"A son died, a daughter was born"

The story of 28 babies in Armenia who were born to "replace" children who died in the war of 2020
The exact number of Armenian victims during the Karabakh war in 2020 has not yet been determined. Officially the death toll is 3,781 people, and missing 231. Most of those who died were around eighteen years old.

And the parents of some have decided to have a child again in order to carry on.

However, they face a stereotype deeply rooted in society ⁠— parents who have lost a child, especially mothers, should not cease mourning. Many in Armenia think that living a full life and having more children is tantamount to betrayal of their lost child.

Even mothers who dared to give birth again have not completely overcome this stereotype and are ashamed, trying to justify themselves.

Reproductive technology

After the war, by decision of the Armenian government, all families who lost sons in the war and wished to have another child received the opportunity for free reproductive medical care.

Leading specialists of the country provide professional assistance to expectant mothers in five Armenian hospitals. Prior to this decision, the law “On Reproductive Health and Human Reproductive Rights” provided that only residents of border settlements, military personnel and their families, those with disabilities, and socially disadvantaged families receiving benefits could obtain free medical care.

There was also a maximum age limit - only women under the age of 35 could take advantage of this for free.

But the war changed everything. For the mothers of dead soldiers, all restrictions were lifted.
Initially it seemed that the program was unlikely to be successful, because of familial prejudices deeply entrenched in society. Psychologists say that Armenian society is ready to support women at times of loss, but often are not ready to accept these women deciding to carry on with their lives.
“How can they think of anything other than their son? Is it really so easy to forget your own child? And others live as if nothing happened.”
Sixty year old resident of Yerevan
This is the opinion of a sixty year old resident of Yerevan, who did not want to have her name published, because "I would not want to offend someone who already has it hard." But this judgment is by no means unique. Many of those we talked to expressed the same opinion:
“How can they raise a happy child with the pain and the emotional state they are in right now? Do you feel sorry for these kids? All their lives they will live in the shadow of their dead brother.”
Thirty-two year old resident of Yerevan
“Are they not ashamed to have children? It's time for them to have grandchildren, and they give birth to babies. What can they give a newborn at that age?”
Forty-eight year old resident of Yerevan
And women themselves are often embarrassed not only to have a baby again, but even to use makeup or wear bright clothing.

And yet, two years after the start of the program, it's obvious that there are those who want to take advantage of this opportunity and there will obviously be more.
Thanks to the program, 28 babies have already been born. In 2021-22, AMD 917 million [about $2.3 million] was allocated to the project, which is three times more than in the previous year.

Nelly, Ara, Leona and Levon
In the corner of the living room, toys are scattered randomly in a box. This happens in all homes with newborns. In the same corner, framed photos are displayed neatly. They show a handsome young boy, Levon. Here in this part of the home, the fates of the deceased Levon and newborn Leona converge.

“In this corner of the house everything is mixed up, as in our life. We live, as it were, between life and death,” their father, Ara Manukyan, says, pointing to his daughter in a stroller – under the photographs of her brother.

Nineteen year old Levon died during the 2020 war. His parents learned of his death on October 14 of that year. They also have a daughter, sixteen year old Tamar. But Ara says that from that day on, their lives had no meaning.
“A year after Levon's death, I had a dream about him in which he gave me two bulls. I woke up and told my husband. I believe that Levon sent me a sign.”
Nelly Ghahramanyan
“On that day we decided that we were ready to have a baby, even though I had serious health problems. I was already 41 years old, it was late. But after that dream, I didn’t doubt for a minute that everything would work out,” Levon’s mother Nelly Ghahramanyan says.

Ara did not put much faith in the dream; after his son’s death, he didn’t believe in much at all. He says that all his life he lived according to the principle “do good - and you have good done to you”, but the worst thing that could happen to him happened.

“I don't know how we live. I don't know how you can live with this longing for your son. You wake up and fall asleep with the same thought. It does not let go for a second, does not subside. Everyone is alive, only my son is gone. Why? I've been looking for the answer to this question for more than two years and I can't find it,” says Ara.
But in the sixth month of pregnancy, Nelly's condition took a turn ⁠— pneumonia and coronavirus. Leona and Leah were born at six months old. Leah lived only 24 hours; Leona survived.

