A Dubai-based DJ who died fighting for his home country of Armenia in the recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh has been called a patriot by his father, who lost both of his sons in the war.
Speaking to The National, two months on from their deaths, Kamo Balyan, 59, said his only children, Karen and Aram, were good people.
Karen, 36, had lived in Dubai since 2011 and was better known by his DJ and producer name, Joots Krn.
With the nightlife sector heavily hit by the pandemic restrictions, he travelled to Armenia in August to see relatives. But on September 27, fighting broke out in the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, which is inside Azerbaijan but populated by ethnic Armenians.
Two days later, Karen and his younger brother Aram, 28, volunteered to go to the front line to help the war effort.
“My sons were patriots who wanted to help their country in difficult times,” said Kamo, a retired food executive who also volunteered in the conflict for two weeks.
Karen operated weapons, from guns to larger artillery, with Kamo joking that he was like Universal Soldier, in reference to the 1992 film, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, about superhuman warriors.
On October 18, Karen suffered severe injuries to his legs and intestines in a night-time drone strike and the next day Aram was killed in a separate blast. Karen spent a month in hospital but died in November, following complications from his fourth round of surgery.
“More than 5,000 families are like our family – they lost their sons,” said Kamo.
“My sons were very good people. Very nice, very positive – each one more positive than the other.
“Karen liked it in Dubai very much. He loved his job,” he said.
Their cousin Tiko Balyan, 22, a fitness coach who lives in Canada, said Karen often invited him to visit Dubai, saying he would “take care of everything”, but he had not been in a financial position to do so.
“It was nice to know I had a ‘brother’ all the way on the other side of the world who was ready to take me in and take care of me, no questions asked,” he said.
Six weeks of fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh ended in mid-November when Armenia’s Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, announced a ceasefire deal. Widely seen as favouring Azerbaijan, it has led to ongoing protests calling for him to step down.
More than 5,000 people, mostly soldiers, were killed across the two sides, with Azerbaijan’s use of Turkish-made combat drones thought to have been a major factor in Armenia’s heavy loss of territory.
Arayik Harutyunyan, who led the Armenian-backed government in the region, said the whole enclave would have been lost in days had fighting continued, citing the "very heavy human losses" inflicted by drones.
Friends of Karen were surprised by his decision to fight, but described a man who was fun-loving, warm and who always tried to make the people around him happy.
“He was brave and crazy, but in a good way. He would decide something and then just go do it, like go fight in the war,” said friend Lusine Aslanyan, 34, an Armenian fitness instructor who lives in Dubai.
“They didn’t even call him up to fight – he asked to go. He was so brave, he said ‘I have to go to protect my country’. All Armenians are like this, patriotic and care a lot about our land.”
“I don’t know why the hell he did that,” said Alexis Nohra, 41, a resident DJ at Dubai’s Nikki Beach and events company partner from Lebanon.
“He was stubborn, but he was family to me. It was a very big loss.”
Mr Nohra said Karen was his first friend when he arrived in the UAE eight years ago and that he was a “lovely guy” who was “tender with friends and always spreading good energy around”.
“I lost my friend for a piece of land,” he said.
While in hospital, Karen had been working on a music project with Mr Nohra. He had planned to travel to visit friends in California after being discharged.
Arina Newton, a DJ at Drift Beach Dubai who is also from Armenia, said that Karen “loved life a lot, like he knew his would be too short” and that he enjoyed making the most of Dubai’s party scene.
Karen's former colleagues at Seven Sisters, at Dubai's JW Marriott Marquis, said their fond memories of him would live on for many years.
"We really miss his music and we miss him being around in all of our events and get-togethers," they said.
"We will never forget him; he will always be remembered and his sounds will echo forever."
He leaves behind a 13-year-old son, Hayk, who lives with his mother, Karen’s estranged wife, in the Armenian capital Yerevan.