BY RAFFI YOUREDJIAN
“He was a Yazidi but he fought for us Armenians and our land,” Gevorg said to me solemnly. “We must go to pay our respects.” His eyes filled with a sorrow and became distant for a moment in a way only men that have seen war can stare as memories flooded his eyes. Since April 1st news of battle had been on everyone’s tongue when Azerbaijan broke the 1994 ceasefire agreement and began an aggressive attack on Nagorno-Karabakh’s borders and villages.
I had only met Gevorg that morning when I had wandered into a village a few kilometers outside of Etchmiadzin. Along the way were endless fields that were being prepared for planting of the summer harvest under the shadow of Mount Ararat. I was in the central square of the village talking to the old men gathered playing cards when he came up with a friendly face and clicked his neck with his fingers that was a village gesture to ask if we should have a drink. I was just a traveller passing through and he had invited me into his home with the generosity of Armenian hospitality. We sat in his garden with glasses of vodka made from the grapes of his vineyard. “I wasn’t going to drink today but your arrival was perhaps a sign from the heavens”, he said with a wry smile. Gevorg was in his early forties with a small strong frame and heavily bearded face. He patted his tired dusty shirt he wore in the fields and wondered if he had anything nicer to wear for the funeral.
The body of the soldier had arrived in the nearby village of Taronik a few days earlier after the 4 days of brutal fighting. The head had only arrived two hours before. It had to be recovered by the Red Cross only after negotiations to retrieve it when videos appeared on the Internet with soldiers holding it high in the air like a trophy. The capacity of human depravity can sometimes be overwhelming. Scholars have written that humanity is not to be judged by individual men alone, that we all as humans are capable of the best and worst of actions given the same circumstances in life. We are seen and judged as a collective. But where does one begin in evaluating a man that would behead another? Or even worse to the man who would award a medal for such a deplorable show of brutality such as Azerbaijan’s president Aliyev had decided to do.
Outside the home of the fallen soldier men whispered in groups dressed in wilted suit jackets and shoes crusted with dust. In the distance the smoke billowed from the four cooling towers of the nuclear power station. People dwelled in this land since the earliest of settled human history. A kilometer away lays the remains of the ancient city of Metsamor that had flourished in the Bronze Age until the 7th century. People had lived and worked this land since the cradle of civilization. Now what is left here are the rusted steel tractors and the final decaying remnants of the Soviet Empire while poverty-stricken people live in a struggle for their daily bread. But still they remain proud of who they are and where they come from despite the difficulty. They are the lifeblood of the population and in their fields grow the livelihoods of all that call this their home.
We approached a staircase on the side of the wooden building up to the second floor where a large room was filled end to end with people. Long benches were filed neatly in rows where the women sat nearest to the coffin. The sense of mourning was deep and hung heavy within these walls as tears were streaming heavily down sunken faces. The women were dressed in shrouds of black loudly chanting in sadness as they rocked back and forth with all eyes on the fallen soldier that lay before them. The body had been covered with an Armenian flag up to the neck with the top of the young mans head bandaged beneath his hat. Blackened scars remained on his scarcely recognizable face that had turned yellow in degeneration. Gevorg had told me earlier that the mother had phoned her son while he was on the front line only for the phone to be answered by an Azeri soldier to tell her he had just beheaded her son two minutes earlier. Karam Sloyan was a man of just 20, still with so little of life seen, taken by a vicious conflict in manner only the darkest of human hearts could conjure.
The men nervously paced in the back often leaving the room and then returning. The father was a tall wiry figure in a dark ill fitted suit as he sat alone on a bench with a look of disbelief and stunned silence. Every few minutes he would get up on unsteady feet and approach his son and then return to his seat. Gevorg sat on a bench silently in the back of the room and chain smoked with grief. The men had all said the same, that this young man was a Yazidi, but he fought alongside the Armenians as brothers, he fought for the same land and belief, and for that he deserves our highest respect and we’ve come to honor him. The Yazidi people have no country, no place of permanence, but in Armenia many have made a home and integrated as equals. Among the murmurs and cries a man stood in the center of the room and repeatedly shouted, “Why Brother? Why?” No heads turned as he roared out these words, they were what everyone collectively felt. An Armenian Duduk began to play with the patting of drums as a singer sang in a high tone a sad Yazidi song that could only have been written in the surrounding of mountains and influence of the earth. It was a song that remembers, the pitch of the imperfect world, a wish for things no longer in reach. The women cried louder and the room became a unified sea of sorrow.
When the song finished Gevorg signaled he was ready to go. Outside wreaths were laid in purples, oranges, and reds. Kind words were written on ribbons across the flowers in memory and respect.
Back in the car Gevorg gave the picture that the Armenian people only have this small piece of soil left. He described the day the fighting started how everyone from the very young up to elderly grandfathers in there 70’s had rushed to enlist in the army. He praised the togetherness and support of the Armenian communities around the world that he had seen on TV.
“We thought we lived poorly because we were always locked in this conflict, we thought all our money went towards weapons, now it’s becoming apparent with this recent outbreak of war that our government has pocketed most of the money that they had said was for the military, we’re still fighting with outdated rifles and we’re up against drones and the latest tools of warfare while our politicians and generals live like kings.” He described the cars certain Armenian military officials drove that cost as much as tanks, while young soldiers fight in deplorable conditions without pay. He said the sadness was we would have far less casualties if the system were not broken. “But we are united and continue to fight because we believe in this small country, and this land that has always been ours. We don’t fight for our president, or the bloated hypocrisy in our government; we fight for the survival of our people, the survival of being Armenian.”