“She was born with a weight of only one kilogram, but I knew she would live. She screamed so loudly when she was born, as if to say: "It's me, I'm here!" I saw her for only a few seconds, then she was immediately transferred to the intensive care unit.

A few days later I asked to look at her at least from a distance. When I approached the incubator, my heart stopped: she was so small, as if she had no bones, I clearly saw every heartbeat under her chest. I knew that she was weak ⁠— so much so that I was allowed to hug her only after two months. But I never doubted for a second that she would live. She is a fighter, she is strong just like her brother. She had to survive so that we could live,” Nelly says.
Sons killed by the war, mothers killed by the condemnation of society
Lilit Baghdasaryan, a PhD in Psychology and head of the Recovery College, has been working with families who lost children during the war for more than two years. During this time she has learned the stories of hundreds of families.

“Many stereotypes associated with women who have lost a child are rooted in society. And these stereotypes are especially strong in the regions, in villages. According to neighbors, a mother should always be in mourning. And our priority as psychologists should be to combat these stereotypes," Baghdasaryan says.
“On the one hand, our society is very supportive. At a moment when a woman is experiencing a loss, the whole society, whether it be a village or a city, friends and neighbors try to help her out of her grief.

“But when a woman tries to get up, when she is ready to continue her life, this is when they stigmatize her. They don’t forgive her for wanting to go on.”

“Society is still dominated by traditions, and they are annoyed by women who begin again. If society could reconsider its prejudices, the examples of women who have carried on can do a lot of good for more women in that situation.
“The sons of these women died more than two years ago, but most of them refuse makeup, hair coloring and care products. When we ask why, they answer that society will not be able to understand them."
Lilit Baghdasaryan
There was an initiative to support women called "Peer Counselors". These are mothers whose children died; they are members of the public organization "Forever". At one time they all also turned to psychologists for support. Working with them, psychologists realized that these women have the power to overcome their pain and support others.
At the same time, Baghdasaryan says, psychologists themselves faced another stereotype: parents refused psychological support, believing that no one would understand their pain. In order to support these people, specialists of the Recovery College trained mothers to work in the public organization "Forever".

"Peer Counselors" has become a link between mothers whose sons have died and specialists. The rule is universal ⁠— no one may decide for them how to grieve, when to stop grieving, and how they will carry on. The families must understand that their sons did not die so that they should live in mourning forever,” Baghdasaryan believes.
“Of course, the birth of a new child does not mean that we stop remembering the dead. But we need to find meaning. If this state lasts more than one or two years then we are dealing with pathological grief, which leads to a number of other problems ⁠— insomnia, exhaustion, depression.
“Women in Armenian society are in a much more vulnerable position in relation to social stereotypes. It is generally believed that a child's bond with their mother is stronger than with their father. Therefore, men who return to normal life after the loss of a child are less criticized.

“It is widely believed that a man should not turn to a psychologist and, in general, ‘should be strong’, not show his feelings, silently endure his pain. Heart attacks, headaches and alcoholism are frequent consequences for fathers who have lost children.

И рождение нового ребенка как раз противостоит всем стигмам.

“Unfortunately, there are families who decide to have a child because they are unable to cope with grief. In this case, they are not yet emotionally ready to give the newborn the love they need, but merely want to replace the other. Rejection from society further prevents them from understanding themselves.

“The emotionally unstable state of parents can affect the child’s development," Lilit Baghdasaryan says.
"Remember, but don't cry"
When Leona is with her sister Tamar she is usually calm and cheerful, but feels when her parents discuss their lost child, especially when mother starts crying. The baby gets upset and cries too, as if trying to distract her parents from sad thoughts, drawing attention to herself. At least that's what her parents think.

Nelly says that she often watches videos on her phone while putting Leona to bed. One of them is from Levon's school ⁠— there are white balloons on which classmates wrote their dream; Levon launched his own into the sky. What dream their son had his parents will never know, but they think that they fulfilled one of his wishes ⁠— Levon said that he wanted a brother or sister.
Text Author
Sona Martirosyan

Arman Gharajyan
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