I met Vik in an old, abandoned courtyard in a suburb of Yerevan which had been retrofitted as a military training center. When the war started on September 27, he left his successful vinyl business in the hands of his partner in Los Angeles and got on the next flight to Yerevan. He’s now part of a group of recruits going through a two-week boot camp conducted by VoMA.
The acronym VoMA, or ՈՄԱ in Armenian, is short for Ողջ Մնալու Արվեստ (The Art of Staying Alive). Despite what the name suggests, the organization isn’t so much a Bee Gees fan club, but a profoundly organized militia with a state mandate to provide military training for new volunteer recruits ready to defend Armenia against any foreign invasion. The training center has graduated thousands of recruits since being established following the 2016 April War.
Vik is one of almost 70 new recruits a day which VoMA welcomes into its ranks. Over the next 12 days, his squad will perform basic fitness exercises, march as a unit, participate in weapons exercises, learn infantry tactics, undergo emergency combat medical training and alpinism. VoMA remains secretive about its training regime, however its emphasis on guerrilla-style training is said to be well adapted for the forested and mountainous terrain of Artsakh.
Upon graduating from boot camp, they are then submitted to a psychological evaluation, and then sent off for more advanced tactical courses before joining the line, as needed, in Artsakh. They are typically placed in quieter sectors to relieve members of the professional military who are needed in ‘hotter’ areas, according to Defense Ministry spokesman Artsrun Hovhannisyan.
Vik isn’t the only Diasporan in his squad. His instructor tells me that many of the men and women who signed up—women have been welcome and active since the beginning of the organization’s martial history, I’m told—are from the Diaspora. Since the vast majority of Armenian men have typically completed their mandatory two-year military service, most are simply re-activated from reserve units and sent back to the professional army.
VoMA’s training specifically caters to those who don’t have prior military experience: women, men who had been exempt from service and diasporan volunteers. Karen is an IT consultant living in Germany. As a PhD student, he had been given a special dispensation from the draft. However, he still felt an obligation to return to Armenia at a time when his country faces an existential threat. “I never got to serve my country before, but now I will,” he told me.
Arame, another instructor, explained that many of the returning Diasporans, including those who aren’t born in Armenia, bring with them unique skills that can be shared with the other recruits. “Last week, we graduated an entire squad mostly made up of Diaspora Armenians who were veterans of wars in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said “I wish we had more of those.” Their sense of duty and patriotism is said to rub off on their local compatriots along whose side they train. Tatev, a 20-year old Yerevantsi praised her “akhpar” comrades for adding to the unit’s ‘esprit de corps.’ While she doesn’t expect to be deployed immediately upon the training’s completion, she says she joined VoMA “to be ready to answer the call of duty.” Her father and two brothers are already fighting in Artsakh.
VoMA, which, unlike the professional military, is open to holders of foreign citizenships, says it welcomes more members from the Diaspora to apply. The organization is even sponsoring travel whenever possible and provides all the necessary clothing and equipment for recruits. However, they encourage those who own their own military gear to bring them, as they might be more familiar with them. High value items such as field trauma kits, tourniquets, sleeping bags and more are always in demand. They tell me all donations are much appreciated to ensure that their troops are well equipped for the battles to come.
Neither Vik nor Karen say they come here out of a lust for war. Karen even admits that he would prefer if the war could be won without him ever firing a bullet in anger. However both are committed to doing their duty until victory is achieved.
By Raffi Elliott