BY SONA AVAGYAN
Commander Shahen Meghrian and 7 “Yeghnik” battalion soldiers killed when their helicopter is hit over Gulistan
“As a leader, Janbulad (Muradyan), flew out in front and I would follow. We reached the hydro-electric and passed through into the forest surrounding the Sarsang Reservoir where the guys from a partisan unit were waiting for us. The guys warmly received us and we began unload the arms and ammunition we had brought. Two or three minutes later, we heard a loud explosion and we all ducked for cover. The guys pointed in the direction of the fire, over to our right. They were firing at us from the direction of Talish.”
This is how Rafik Mehrabyan, helicopter captain with the Armaero airlines, remembers the fateful flight of April 17, 1993.
During the Artsakh War, helicopters would always fly in pairs to the partisan units operating in the Shaumian Region. On April 17, 1993, the second chopper that took off with Rafik Mehrabyan was shot down over the village of Gulistan.
Flying in the downed chopper were Shahen Meghrian, commander of the “Yeghnik” (Asbarez: The Yeghnik battalion was formed by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation) partisan unit and seven fighters under his command. The chopper crew of Captain Janbulad Muradyan, Second Pilot Aram Grigorian and Mechanic Iosif Mikayelyan also died.
The helicopter was transporting large amounts of arms and ammunition to the partisan unit. Janbulad’s chopper was the first to land. Rafik’s touched down not far away.
‘We’ve been spotted, take immediate evasive action…’
“By a stroke of luck, we later found out that the enemy was firing ‘Strela’ missiles at us. These are missiles especially used against airplanes and choppers. If we had known this at the time, we could have immediately turned off the engines and taken up positions with the partisans and relocated elsewhere. I was already in contact with Janbulad, telling him that we should go to the other side where it’s safer. Janbulad hovered for a moment and then moved off to the right, behind the hill, where we wouldn’t be visible. I touched down a bit away and we started to unload our cargo. But they still hadn’t told us what missiles were being fired at us. I got back on the horn and told Janbulad to watch his back and that there was incoming fire. Janbulad answered, ‘make it snappy, we’ve been spotted.’ We knew that we had trouble on our hands,” recounts Rafik Mehrabyan.
Rafik says that Shahen Meghrian and his fighters piled into Janbulad’s chopper because it was closer.
The “Yeghnik” unit leader was preparing to return to Yerevan. After unloading, Rafik’s chopper was the first to take off.
“I had just taken off and was descending into the valley and turning right to get away from the fire we were taking. I was getting into the flight path for Martakert. I realized the enemy had fired off a second missile at us that most likely missed hitting us. I realized the second missile had indeed been fired when it slammed into a nearby mountain, scorching the place to cinders. I told Janbulad to watch out, that they had fired a second missile. By that time, Janbulad was also airborne and we spotted one another. I told him, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here.’ I made a wide turn and then saw that Janbulad’s chopper was engulfed in smoke. He had been hit with a third missile. I frantically tried to get him on the radio, but it was too late,” recounts Rafik Mehrabyan.
Flames were shooting out of the chopper. Rafik says that he had no idea where the missiles were being fired from.
We retrieved all those who died and buried them in Yerablur
Mehrabyan said that he and his co-pilot Mushegh tried to land but that the groundcover was too densely forested. On the way back to Martakert, they got in touch with Yerevan and reported that Janbulad’s chopper had been hit but that they couldn’t say what had happened to those inside.
The rest of Shahen Meghrian’s unit had seen what had happened and made their way down to the chopper and reported back to base. Two days later, two helicopters flew in and removed the remains of those who had died.
Stepan Ohanyan, now Deputy Director of Flight Management at Armaero Airlines, was in the helicopter that day that landed on the hilltop as a decoy while the other went down below to retrieve the bodies.
“We didn’t take off until all the bodies had been removed. The Azeris were waiting for us but they only spotted us and opened fire. But, we had landed in a spot just out of range. We got them all out and laid them to rest in Yerablur. They’re all buried side by side in Yerablur,” said Stepan Ohanyan.
Aram Grigoryan, Second Pilot of the downed chopper and Mechanic Iosif Mikayelyan, were posthumously awarded the NKR Military Cross, 2nd Class. Janbulad Muradyan was awarded with the RA Military Cross, 2nd Class, and the NKR Military Cross, 1st Class.
Helicopters the only way in or out of Artsakh
Mehrabyan points out that helicopters were the only means of contact with Artsakh from the start of the war until the liberation of Shushi and Lachin in 1992. Afterwards, ground vehicles could also ferry in supplies and personnel.
He said that Erebuni Airport had been completely turned over to the war effort and that they also used military choppers to fly sorties and for transport runs.
