WAR STORIES․ I LOVE AND HATE THE SOIL / Hrach Beglaryan

I am Private Tigran Zakaryan. During the war I was an Artillery Battery Operator (coordinates fixer) in N Division. I was in action for twenty-four days. I was neither injured nor hurt— not counting a slight concussion, and my wounded spirit. My life is now divided into two parts, before the war and after the war.

Before the war, I had been drafted as a private from the second year of university, I had served a year and a half, and I was due to be discharged in a few months. Then the war came. It came unexpectedly. Perhaps “It came” isn’t right, more like it invaded my life and fouled up everything.

September 27th was an ordinary Autumn day. Nature was resting from the breathlessness and warmth of the summer, from its hot and urgent insistence. The autumn days seem to dally a little longer than the day before, like a woman who is in between her unfinished youth and her maturity and lingers by the mirror a little longer than the day before, to convince herself that her charms are undiminished. The days were a little shorter, the evenings came earlier, and the autumn was  enchanting.

The morning of September 27th, we had just woken up. We were at our positions. We were waiting for Chef Arsen to call us to the table. Some of the boys had not yet left their beds. Suddenly the duty guard came running:

Guys, there are three vertalyotes in the air,—he said, out of breath, hobbling on his bendy legs. 

His face seemed to have crumpled. He was neither frightened nor surprised. You looked at him and you had this urge to laugh. He was a joker. He joked about everything, so we thought this must be one of his regular jests. What else but a joke? What would helicopters be doing near our artillery batteries on this sweet autumn morning?  “Maybe he wants us to get dressed quickly and get to the table”, I thought looking at him, and got up.

 —Go look properly,—cracked one of the guys,—go and fool your grandmother’s chickens,—another said. He is hungry, wants a to fill his guts, so he just makes up things.

Eh,—he was annoyed, but ran out again. Maybe he thought his eyes were deceiving him, or he didn’t look properly. He ran out and fell back in instantly. 

—Get out and look,—he said, annoyed and anxious.

We got out hastily, some of us dressed, some only half-dressed and we saw… Three helicopters, one exactly straight ahead, another slightly to the left and the third one a little further away. 

There had been talk of military exercises. We thought they are ours, they’ve started the maneuvers. How could we know, there were no distinguishing markings on the helicopters? A helicopter is a helicopter, Turkish or Armenian, how would you tell?

We were surprised how accurately they had figured their approach, to get so close to us. Nobody was thinking about war. Even when our air defense forces hit all three, we still didn’t realize what was going on. If the helicopters were ours, why did we hit them, and if they weren’t how were they allowed to get so close? In a word, no one thought it’s war, and that the enemy has attacked and our other units were already engaged in a life-or-death struggle with the enemy. 

Then our battery office Captain Sergey Blboolyan ordered us to take cover. We did so and waited. We now knew that the enemy had attacked, but the word “war” was still not in my head. You see, it is a tough word, “war”, it is a heavy thing, and you don’t really want to accept it.

Our field guns were in place, just camouflaged. The order came to make them battle-ready. We came out and tried to remove the coverings, and at that time they started firing at us.  There was some panic, some fear. They were firing. We understood that something extraordinary is going on, but all can be overcome, if by your side you have your comrade and your commander who watches out for you. 

The lines were disrupted, we could not get target coordination from headquarters. Blboolyan himself ordered to fire. We fired… We disrupted enemy’s fire. Our soldiers were able to get out of the barracks and take up advanced positions. Then the commanding officer came and order was restored. We believed that it is war, and understood that the enemy has attacked on all fronts, and the war will be ruthless and brutal.

There was no communication the first three days— we couldn’t call home. We wouldn’t anyway, even if it was possible. It was difficult. I could imagine my mother, looking calm on the outside, but I know the news of war has stabbed her heart with a thousand knives. If I were to talk to her, I wouldn’t be able to control my emotions, and she… In a word, I wouldn’t call her.

The lines were restored only on the third day and I telephoned my father. He sounded confused and no matter how hard he tried to sound hearty, he couldn’t do it. I could feel how he was trying to collect himself, not to upset me or to disturb me.

Tigranjan,—he would say,— you haven’t been scared, have you? If you need me, I’ll find a way to come and take care of you.

No,—I would reassure him,— everything’s in order. Come for what? Will you come and fire the cannons, or load them?—I’d try to be funny.

 —I’ll do whatever needs to be done,—he’d say.

