WAR STORIES. FATHER AND SON / David Kachiyan

By David Kachiyan

Translated by Aramazd Stepanian

We know thousands of stories about what mothers whose sons have gone to war, live through. Many more will probably write about it, because there is perhaps no stronger earthly bond than that between mother and son. But we hear less often about the fathers whose sons have gone to war. Maybe because fathers are more miserly with their tears and keep their emotions hidden. 

This is a father and son story. Specifically about a modest Yerevan family, artistic, and with a deep concern for the fatherland. In 2019, Nikol was drafted and stationed as part of the Defense Army ranks at Hadrut. His father Garegin had spoken to him about Artsakh often, and they even preferred to spend their short vacations in Artsakh. His son’s service prompted Garegin to be in Artsakh even more often than previously, and take full advantage of his posting, to enjoy again and again, the heavenly beauty of the land. But because of the pandemic and the quarantine, the visits were prohibited. So Garegin was delighted to receive a letter from his son. A real letter, on a white piece of paper, written in blue ink. Perhaps the son loved the traditional as much as the father.

“Hello dad. I had a free moment and I decided to write to you in this way. Army service is alright. It was a little difficult in the beginning, you know, new situation, the barracks, unusual diet… I got sick once, I went to the doctor and he sent me to the hospital. Now I am completely well and have returned to my post. My friends are nice but not one of them reads, or has ever read a book. Or maybe just Robinson Crusoe. But when I tell them interesting stories from books, they listen attentively. They are all basically good boys. I never regret doing my service here, which is complicated, but interesting. And the officers are also basically nice men, but they much rather drink and talk about uninteresting subjects. But there are really good officers. Truly dedicated. We have emergency military exercises very often, to be ready for all eventualities. The borders are  watched very well, so you can sleep soundly in Yerevan.

A whole year just flew by. They say the first and the last three months are the most difficult. I’m already thinking about how to continue with my education. But  when I am discharged, I have to have a good rest. I’ll sleep a whole week. Then one more week!

There’s no need for you to come. Maybe be I’ll come at the end of September for my leave. We’ll see. My commander likes me and rates me. 

Artsakh is truly a paradise. I didn’t see it before, but now even the rocks or the shrubbery are dear to me. And I’m not even going to talk about the churches lost in the forests. You get close, you touch the warm stones and you get the goosebumps. The climate is blissful. S the evening turns, warm air rises from the east, from Moghan fields, towards Hadrut and towards Dizapait and Azokh Caves, so it never gets frosty. It is here that I finally realized what a wonder Artsakh is. How precious this land is…

Right, I’ll finish here, I’ll send the letter with someone, so it gets to you quicker. Hugging you. Kiss mom for me.

Your son, Nik.

Hadrut, Artsakh.”

On September 26 Garegin re-read Nik’s letter and went to bed to sleep. He was certain about his son, but could not rid himself of an indescribable anxiety. He passed the night passed somehow. The news of war broke in the morning. There was nothing to think about. In a crisis, the parental instinct is wiser than all the wisdom in all the books in the world. Garegin got into his car, on the way picked up his friend whose son was also in Artsakh and sped towards Hadrut, via Sotk. The military police, wouldn’t let them cross the border, so he circumvented them and through the Karvajar Mountains reached Stepanakert, and from there somehow managed to get himself to Hadrut by nightfall. Parked his car somewhere, found the military post and presented himself to the officer in charge. Very soon Garegin was a combatant in the Defense Army, in his son’s platoon. 

Truly the Lord moves in mysterious ways. The fifty-seven-year-old father was the soldier of the twenty-year-old son. Under the deadly barrage of explosives and drones, father and son fought side by side. During the rare  free moments Garegin would be in his element, regaling the soldiers with Armenian history and tales of soldierly deeds. And sometimes he’d explore the terrain, whenever there was a lull in the drone attacks. He’d enter the old, abandoned churches and marvel at the delicate, centuries-old stones…

