Some years ago, two Armenians from Fresno volunteered to help the inhabitance of
Nagorno Karabagh in their war for independence. At that time most of Karabagh had been captured by Azerbaijan, a former
Soviet Republic. The Armenians of Karabagh were faced with superior Azeri forces whose
overlords had not want to give up the rich pasture lands and resources that had been
handed to them by Stalin. Karo Qakhechyan and Shahe Ajemian returned time after time,
eventually forming a volunteered unit called The Crusaders.
A year later I met
Shahen Ajemian who had continued Karo's work.
The unit was now lead by Armenian born, Arthur Boghosyan, another of Gahgechyan old comrades. With new members in a fifteen man force, code name "Spitak Arch," Ajemian and the rest were flown to the newly retaken mountains over Giulistan, in the region of Shahoumian. Where along the garrison called Yeghnik they would face off against the 500 strong Azeri regions. Some of the Spitak Arches including Boghosyan had already spent grueling winter in the forest. On April 24, 1994 the Azeri stormed the October hours later they were beaten back into the trees.
While the Yeghniks and Arches were up on the mountains to the north. A Battalion was attempting to retake the region, near brushier. At the beginning of May Ive realized Alfabacracth overlooking fearsome artillery exchange. The Armenians have once fought safety of the hills they knew so well, chaily was wide open terrain. On this day the Karabagh forces would give over 50 killed and many more wounded. The battle was taking place by the same mountain ranges Kacedjian and Fallen not a few hundred yards from a were a now sought shelter, from the rain of shells.
Sudden bad weather brought the days operations to a standstill. Both sides were blinded by a heavy fog. Rain had re soaked the muddy roads, making traveling on nearly impossible. There are no painted roads this far north. The mud was so thick my legs felt like lead weights. One guy even asked me witch I like more, The Russian Willys or the American Jeep Wrangler, I said theirs was better, I lied.
There are two ways to get to the front lines in Karabagh: either by helicopter or by bus. The helicopter takes a hour in a half to get to Shahumian. The bus took us 2 days.
Their were two kinds of people taking the ride one kind were the conscripts who had been rounded up to fill the emptying ranks of the depleted military. The other kind were the volunteers some of them no older then 16. Old enough to steel a uniform and run away to fight.
At Stepanakert the capital we got on a truck which would take itself to the village of Maghavouz. The Russian trucks came in three colors light blue, light blue, and light blue. But they were very durable. However it wasnt a smooth ride by any means. Our driver piloted his ship like a captain trough stormy seas like he done this thousands of times before. Gravity went out finally. A impossible hail of slipperiness faced us and it looked like we were going nowhere fast. Men had to jump off and push. In Karabagh you didnt know the old meaning of cant do. Every obstacle had to be surmounted. Maybe that was the secret to their success whey they been able to hold on so long against superior odds. Even the conscripts had risen to the occasion. We were all suddenly in it together. In Karabagh no mans a island, everyone is a part of the team. Although it had overheated, our sturdy vehicle completed its journey and by night fall we were at our destination. Maghavouz was Yeghnik headquarters, Yeghniks were the fighters of Shahumian.
Some days later a young veteran fighter whom I met in the bus, name Geram started to train the men in the use of automatic riffles. Some of these guys had never held an automatic before. Gather around me her said, keep the nose up and coak it, to make sure the chamber is empty, never trust your memory, always check it by habit. You will always have to strip this down, many times in the field with your eyes closed if need be.
The Kalashnikov's (AK-47) came from two places Russia and Bulgaria. The Russian ones were better, I was assigned a Bulgarian version. Although canned meat was a rarity in Shahumian canned bullets were not. At the end even though they had not chosen to be here, the new recruits had resigned themselves to the faith of three months, if their lucky they may see their families again.
I sometimes pause and wonder of the kinds of people who use to live here. The kinds of soldiers that have passed through the dusty streets of Maghavouz. What were their names? Did they ever come back from their glorious wars? Who will rebuild the churches after the shells have torn holes in them? Who will tell the children that its safe to come out and play? Before the faithful mourning in June of 93, the White Bear had made his headquarters in a house close to the front. He had drown a map on the map on the wall for the coming battle. Arthur took me there to show me that the map was still standing.
"There is no place as naturally rich as Karabagh," Arthur says. When we go into the mountains youll see its truly a miracle. Its easy to see why the Azeris are reluctant to lose their grip on this land. Their desire to drive the Armenians out and settle the land is seen everywhere.