My father wasn’t like me. Leaving all the important things aside, he’d talk about Covid, eating or starving, not catching cold.

—You haven’t been infected, have you?—he’d ask, as if that was the most important thing.

I could understand he didn’t know what to say, so he’d talk about Covid. The amazing thing was, only a few days ago, Coronavirus was the most important thing for the people. Who got sick, who recovered from it?—but now the war had turned everything upside down. The war…

Dad, people don’t get sick here, yes, they either get wounded or they get killed,—I said, laughing.

My father groaned, and I regretted the joke.

Don’t be afraid,—I said to calm him,—I am not on the front lines, I am by the cannons, ten, twenty kilometers away from the action. We spend most of the day sheltered.

I’d say that without batting an eyelid. What was I to do, tell him that fire from the skies falls on top of our heads? How would that benefit me, or my father and mother?

Now, the war being over, some people say that the commanding officers had fled, leaving the soldiers behind, selfishly thinking of saving their own skins. I’m probably born under a lucky star not to have had such a commander. Our officers were all fine, patriotic men. Especially in the early days, when there was fear and confusion, they were always by our side, encouraging, helping to overcome any problems. For example. Major Pavel Harootyunyan, our Political Officer, had to take over command due to certain circumstances. His aiming was always accurate and we always hit our targets. In peacetime he was extremely strict, but in war…

It was under his very command that we hit and destroyed an entire enemy base, by blowing it up and leaving nothing standing. Major Harootyunyan was smiling furtively and was very pleased with us. 

—What other target do we destroy?—he said, half joking, half serious, and I said:

—Three hundred thirty-eight…

I had the list of enemy bases and potential targets with me, so I said three hundred thirty-eight… How could I know that was the enemy fuel depot? I don’t know whether the major knew or not what the target was, but he agreed. We fired only twenty-seven times and we blew their fuel reserves and weapons storage sky-high. We found out later, a number of vehicles which had been there to refuel, had also been destroyed, along with some casualties.   

I cannot forget how Capitan Mkhitar Mesropyan saved my life. We were digging a stronghold, when the warning came—we were being targeted. The captain threw me in the hole we had dug and covered me with his body. I don’t know what else can one human being do for another that is better than that. It’s been said, there’s nothing greater than when someone gives his life for another. Thank God nothing happened to him either, but when he protected me with his own body, he wasn’t thinking about himself, was he?

Let me also tell you about my worst, blackest day. That was October 23rd. We received an order to take our artillery and go to Fizuli, and help the 2nd Martuni front. They had told us the positions are made ready, you are just going to take position and fire.

We got there, but it was open fields and nothing was ready. And while we were taking our position, the enemy began firing, with drones and helicopters from different sides. We lost our artillery battery, our vehicles. There were forty-five of us, only thirteen survived. So many bright boys we had, who were killed. Vartan Zakaryan, Grigor Lemeshko, the volunteers Hrand Javadyan, Mher Asryan, and many more… Every time I name one of them, blood curdles in my veins a little more, Every time I remember one of them, I age a little more. 

Another time my life was saved by my friend Mayis’s father. Uncle Mikael was with us from the first day of the war. Fought with us as an equal, bearing all the hardships, and not only was he a father to Mayis, but he was also an uncle to all of us. 

That was the time when they destroyed our artillery. We said, let’s at least make a shelter for ourselves. Mayis, Garen and I dug a little, and made a cover out of broken crates and pieces of cardboard and went under. We were just sitting there, when uncle Mikael came and said:

—Get out of there!

Maybe he had realized that our “shelter” would not only not protect us, but it would actually attract the attention of the drones. I got out first, then Mayis. Garen had not yet managed to set foot out when they fired from above. Garen’s arm was wounded.

It was a deep wound, I thought they might amputate his arm, but first we had to stop the bleeding. It must have been a major artery, it was bleeding profusely. Garen was beside himself, maybe from the pain, the loss of blood and our bewilderment…

—Do something dear friends,—he just about whispered,—do something so I don’t die. Pity my mother.

We used my belt as a torniquet, it stopped the bleeding. Then he was taken to the hospital in the artillery commander’s car.

Fire fell from the skies, the enemy was ferocious, ruthless. But then the enemy is supposed to be cruel, supposed to have no pity. The war took away many things, but also taught us many things, and I concluded: The enemy must not be a Turk. Yes, there are enemies and there are enemies. What decent person disrespects a dead body?… The Turk disrespects. What decent person humiliates an unarmed, helpless prisoner so much?… The Turk does.  