The soldiers were tired. There were no replacements that they could at least rest a few days, have a bath, take a breath, change their frayed clothing and shoes, talk to their families… These had all become impossible dreams. They had both temporarily lost consciousness during the pounding attack waves, but that wasn’t the worst of it. The terrible thing was the crisis and the panic that, like a pandemic, had infected the army. In the north and the east, they had managed to overcome their panic and had stopped the enemy, even under deadly bombardment. It seemed like a hailstorm of metal pieces. In the southern front the situation was becoming disastrous. Garegin was beside himself with anger. It should have been possible to stop the Turks with a small force, even throw them back by inflicting heavy losses, but for some unknown reason that wasn’t happening…

One after the other Varanda, Jrakan, Kovsakan and Sanasar fell… Garegin and Nik had fought on all the way to Shushi and taken positions near the roadside section. Many of the boys were no more. They became light. To be laid to rest forever at Yerabloor [Cemetery].               …………………………………………………………….

 Garegin and Nik were lying in the little patients room. After fighting side by side for forty days, passing sleepless nights in the trenches, they were together once again side by side, in a Yerevan hospital. They were both wounded.

Garegin asked for water. I picked up the bottle and extended it to my friend. He took a few sips and spoke at last.

—You know what I missed most? Water. We were completely dehydrated there.

The story was short and dramatic. They had reached from Hadrut to Shushi fighting along the way. On the last night, November 7, they had both been wounded by shrapnel. The emergency vehicles taking them from Shushi to Stepanakert had been caught in enemy crossfire. Of the three, only one got through to Stepanakert. The other two had caught fire on the way and burnt. Theirs had become like a sieve. One bullet had passed through the palm of Nik’s hand and out the other side. Perhaps they had stayed alive because of Nik’s mother’s prayers. Fortunately they had been spared internal injuries. Then they were transported to Yerevan and hospitalized.

Garegin got tired of talking. At that moment the doctor on duty came in, accompanied by the nurse. Examined the wounds and changed the bandages. Hanging from the bag overhead on the IV drip stand was a transparent liquid dripping into the veins of father and son. 

Garegin rested a little and continued with his story.

—We walked twenty-five kilometers one night. I couldn’t feel my legs anymore. I had gotten hold of some shoes from somewhere, but they didn’t fit. I wore them for forty days. Always thirsty and unspeakably tired. You know, being a soldier is like having a job, an everyday toilsome labor. Fighting becomes a job too… And death becomes an everyday thing… Damn!… I never understood how the Turks managed to advance seventy kilometers unhindered. Almost unhindered… They were near Horadiz, down from Hadrut. Then Jrakan, Kovsakan… And all of a sudden we see them at Karintak, on the approach roads to Shushi. We had hardly any fighters, no contact, no water… I don’t understand at all…

I gripped my friend’s hand, to say not to talk so much and save his energies.

—You have a smoke? Garegin Asked.

—I do, but you’re not allowed to smoke.

—Alright. Let’s take a walk. Will you help me with my robe?

We walked along the half-empty corridor and found a dark corner by the toilets. We smoked in silence. Then Garegin said.

—But something I do understand. You know what it is?

—What?

—That which happened in Armenia exactly one-hundred years ago. The way [City of] Kars fell on October 30th, 1920… Just like this. There was an army, but it didn’t fight. Not really.

—This time we did fight Garegin.

—Yes, we did I suppose. If you can call it fighting. Defeat is not for us, it is not! That would be a disaster, in every way. Maybe something will change still. We’ve been deceived, and we’ve allowed ourselves to be deceived. But one thing’s different from 1920. Then we had Nzhdeh. In 1992 we had Vazgen. We don’t now, or I don’t see them… And the Turks are in Hadrut and Shushi. The Turks! In our wonderous Shushi… Can you imagine? In our fortress city…

We fell silent. Talking was difficult.

—I’ll go to Nik,— Garegin said,— leave me some cigarettes and matches. No. don’t give me the whole box. I don’t want to smoke too many… Hopefully the morning will bring good news.

Morning of November 9 broke upon the Land of Armenia. [Mount] Ararat, the embodiment of our silent hopes, was covered in mist. The winter passed, and came the Spring. It came, as if reluctantly. I know Garegin is by Nik’s side and they are probably talking about the arts, or Armenian history, as it is so unspeakably difficult and painful to remember the war. And I know, while we have amongst us thousands of devoted people like Garegin and Nik Kotanjyan, we will one day OVERCOME, for sure!

The End 

April 8, 2021

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