Deserted Armenian homes have been marked as property by the Azeri soldiers that were once stationed here. Homes them selves have been looted. Their previous owners had either died or fled. Armenian books had been trampled under foot.
Later on that day some of the men of the compound had gathered around for a rare treat. It seams that wherever theres a barbecue youll find an Armenian, or is it the other way around. Youll also find horses here. Karabagh use to be famous for breading "Stout" horses until the Russians came and took them all away for their Caucasus. However blissful this hole thing was my time in the quiet village was nearing a end.
Marageze is on the way to the Gulistan front. We stop here to wait for the armored personnel carrier called and "Antelbe" which will take itself to Yeghager.
As we get there by night I see nothing. The next day however, a hole new world opens up before my eyes. Yeghager is the first mountain outpost. In 1862 the last Armenians left here driven away by Azeris, the foundations of their homes their churches and seminaries remained. Some months ago the Armenians returned with avengens.
Since were carrying supplies we continue on for as much as the Antelbe will take us. Marav Peak, the Everest of Karabagh moves up ahead. We finally meet up with some of Arthurs men out on patrol and the rest of the journeys is maid on foot. The path we take winds up around the south side of the mountain because the Azeris have look outs watching from the north for any activity and have been known to banbar the area at the smallest perfection. The green tapestry of the Shahumian hills infects the mind of anyone we sees it, for the moment it still feels like heaven.
"Whose the oldest one?" I ask. "Dead here;" they say, hes the oldest, hes 57. Hes been fight nearly all his life. Artak is the youngest volunteer of the unit, at 19. All of these men were hand picked by Arthur before the mission. Tigran use to fight in another regimen before he joined this one. "Ours is a just call he says," he says, it is a battle for all Armenians. But not all Armenians are here some are at home some abruded and some have chosen this kind of life. This is the life we have chosen, we have a hope that this work we have set out to do we have taken to the very end.
Hayk also use to fight in other regimens. His brother Manuel was shot by Russian major while trying to break into an armory. "We eat anything here," he says snakes, frogs, what ever you want, grass, leaves. We cant get any bread here, any fresh bread. The bread is so hard you can crack your skull with it. At least the water is good, yah the water is good the air is good too.
This is how it is, yesterday there was a battle and we all went into the forests. It
started to rain really heavenly. We didnt have any rain coats to keep us from the
rain. While we were in battle our raincoats ripped, our guns got wet, this is a very
difficult situation. How many of us had gone under that, three or four of us had gone
under the same raincoat.
These are Karos pickles, he bought them a year ago were still using them every time we eat them we think about him. Morning, noun and, night, were eating this, I dont know what he heck it is. Man this bread is so hard if you hit a dead person with it, it wake him up. Once Aneran found some tree sap to flavor this with. Our teeth were stuck together for a couple of days. We eat the same thing everyday and if we can find some sugar to eat with it well be happy. At times we dont even have salt. For a week we ate nothing but weed, we boiled it and ate it, without salt without oil we just put it in the water boiled it and ate it. This bread is one month old. If it stays any longer it will turn into penicillin.
Everyone tries to avoid the motor shells the Azeris fire over. Melcida, the Garrison nurse showed me a piece of srapnem that had been removed from a victim some days before. There were two casualties caught of guard. Romic was a father of three and was the hardest hit. In a few days he was due to go home. After a hour of struggling with anaquit medicine he past away. Since she knew he was about to give up, Melcida got mad at him, youll be all right she said, but an hour later he was gone. I asked Melcida if she was a trained nurse. "Ive been out here for almost 4 years," she said. And everything Ive learned, Ive learned by watching and doing. Everything Ive learned, Ive learned by seeing, Ive even learned it out of books. "Where is your husband," I asked. "Hes in Russia," she said, hes Russian. "I asked her what his thoughts are about our battle." He doesnt want to fight, he said Im neither Armenian or Azeri. A wise man doesnt fight for another mans soil. He said "I cant get involved in that." Were fighting for our land our soil, Hes another race why would he fight. I asked her what she would say to the Diasperin Armenian. "What I think," she says, "A Diasperin shouldnt want another exile to take place." And this time it would be Karabagh that was exiled. Last time it was the Armenia in 1915. From Van form Moush from Erzerum. Artsakh if it were exiled were would it go?
By Roger Kupelian
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