that this sort of thing happened a lot during the last war, and they warned me never go to the ATM alone. But I managed to save my wallet without getting slashed by a razor. My Armenian friends are shamed by their countrymen and apologize to me repeatedly.

* * *

The saddest part of this entire experience is how lonely I feel.

I am close to so many Armenian families who have welcomed me into their homes, who have cared for me and celebrated with me for the past two years. They've taught me about their culture and their traditions. They have been like family.

Now they are pulling away from me, stuck in their own world of hurt. They think that I can't understand their pain. They speak in groups in the hallway of the school in Armenian and stop talking when I pass by. They cry together, but they can't include me in their circle any longer.

“Don't use WhatsApp anymore,” a friend at school warns. “Don't answer any calls from numbers you don't know. Azerbaijani soldiers who speak Armenian are calling Armenian numbers asking questions, directions, if you know certain people.”

“They are taking Armenian prisoners, torturing them, and auctioning them off to relatives by showing the beaten men on YouTube videos,” my friend says.

I stop answering all calls unless I know who is calling, and I'm told even then to be cautious - to be sure the friend I'm talking to really is a friend.

* * *

My teaching assistant is withdrawn, and I wonder why. It turns out that her husband's brother has been killed. Her mother-in-law refuses to believe that he is dead. She is sure that he is being held hostage in Azerbaijan.

A leg bone, along with many other bones, will be found when the war ends, in a van he was hiding in as Azerbaijani soldiers had rushed the area in which he was fighting. DNA will identify him and show the 12 soldiers in the van were the victims of a pipe bomb.

When I try to post an update on Facebook with the word Azerbaijan, the post will disappear. I now write, “the country with whom we are at war,” when I write a post to let people know I'm OK.

I start to receive daily messages from friends and family around the world, begging me to go home.

I resign my job on the last day of December.

* * *

It will take six weeks to be able to find a flight out because as soon as I schedule one, it gets cancelled. Only a few carriers will be willing to fly into the airport, even after it reopens. On Feb. 13, 2021, I will trade my go bag for luggage and fly home to the United States.

There will be an earthquake that day in Armenia, and as I drive with a friend down the city streets, we'll feel the rumble of the earth under our tires and watch people stream out of buildings onto the sidewalks.

I will feel this is the last bit of evidence to let me know I've made the right decision. My stomach will be in knots that evening until the plane takes off, hoping a stronger earthquake doesn't hit the city.

I will have trouble leaving the country. The school will be angry that I've resigned and will cancel all my paperwork. In the two weeks leading to my departure, a police officer will be at my door with a registered letter that says I'm considered an illegal alien.

I'll end up in the police station the night I fly out, will have to call a lawyer, and will be let out and back to the airport just moments before the flight departs. I will be double masked on that journey, hoping that I don't catch Covid along the way.

* * *

Yerevan never would be invaded during the war, which Armenia lost. Russia would broker a peace deal but manage to insert “peacekeepers” who would indefinitely allow tiny movements of Azerbaijani soldiers into Armenia, soldiers who would end up occupying more and more Armenian land.

A little piece of land that I bought - land on which I was going to build a house and retire - is now for sale.

Throughout this journey, Armenian friends continually asked me, “Where was Mother Russia? Why didn't she save us at the beginning of the war?”

It is difficult to be honest in my answer, which is that Putin is a game player. He doesn't care about Armenia or Armenians. He always hedges his bets.

Russia took everything from Armenia at the end of the Soviet era, and Armenia was once again established as its own country in September of 1991. Putin uses Armenia as a bargaining chip with Turkey and Azerbaijan.

Russia had already stripped Armenia of anything valuable when it became a country - all the gold, zinc, silver, and copper. There is nothing left for him to care about.

There is plenty for him to care about in Ukraine, once a breadbasket for the Soviet Union, a country still rich with natural resources and rich black soil for growing food.

* * *

I am not Armenian, and I write here only of my personal experiences living there. The situation in Ukraine is far different, and I do not profess to know all that the citizens of Ukraine are enduring.

My wish here is to give those who are privileged to live in North America, where we have not directly experienced war upon our land for 157 years, a taste of what it is like to experience a modern-day war.

Like Armenia, Ukraine shares a similar history of destruction by Russia. And one can be sure that all the same types of issues of modern warfare are at play there now as Ukrainians fight Russian soldiers in the streets.

Bless all Ukrainians. May they be more supported by the eyes and countries of the world than Armenia was during her time of need.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates