Features | 21.11.12 | 13:32
Army Chef: A woman with warrior’s heart caters to Karabakh soldiers’ needs with meals and caring attitude
As their eyes turn to look at the stranger who has intruded in their realm I can clearly see a puzzled interest: “Who is this woman?..”. To their silent question I start explaining that I am a reporter looking for the chef of the night shift. The boys take me to her.
I spot Seda Soghomonyan in the distance. Her grey hair compliments the white robe and hat. For breakfast soldiers will have the stew she is making. A bright smile veils the deep-rooted sadness in her eyes. We get acquainted, and as we speak she opens up and shares her story. To my question whether she participated in the war she gives a soldier’s response: “Yes, ma’am!”
“Our village was the most heroic one in the Amaras canyon. Together with the boys I went all the way to Horadiz, took part in the battles of Martakert. I was a cook, but was doing miscellaneous things,” tells Seda, who is now 52 and lives in Matchkalashen village, Martuni region of Nagorno Karabakh. “With my kids and my husband I stood on guard, kept vigil. On December 6, 1991, fierce shelling started, the Turks [the woman, as many in Karabakh refers to Azeris as Turks] wanted to take Matchkalashen. Things were unfolding some 50 meters from our house. How could we stay away and not participate in the fight – it’d be the same as letting the Turks break into our house and just sit silently or run away?” recalls Seda.
When talking about the war she gets excited – sparkling eyes, burning cheeks: “If it happened again, I’d go right away,” she says.
In 1992, bloody battles started for Matchkalashen. Azeris launched a fierce attack. Seda says everybody had left the village, but her family with her four children and parents-in-law stayed home.
“To tell the truth we had nowhere to go. My husband was at the frontline. I kept telling my mother-in-law to leave and take the kids with them. But she’d say to me: “My son is at the frontline, where would I go?’ And so we stayed. Battles at Klor Khut were terrifying. I went to our posts and saw our guys all lying around wounded, Turks were approaching. I picked up a rifle, found the walkie-talkie and started shouting: “Help, everybody is wounded at Klor Khut”. If help got delayed Turks would have taken me away along with all our guys. Boys would later say, ‘Seda has kept the village’,” recalls the woman with a warrior’s heart.
During the war Seda’s children were 12, 11, 8 and 2 years old. With her eldest son she’d take hot food to the trenches.
“Some unknown strength overwhelms you and you stop being afraid of anything. I used to drag out corpses of killed soldiers from the trenches, as well as the wounded. And they are really heavy, they are men after all. But then my arms got that strength coming from somewhere,” she says.
Before the war Seda had worked at a shop in Matchkalashen. She recalls how she had to travel to Martuni to do the procurement, where shop assistants of various villages would meet. With one of them, Mahmed, an ethnic Azeri, Seda’s family was friends; the war turned them into enemies.
“I can never forget this. One day after an exchange of captives our guys came and said: “Seda, Mahmed has sent you regards, but then asked us to tell you not to stand on guard at the post, ‘we know it’s her..’” They were close buddies with my husband, our families used to visit one another often. He wanted to say that perhaps they pitied me and didn’t shoot me, but I still didn’t give up.”
After the war, in May 1994, Seda’s husband got killed by a landmine. In 1995, her youngest son got injured again in a landmine explosion.
“It blew out my child’s eye, we spent a lot of time in hospitals. My eldest son is a doctor at one of Askeran’s military units. If we were in our village I’d show our front posts. In 2006 I entered the army as a cook. Can’t be apart from our guys, from the army,” she says.
We are running late so have to stop our interview with Seda, with an agreement to meet in the morning at breakfast.
A soldier’s breakfast: the stew cooked at night, condensed sweet milk, eggs, butter, cheese, tea. Seda is standing by the doors to the sleepless kitchen watching the eating area. The duty detail is laying the tables.
At the unit Seda is not only a chef, but also a caring friend to many soldiers. They trust their secrets to her, talk to her about their worries, share thoughts and dreams.
“‘Someone’s sick’ or ‘my mom’s too worried’… It’d be better if family members didn’t tell everything to their sons who are in the army, they are children, they get upset, their attention shifts to issues at home. Most importantly there is no war; let them send their sons [to the army] with peaceful mind and joy. A while ago one of the boys got heartbroken as his girlfriend had run away with someone else,” tells Seda.
The lunch menu for the soldiers includes cabbage salad, soup with beef, beans and rice, buckwheat porridge and juice.
“They are crazy about sweets. And I should say they don’t feel deprived – we give them pastry, chocolate bars, cookies. On a daily basis a soldier consumes up to 70 grams of sweets,” says Seda. “Meet is a must. They cook 130 kilograms of meet every day.”
Her shift ends at noon. She has a day off before she goes back to the unit. There are three shifts and two chefs.
“Cooking for a thousand people in a night is not an easy task. Soup, meet, eggs – it is all cooked at night. I love these guys like my own children, and start missing them as soon as I get home,” says Seda.