I came to understand many things during the war, probably the most important being the value of the soil of the earth. I understood that man is only an earthen vessel after all, strong as it can be, but also fragile and vulnerable. I also understood the soil is jealous. Yes, if you don’t love it truly, if you don’t defend it, it will leave you for someone else. It betrays you. Never in my life was I closer the soil, never relied upon it so, never loved it as much as during the days of war. The enemy hits you, you take refuge within, the glass eye of the enemy drone seeks your spot, to destroy you, you rely on it to hide you. You call out the name of the Lord, but it is the earth that shelters you. 

But it pulls you to itself, tries to engulf you, make you one with itself. You understand that at any time you can cease living and return to it, but you don’t have a choice, and you give yourself up to it. I’ve never been closer to it than during those days. I understood then that it is the earth soil that saves us, that we are born of it, and whether we want it or not, we turn into it. And from that time on, I have loved and hated the soil.

During the war, every soldier is in between heaven and earth. I lived, I fought, I calculated, I sent the coordinates, happy when hitting the target, sad when a friend was killed, and didn’t know that I was always in between heaven and earth. I understood that later, after the end of the war.

When we moved from Fizuli to Karvin and took up new positions, they gave us two new cannons. One was captured by the enemy, that’s true, but we did a lot of damage anyway. In a word, it was war! The things… The things that happened during the forty-four days of war. One time we received explosives, with the following words on them “Year 1954”, in Russian. That’s practically my grandfather’s age. We fried those too. What else could we do? If a weapon is manufactured at some point, it must be fired; if an explosive is manufactured at some point, it must be exploded for sure. No world without weapon fire! Who’d have thought it would be up to me to let off an explosive made in 1954? Not got the time to check, good or bad? Old or new? You have to answer fire with fire, especially as our enemy understands nothing else. Our weapons must be at the ready, and super up to date. We must be thinking about that at all times, and not put it on the backburner. If we want to live on, if we want to have a fatherland, and not be like a mangy pop at the feet of the powerful of this world, we must be armed, and with the right weapons.

They say artillery is the god of war. That may be true, but it is a cruel god, ruthless. You fire and know that somewhere there is an explosion, destruction. Somewhere the earth groans, it is disturbed. The earth doesn’t know  Armenian or Turk. It is to be pitied. But it also becomes alienated from man.  

You are happy, because you hit the enemy, the enemy who cares not for human beings, for humanity, but you also realize that after every explosion, the planet earth becomes a little more fragile, it becomes defenseless. They say the earth is a living organism and reacts to everything. And the pain of every wounded man is the earth’s pain too.

In Karvin, we were engaged in a horrendous battle. So hard. But I was encouraged by a letter I had received from the rear. It came with the rations sent to us. Written by a girl, it promised love to an unknown soldier. “Come”,—it said,—“Come victorious, for I am waiting for you”. I was keeping the letter by my heart. She hadn’t given her address, she didn’t know me, but her letter warmed my heart and gave meaning to my fighting. It’s amazing that a double folded piece of paper from a school notebook can convey so much hope, love and warmth to a soldier. She hadn’t given her address, maybe thinking if I returned safe and sound, and if I really wanted, I could find her for sure. I keep that letter with great care. I know for sure the time will come to find her.

It’s been a few months now that I am trying to heal the wounds that opened up in my soul. Wounds do heal, leaving a scar, but the scars do itch a little, right? And they can often be more irritating than the burn of a new wound. 

I can’t forget that night. I was awake, on guard duty. The dark was dissipating gradually and… 

Yes, “you don’t die after someone else dying”, but…

He who visits Yerabloor, must live a little differently.

And it is often said: 

—You should live for your martyred friends. 

I am trying, but it’s hard. You have difficulty living on your behalf, never mind on someone else’s, even if that someone is a dear one, or your close friend. As hard as it was during the war, it is even more so after that. But I am sure to live, continue with my education and may be even find the letter-writing girl.

“May your grandmother go blind”,—my grandmother whispers, as she crosses herself, supposedly unbeknownst to me. 

“Hurt and wounded generation”,— utters comrade Sisakyan, every time we meet.

And that hurts me. I don’t want anyone to pity me, or my friends, no matter how close or caring that person is. I don’t want to, especially as my generation will have  a lot to say and do to the enemy.

Therefore I will live on, and certainly on my native soil that I love more than my life, but of which I am a little wary and afraid.

April 4, 2021  

The End

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