Monday, May 9, 2016

Karabakh: This Ruggedly Beautiful Land

We drive along a lonely stretch of highway with undulating sea of emerald green grass on one side and mountains on the other. Wild flowers covering the plains resemble a colorful carpet. A cool wind blows across the overcast sky and you can hear the rustling of leaves and the rhythmic chirping of chickadees. Amid nature’s sounds, however, there is an eerie silence that grips your soul.

We come across two women with tired eyes sitting outside a shop in Nor Karmiravan, a small village just outside Martakert. We stop the car and ask if they have bread. The older woman says almost apologetically that the driver who usually delivers the bread has gone to take supplies to one of the military posts.

This is Karabakh.

Nor Karmiravan used to have about 150 residents. Today, only a handful remain. Following the Four Day War in the beginning of April, many of the villagers, mostly women and children have been relocated while most of the able-bodied men have gone to the posts.

The women ask if we have any news from the frontlines. We tell them that’s why we’ve come. “We haven’t slept in a month,” says one of the women shaking her head. “We only want peace.” She looks away and we feel the full weight of their situation. Since the 1994 ceasefire that brought an end to the Karabakh war, the people of this ruggedly beautiful land have had to live in a condition of no war, no peace. They yearn only for normalcy and a peaceful existence. After a few more minutes discussing the situation, we say our goodbyes and move on.

We have made arrangements with Colonel Norik Aslanyan of the artillery division of the Nagorno Karabakh Defense Army to go to one of their observation posts in Martakert. We are told to wait by the sycamore tree just outside of Nor Karmiravan that has a spring flowing from its trunk. I try to imagine a tree that has a spring…

An hour passes and the Colonel finally arrives. He was awarded the Military Cross medal for his actions during the recent war. When Colonel Aslanyan steps out of the car his presence automatically commands respect. He adamantly refuses to have his photo taken or to talk about himself. Instead he begins naming other artillerymen who played a critical role in successfully thwarting the advance of Azerbaijani forces just over a month ago in what was the worst outbreak of violence in 22 years.

A few minutes into our conversation that wasn’t going anywhere, Colonel Aslanyan makes several phone calls and shortly thereafter a number of his lieutenants arrive from different directions. Aslanyan looks at us and says, “Here they are, now you can interview them!” We spend the better part of the next hour interviewing several of them with the same result. They are very economical with their words and stories. They don’t want to talk about themselves. It becomes clear that those soldiers who exemplify bravery on the battlefield are the ones who are the humblest.

Colonel Aslanyan, satisfied with the situation, finally agrees to take us to one of their observation posts in the district of Martakert. We are instructed to drive ahead as they will be driving very fast and will catch up to us, after which point we will follow them as far as our car will take us and then we’ll have to continue the rest of the journey in their vehicle.

We drive ahead a few hundred meters and stop the car. They finally arrive but instead of moving ahead of us, they stop their car, the driver jumps out and makes his way to us. I’m beginning to feel deflated. Maybe they’ve changed their minds, maybe they won’t let us go to the post after all. I look up to see the driver reaching inside our car and my fears dissipate...he hands us two ice cream cones.

The Hand Over

We go as far as we can. The road has become dangerously unnavigable for us. We get out and sit in Colonel Aslanyan’s vehicle. We begin a steep ascent. I hang on for dear life. Along the way, we come across young soldiers manning military points. They look so young and innocent. My heart is about to explode.

We keep climbing higher and higher and then turn in a fork in the road. It has been carved out of the side of the mountain and one small miscalculation by the driver and we will be tumbling hundreds of meters down into the valley below.

Finally, we reach the summit, the car dangling precariously close to the ridge. We stop and get out of the car. Several young conscripts are sitting on the grass cleaning their weapons. We are greeted by a Lieutenant Colonel Nikolay Mkhitaryan. He smiles at us with a twinkle in his eyes and leads us to a spot a few meters away from the soldiers. There is a green tarp on the ground and bags of khorovats. He commands us to sit down and break bread with him. We politely refuse, arguing that the soldiers should eat first. He has none of it, announces that the boys have already eaten and we are to sit and join him. I hold back for a few seconds and finally give in.

Colonel Aslanyan joins us. He sits down beside me, grabs some lavash, places a large piece of khorovats in it, hands it to me and says, “Eat.” I do as I’m told. It was by far the best khorovats I’ve ever eaten or ever will.

Vantage Point

After interviewing Lt. Colonel Mkhitaryan, we are escorted inside their observatory. We walk down a narrow trench that splinters off into different directions and finally enter the main observation post. The smell of wood takes over the senses and there’s a strange silence, an unnerving calm almost. There are three narrow slits about a meter long each from which a cool breeze blows. I step up to one of those openings and look out to a wide, almost endless horizon and see Azerbaijan. It was from this vantage point that our artillerymen were able to defend certain portions of the Line of Contact from the Azerbaijani army’s offensive those fateful days in April.

Colonel Aslanyan explains several aspects of their protocol and shows us some of the latest technology that they have. Some of the lieutenant colonels we had met earlier by the sycamore tree arrive and now there’s about 15 of us in this post. They talk quietly among themselves, watch their screens, joke around, tell us stories all the while maintaining a sense of alertness that is apparent from their body language. It’s a fascinating scene yet brings the reality to war in way you’ve never experienced before.

After spending several hours in this particular post, we make the treacherous journey back down and return to Stepanakert.

Looking back at that moment on a mountain in Martakert, sitting with our soldiers, getting to know them, listening to their jokes, learning about their bravery and courage and most importantly their humility, I realize that the protectors of our land, the guarantors of our safety are not those sitting in high offices. On the contrary. It is the men on the frontlines, the ones who made the right decisions at critical moments during the war, the ones who stood fast like the mountains upon which they’ve spent the better part of their lives. They are the true guardians and protectors of this ruggedly beautiful land and its people who only want to live and breathe in peace.

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