In the picturesque village of Sarnaghbyur nestled in the Askeran region of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh), there was only one school. Within its humble walls, six children from different grades attended classes. The school was more than just an educational institution; it was a symbol of resilience, a testament to the endurance of the people who called this village home. Director Zhanna Gabrielyan was determined to preserve this small school, viewing it as a beacon of hope for the continued existence of her community. Today, however, both the school and the village lay in ruins, shattered by the aggression of Azerbaijan on September 19, 2023.
Artsakh's Ombudsman Gegham Stepanyan recently reported the grim toll exacted on this tiny village of 76 residents: five lives lost, 15 wounded, and four captured. Among the five casualties were three children -- David Aleksanyan, brothers Mikael and Nver Kazaryan. On September 30, the funeral for the two brothers took place in the city of Masis, Ararat region of Armenia. David had been laid to rest just a few days earlier.
"I clung to our small school with every fiber of my being, holding on with sheer determination," the director recounts to reporters. Much like the rest of Artsakh's population, she was compelled to leave her homeland, finding refuge in Armenia.
"In every classroom, we had one or two students, but I took pride in it," she says with conviction. "I believed that as long as even a single student remained, the school should endure! I told the children that the school bell should ring so loudly that even the Turks stationed in their outposts could hear it."
On that fateful day, September 19, the morning found everyone -- the children and the director -- engrossed in their studies. At 11 o'clock, gunfire erupted from posts near the village. Yet, it hardly registered within the school's walls; everyone’s focus was firmly on their lessons.
The children, particularly joyous that morning, shared their excitement, proclaiming that many parents had journeyed to Stepanakert, Artsakh's capital, to bring back food and sweets.
"Our mothers will bring chocolate, and we'll share it with you!" the children exclaimed, their enthusiasm bubbling over.
Director Zhanna Gabrielyan couldn't help but feel a sense of unease amid these conversations. Reports of the road connecting Artsakh to Armenia reopening had circulated, but she harbored doubts about its permanence or whether it signaled a positive change.
It turned out to be the final class held at Sarnaghbyur school, the last time the bell tolled in its hallowed halls.
After the school day ended, the director and the children headed home. Soon after, the intensity of the gunfire dramatically escalated. Fear gripping her, the director sought shelter with her family, clutching the lone bag she had in her possession. There had been no time to gather documents, precious gold jewelry, money, or even a photograph of her child.
Residing in the upper region of the village, the director and her family, along with neighbors, narrowly escaped when the village was bombarded, finding cover by sheer providence. However, those living in the lower region weren't as fortunate. As the barrage subsided, the director, along with her husband, child, mother-in-law, and several neighbors, ventured to the lower region to assess the situation and offer aid to fellow villagers. What they encountered was a scene of grievous injuries and tragic loss.
It transpired that her students, like many other civilians, had sought refuge in what they believed to be a relatively secure location. Tragically, indiscriminate enemy fire, either from an artillery shell or a kamikaze drone, found its mark, injuring and claiming the lives of civilians, including three innocent children.
Subsequently, Azerbaijani forces launched another assault on the village, leading to injuries sustained by Gabrielyan's husband and another villager. Those capable of moving were compelled to abandon their homes, their village, and ultimately, Karabakh itself.
"After a protracted struggle, we lost not only our cherished loved ones but also our homes and our homeland," the school director laments, her voice quivering with suppressed grief.