Stepan Ohanyan says the best time to fly was when there was cloud cover over Karvatchar and Martakert. The most difficult runs were when they had to make flight to reach the partisan units in Shahumyan. They had to make their way through a wide and dangerous military front.
“We would fly in over the clouds in Shahumian and see where we could land. It was a seat-of-the-pants landing. You have to remember there were no landing strips or anything. You had to pick your spots. If the valleys below were covered we had to land on mountain tops and unload the passengers. Back then we didn’t care who belonged to what political party. Those who arrived armed and ready to fight were the first to get seats in the chopper. Of course, doctors were also a priority,” said Stepan Ohanyan.
Sergey Melkonyan, who served as the communications chief for the RA domestic airports, was in touch with the two choppers who flew in to meet up with the Shahumian partisans.
Code 200 crackled over the radio… there were fatalities
“I was in contact with the partisans when they reported what had happened. Contact was sporadic due to the weather. When the airwaves cleared the first voice I heard was that of Commander Sergey Chalyan. He gave the code ‘200’ that there were helicopter fatalities,” said Melkonyan.
Melkonyan had travelled to Shaumian back in 1989, to take communications equipment. He was the one to set up periodic communications between Yerevan, Stepanakert and the partisan units and the overall links needed to monitor flights.
“My office became a veritable transceiver station with people filing in and out. There were times when our dead had been evacuated and the news was received with jubilation because our fallen heroes hadn’t fallen into the hands of the enemy. We couldn’t afford to let the enemy use our heroes, whatever their affiliation, to be used as leverage against us in the war. We had already sacrificed so much. We had no right to make any further concessions. The Armenian struggle in Artsakh was something that hadn’t been witnessed since the days of Tigran the Great. Today, lowland Karabakh is completely in the hands of our malevolent neighbor,” said Melkonyan.
Shahen Meghrian and his “Yeghnik” partisan unit were fighting to liberate lowland Karabakh and Shahumian. Shahen’s brother, Petros Meghrian, who also fought in the war was with Melkonyan on April 17.
Special brigade named in honor of Shahen Meghrian
“The partisan movement basically started out with 25 local guys. Later on, guys from the ‘Arabo,’ ‘Tigran Metz’ and ‘Broshyan’ units joined up with us in addition to guys from Hoktemberyan. By 1993, after Shahen’s death, a special military unit had been established that was named the Shahen Meghrian Special Operation Brigade. If it hadn’t been for the ‘Yeghnik’ unit our border today in the north would have been the Tartar River, much further south. The Turks were holed up in Haterk, north of the Sarsang, and in Mataghis. But, thank God, due to the “Yeghniks” we control all the way up to Talish, even though there are 7-8 villages in Martakert occupied by the enemy,” said Petros Meghryan.
He lost seven close relatives during the Artsakh War. On April 17, 1993, another relative, Hayk Meghrian, was killed in the helicopter.
The other partisans who died that day were Artak Khachatryan, Grigor Grigoryan, Poghos Simonyan, Rafik Badalyan, Armen Bazyan and Aleksandr Mezhunts.
Poghos Meghryan – Yerevan should recognize Karabakh as part of Armenia
Poghos Meghryan recounts, “While in Shahumyan, I always tried to stay at my brother’s side, that is if he wasn’t ordering me to Yerevan to bring back this or that. Me and Shahen grew up together and we were very close. We were seven brothers and four sisters in the family. I was the tenth child and Shahen, the ninth. He was two years older than me.”
Shahen Meghrian was born in 1952 in the Shahumian village of Gulistan, on the northern bank of the Inja River, the current line of contact in the north. In 1975 he graduated from the Faculty of Economics at Yerevan State University. Returning to his native village, he worked as an economist at the Regional Administration. From 1991-1992, he was President of the Regional Executive Committee. From the start of the Karabakh Movement, he assumed the task of organizing the local defense forces.
After the occupation of Shahumian in 1992, Shahen Meghrian and the partisans under his command waged a nine-month struggle to liberate the region until he and the others died on April 17, 1993.
Just a few days before he was killed, Shahen and his men liberated his home town of Gyulistan. They were only able to hold on to the town for two days.
“It was Shahen’s dream that the lands from the Kur to the Araks rivers be united with Armenia. I too, as an Armenian, would like to see such unification. Today, there is much talk and speculation going on about the recognition of Karabakh and such. In my opinion, and I admit I might be wrong or politically a novice, the time has come for Yerevan to recognize Karabakh as an integral part of Armenia, and not as an independent state. Shahen was a wonderful brother and friend to me. Let those who knew him and fought with him add their own comments. There is no one who is without fault, but Shahen was, in my opinion, one of those men who had very few and who took a wealth of knowledge with him to the other world,” said Petros, his brother.
Shahen’s brother and war buddies are convinced that had Shahen not died on that day in the helicopter, Armenian forces would have liberated the whole of Shahumian in 1993-1994.