The Spartans of Artsakh

The Spartans of Artsakh –

By Nora Markarian Yacoubian

On my recent trip to Yerevan, a friend of mine whose name I will not disclose at this time, organized a three day  trip to Artsakh for us.

 Suffering from lack of sleep, and exhaustion, I tetxed him in the middle of the night that I must cancel.

He called me early next morning to check on my condition and bid his farewells.

There are moments in your life where you sense that there was a missed opportunity, that you should have made the extra effort and “been there”. You would never be able to recreate the experience ever again. It’s as if the Gods planned it, the power and the beauty of the forests unfolding its splendor and the wilderness dictating the law of the land…where in a moment of fierce battle and sniper shots you are moved with the tenderness by nothing more than animals crossing your path.

I worried for his safety and emailed him to ask how he was. I got an excited response saying he had so much to tell.

I waited until he returned. We met at 10:00 AM at Cafe Louis Chadren on Amiryan street. I could tell that it was no ordinary adventure that he had experienced. After our lattes and croissants arrived, he leaned over and in a soft voice began his story…

It started with his driver Samvel who had picked up a female passenger to accompany my friend to Artsakh. They introduced themselves and it turned out that she was an Officer serving in the Artsakh army. He would never have guessed. She looked like any other  ordinary women scurrying the  streets of Yerevan. She shared her story of bravery and honor. She had lost her husband when her sons were 3 and 1.

She spoke at length about  love of land and country and their duty to protect it at any cost. Not only was she still an active Officer, but her son, now over 21 and 23 had served as well. He listened carefully, absorbing every detail on his long journey.

Once they arrived to Stepanakert, they were welcomed  by her two handsome boys. As is the hospitable and generous custom of the people of Artsakh, they insisted that my friend break bread with them and eat khorovats. The boys had even attempted to make dolma to impress their mother after her long absence.

Their mother…

At the the same time, their brother, their father, their army commander… clearly a woman that wore many hats. For an instant, he was taken back to the brave women of 1915 who readily bore arms and were willing to die for country and freedom. Had 100 years passed so quickly? Before him stood small framed Gayane. Yet, one sensed the power and strength of this woman and the determination in her eyes. She looked so much older than 45. He caught a glimpse of an and old picture on a corner table covered with hand woven embroidery in her tiny living room. A handsome man, sporting a large mustache. Her son Hayk looked exactly like the gentleman in the photo. He assumed that this was her late husband. Her guardian angel.

My friend and the two boys went for a long walk. He wondered how these two boys could be so good natured, so positive, with such incredible wit and humor. Young men back home complained profusely if their cell phone batteries died or their Internet was temporarily disabled. He knew too well that many here, from this generation, grew up with no fathers or few male figures. Their heroes lay in make shift graveyards with simple crosses or modest tombstones.

They exchanged coordinates and he promised he would soon return.

He was excited that he was finally at the frontline. Aghdam was completely flattened and barren as if no one had ever lived there before. He was given a bullet proof vest and told to be very cautious since enemy lines were only a few hundred meters away. He assured the commanding Officer that the sound of sniper bullets were familiar to him from his days during the civil war in Lebanon.

He flinched as he felt the heat of the bullets torpedo above him. He held his camera high with both hands in the air, lowered his head for cover and tried to take photos of the enemy. His heart raced quickly.

His mind was flooded with whispers and voices. “We fight for love of country. The land is our soul…”

It was at that moment of living life on the edge that time momentarily stopped. He watched as a female dog lazily crossed the dusty road. Dogs were used to alert our soldiers whether or not Azeris were closing in. He noticed that she was a female, her breasts filled with milk. Moments later, he saw a tiny kitten approach the mother dog and help herself to her milk.

He was stunned. He gave the General in charge a perplexed look. He was told that the mother cat had died and the dog adopted this little kitten. He watched in disbelief. Were they not enemies? Yet they clung to one another for dear life. Another one of God’s miracles.

Moments later, a soldier tapped on my friend’s shoulder and asked him to look up at the sky. A majestic eagle soared, with an object dangling from its beak. As he looked through his binoculars, he saw that a snake was being carried off to be devoured. Was this another sign? Would we crush the enemy soon?

Our borders were armed with impressive artillery. Enlisted soldiers in army fatigues, white crosses painted on their uniforms, waited patiently to strike…men and women from every part of Armenia, alongside their brothers and sisters from Artsakh.

He remembered his favorite quote of Spartan women who bid farewell to their husbands and sons before they left for battle.  “Either come back with your shield or on it”. He had no doubt that the people of Artsakh lived by the same code of honor.

He studied our soldiers carefully, remembering the headlines only a few weeks back, “Another Armenian killed by Azeri fire.”

“How sad”, he had thought. We throw the newspapers aside, switch the television off, or press “delete” after reading an article regarding the constant struggle at our borders. The names now had faces.

The men and women wanted nothing more except to reclaim what is rightfully ours. He now found himself in the trenches, with fearless fighters.

Each one had left an entire family behind, not knowing if they would ever return. Young and old, side by side… willing to die for love of country. They were focused, determined, covered with dust and remnants of gun powder. And they were ready to pay with their lives… husbands, fathers, son, mothers, sisters, daughters, serving on our front lines.

It angered him how some sit in their comfortable surroundings, judge and criticize from a far, convincing themselves that they have participated and somehow fulfilled their political duty. How insignificant his life in Montreal suddenly seemed amongst these men that fought like lions!

 He remembered going to a cemetery in Artsakh the year before with Tamar. He found her weeping and walked to see what had moved her so much. Three tombstones, side by side, of three brothers who had been killed during the same battle on the same day.

He was quiet the entire way to Yerevan. He knew he had to tell their story. He owed it to the families of the Spartans of Artsakh.


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