Reflections on Karabakh

With the current talk revolving around the Karabakh peace process it is hard not to reflect on the hard and arduous road Armenia’s in the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic traveled to be where they are today.

The heroism of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh is unmatched in modern Armenian history as the hardship and sacrifice epitomized a people’s will and conviction to survive and persevere.

Filmmaker Roger Kupelian spent a significant time in Karabakh in the 1990s and this week we begin a series reflecting back on his time–and our time–in that critical part our recent history.

Kupelian translated his eyewitness accounts and experience in Karabakh at the time into a documentary called “Dark Forest in the Mountains.” It is available at Sardarabad and Abril bookstores and online at www.fugitivestudios.com/company

In A Town Of Barrels

BY ROGER KUPELIAN

I met Boris on the front lines of Gulistan. The outpost was at Geog Tapa, a peak that overlooked the occupied town, and was manned by a regiment called Yeghnig (Deer, in Armenian). It was a cold May afternoon, and he was sitting near a small fire, skillfully cleaning his AK-47. I asked him about himself but he didn’t seem to be in the mood to be interviewed.

A few days later, hunger pangs and an aversion to our steady diet of boiled mush and pig fat got the better of us, and the fog, another resident of Geog Tapa, had lifted for a time. A group was put together to hunt deer. I had been issued a Bulgarian-made AK by this time, so I slung it over my shoulder, along with my Canon AE-1, and did my best to keep up with the hunting party. Soon, we were scrambling over narrow mud trails, surrounded by abandoned children’s clothing, tumbled tractors and burned buses that had been the aftermath of the Armenian exile from Shahumian. We finally made entered the forest. Ageless trees loomed over us, dripping dew. Birds, cuckoos among them, called from a distance, and gigantic fallen trunks extended themselves across our path, challenging us to go over or under.

Boris was the expedition leader, and began quietly assigning tasks to everyone.
My job was to wait on a perimeter with some others, and shoot any animal, preferably an older stag, as it tried to break our line. The veteran hunters took to the trees. I unclipped the safety and scanned my area. Hamlet, the nearest man to me, shushed me.

—Don’t be making any gun noises yet, he said, and keep to this side of the tree, so you don’t get shot.

—I didn’t know deers carried guns, I said.

—They don’t , he replied, I mean the crossfire from the others.

A large dew-drop landed on my cheek and I looked up. The wind was playing with the leaves at the very top. Large flying insects zoomed by at supersonic speeds (for insects, anyway), and the rumble of a mountain stream teased our thirsty pallets.

Suddenly, the cries and shots rang out. The quarry would be scared into running in our direction. More shots rang out. A long quiet later, Boris strode up the incline and met us. The hunt had been a success. As Hamlet went on to help carry the kill up, Boris , quite exhausted, suggested we head back. As tired as he was, his mountain-bred lungs still outdid mine, and he had to carry some of my equipment up with him as I wheezed along.

It was only much later that I found out whose bullet had felled the deer. This man had no desire to talk about himself. Yet, in that quiet demeanor of his, I could easily sense a hidden pain. Shahe, another one of us from the U.S., told me Boris’ story one day around the wood burning stove of our plintage, as the rest of our unit smoked and discussed other things. Boris himself was a refugee from Shahumian, part of the northernmost region of Karabagh, before the Russian army helped the Azeris capture it. He had a family, though now it was diminished by one. In April of 1992, an Azeri GRAD missile killed one daughter while it mauled the other.

Eventually, Shahumian itself had fallen. Boris had stolen into their old town one foggy night to visit the grave of his eldest. There he made an oath to return, carrying away with him a small pouch of dirt as a reminder. He carried that pouch with him wherever he went, like an old photograph.

Boris is a man visibly tortured by his family’s situation. The fact that he has been able to return from the front while the Russian peace keepers move into position means nothing to him. His older daughter lies under occupied soil. The younger is, especially by the region’s standards, extremely handicapped, and his family lives in a barrel, in a city of barrels. At one time, he had been the provider of a family that had a house, farmland, livestock, and really, a piece of heaven. The war, in all its cruelty and unfairness, had stripped him of all but his hope, and we were his hope.

His daughter needed hands. There were people in America who could help her.

Later that month, when many of us had returned to Yerevan, a small group of us accompanied our unit commander to a refugee camp, which had once housed the homeless of the 88 quake, and now served as a temporary home for the Shahumiantsis. I was expecting to see buildings when we got there, but encountered barrels, a whole city of them, in rows as if to mock order and comfort. Most of them were colored like rust, and stood on cement platforms. Children were playing as we pulled up, but immediately took to us. Boris walked out of one of the dwellings, with Marina, now fifteen, following him. Her father had borrowed money to set a table before us.

The children of the camp sang songs and recited poetry in the sunny heat of the Yerevan afternoon, while Ararat watched from a distance. These were among the strongest children of the world. They lived as if Shahumian would be taken tomorrow. One of them reminded me of my brother, when he was their age. I told him to hold his puppy for a picture. The pup was named “Jack” after Jack London.

In my mind, I hated myself. What right did I have to come here, to give them hope when I didn’t have the means to deliver them right away. Then I remembered a song I had once heard; “If I can’t bring you comfort, then I can give you hope.” Maybe our just being here made their lives better. Suddenly, all the hardships I had faced at the front seemed miniscule. Children who lived in poverty, without toys, without comic books, or new clothing, or video games, or fresh milk, were singing. We were a fresh and captive audience.

I was handed a letter Marina had written with her mother’s help. I asked her to read it on camera but she shyly refused. I asked her father to read it, having them sit near the window at the end of the barrel for more light. Boris suddenly became too overcome by emotion, and had to leave the room.

Finally, I asked Marina to look at the camera and tell the world what she desired the most.

“My homeland, and my hands,” she said.

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