Dug In: A visit to the Martuni trenches

Dug In: A visit to the Martuni trenches

Photo: Gayane Mkrtchyan/ArmeniaNow.com

At a military outpost in the Martuni region of (unrecognized) Republic of Nagorno Karabakh, a group of Armenian reporters gets a chance to live one day of army life together with the conscripts . . .

“Wake up is at 8 a.m., breakfast 8:30, at 9 we are leaving for the frontline military posts,” unit commander Artak Bughadyan informs us and adds: “And tonight you can talk to the soldiers, look around the unit, share supper with them.”

Supper consists of fried potatoes, beat salad, cheese, butter and juice. Back at the barracks soldiers tell their stories. They all look a bit like one another – red-cheeked, shy, missing home and families too much, but having clear understanding that they are in service to their motherland here at the edge of enemy territory.

Azat Meloyan, 19, from Moscow, has volunteered to serve in the army. He can’t read or write Armenian, but has a strong belief that it isn’t important for serving in the army.

“I was three when my family left Armenia. I took a vow that I’d serve in the Armenian army and especially wanted it to be in Karabakh. I write Armenian words with Russian letters. I am now trying to learn the Armenian letters, I did well in my exams,” says Azat in Armenian – with difficulty, but still.

David Gharibyan from Echmiadzin, who has served 19 months side by side with Azat, says he is just back from home leave, that was given to him as an act of encouragement.

“Army hardship later becomes an issue for pride. Soldiers today are not deprived of anything. Those parents trying to keep their sons from the army by all possible means are making them weaker,” he says.

We ask about physical abuse and such things that are commonly known to occur. , make them open up and tell us if, maybe, there is physical abuse, or interpersonal issues for which the Armenian army is often chastised these days.

“No, we have no such issues, and in general I should say that even when there are, it all depends on the upbringing of each soldier, here we have to be understanding and make mutual concessions,” says David, mindful that a staff officer stands nearby.

The founder of this unit in Martuni is Karabakh war (1992-94) hero Monte Melkonian, its former commander was today’s NKR Defense Chief Movses Hakobyan. Every two weeks soldiers of this unit go to the line of contact and spend two weeks there.

Armenian Defense Ministry spokesman Artstun Hovhannisyan says addressing the soldiers: “There might be cases when someone is weak-willed and steals a bar of chocolate from your locker and eats it, you shouldn’t make a big deal out of it, because it’s a trifle. Here you have to be strong and united. Tomorrow you’ll go to the post and will feel that with a rifle on your shoulder you are the master of this piece of land. That rifle makes you almighty and powerful, but you should serve it to the right cause to justify that trust.”

Artak Bughadyan says for the past two and a half years not a single Armenian soldier has died from an Azeri sniper shot; he says and bites the tip of his white shirt collar (a superstitious gesture not to jinx it).

“If a serviceman is alert and attentive there won’t be danger and no one can trespass, but if he is asleep, if the post is asleep, not only that post would be threatened, but all the other posts as well. Thank goodness, our soldiers are vigilant,” he says.

Next day after breakfast we leave for the one of the posts. Our four-member group is escorted by Shahen Navasardyan, acting unit commander, who fought in Hadrut region of Karabakh during the war.

Trenches are not designed for gentle feminine gait, but we somehow manage to walk. At the post they don’t let us continue until we put on bullet-proof vests and helmets. Boys greet us with smiles medieval knights would envy – at this post they are the masters of this part of their motherland.

“Coffee at our post is the tastiest, you’ll see for yourself,” says one of them and gets down to it.

The post has a kitchen and bedrooms. One of the kitchen corners has a small crucifix and a Bible. In my mind I say a little prayer: “Let them keep our boys safe.”

Navasardyan opens the cabinet and shows the food soldiers have during their duty at the post – tinned beef stew, cans of cooked buckwheat, soups, noodles, boxes of natural juice, cans of condensed sweet milk. Everything is clean and tidy.

“Please don’t think that we have prepared this beforehand to make a false impression on you, it’s always like this here. Other staples that have to be fresh or are easily spoiled are delivered on daily basis – bread, butter, sausage, cheese,” he says.

Those on duty at the post confess that before coming for the first time they all felt scared but with time they get used to it.

Sergeant Artak Meloyan from Armavir says: “When I came the first time I was really scared – seeing a trench for the first time, the enemy is so close, plus it’s a new environment… A lot has changed since then, I have gotten used to it all.”

He adds that before coming up to the post soldiers undergo training at their battalion, and then at the post they have senior soldiers to back them.

The boys are growing flowers at a corner of the post, a little farther there is a stove, on which they cook food. It’s usually a seven-soldier team at a time on duty.

Edik Musayelyan from Masis says they are a seven-member family.

“The life of each of us depends on the other. At posts when there is greater dependence on one another boys make friends easier and become one whole,” he says. “Here one has to be self-dependent, that’s very important. There are boys who come from families where parents have done everything for them, and it is those guys that learn how to be self-dependent which helps them in their future life.”

Navasardyan says that soldiers on the frontline have to be always very vigilant and hearty, not think about family, but only about the motherland.

To those who avoid army service the boys here say unanimously: “It is not becoming of a man”.

And Edik Musayelyan adds: “Parents are afraid of their boys going to frontline posts, but there is nothing scary here. If the soldier follows all safety instructions – has a helmet and bullet-proof vest on, stays put where he is positioned, doesn’t make himself an easy target for the enemy, there won’t be any risk to his life and we’d have less incidents”.

We say goodbye and leave. With rifles on their shoulders, a proud posture and sweet smiles these boys are not only their families’ pride but the nation’s. Day and night, cold and hot, summer and winter, under constant hostile watch, and on this one day invaded by journalists, they guard our fragile peace.