Translated from the original Armenian, After the Prayer recounts the experience of an Armenian soldier fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh War in the early 1990s. Nagorno-Karabakh is a mountainous enclave in the South Caucasus located in present day Azerbaijan. The sovereignty of the territory has been an issue of regional dispute since the end of Ottoman rule. An autonomous zone in Soviet times populated mostly by Armenians, the territory is currently governed by a formally unrecognized state known as the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. The dissolution of the Soviet Union saw the rise of an Armenian secessionist movement and prompted violent clashes between majority ethnic Armenians and Azeris. A 1988-1994 war between newly independent Armenia and Azerbaijan resulted in the death and displacement of thousands in the republic. Armenian armed forces have maintained control over the formerly autonomous Nagorno-Karabakh enclave and surrounding areas since the cessation of hostilities in 1994. Recent clashes in early August of this year resulted in the deaths of several Azerbaijani and Armenian soldiers and tensions along the border run high, with the US, Russia and Turkey now wielding their influence in a renewed push for a resolution.
- Jason Huettner
After the Prayer
They were always praying. Only the lieutenant knew that the enemy was at prayer when we were ordered to attack. It was planned like that. Most of us, however, weren't aware that it was the hour of prayer and were therefore surprised to see them kneeling. There were a few youngsters among them. They were probably local children, squeezed in between the soldiers. No one wanted to shoot. We heard the radio.
"Eagle, eagle! Answer! There is no sound of rain! Eagle, answer!"
The "sound of rain" was meant to be the sound of gunfire, but there was none. The lieutenant, now covered in sweat, was staring at the praying soldiers. We were waiting, still like stone, our fingers on the triggers. They gazed at us pointing our rifles at them. There were fourteen of them kneeling on the ground and only seven of us. All it would take was a careless sound or some sudden movement and the firing would begin. No one disturbed the silence.
We felt each other's gazes even as we avoided eye contact. The radio continued to buzz. The lieutenant reached over and turned it off. The silence became denser. We knew that it couldn't last forever. It was bound to explode at any moment. Some of them continued their prayers. We could hear the name of Allah. "What will happen? My god, my god. Allah, my god, Allah."
In our heads we called the name of our god while they called out Allah. "My god," I said to myself. "Why aren't they keeping quiet? Why are they continuing to pray?"
The lieutenant gestured to us and ordered us to retreat. "Don't shoot. Get out, all of you. Slowly retreat. Take your positions by the windows. No one can escape, but let them pray for now."
We had grown pale from not sleeping for eight days and nights. There was no sun on those February days. It snowed all day long and we were too lazy to move. Each day passed like a dream as we awaited the command. The Turks controlled the nearby water spring and every day we had to melt snow to drink. We had no food. We mixed doshab (sweet syrup) with snow and then the stomach pains began. I can't even remember who said it tastes good that way. We were cold, but we started no fires. We were indifferent. Just when it seemed that there would be no end to our nightmare, we were commanded to enter the village.
Their prayers had flowed through our blood and maddened us. Who brought us here to fire on these people at prayer? How can anyone kill someone at prayer?
Pray, so that I may shoot you. Pray to die.
The General had planned it exactly like that. He thought he was clever when he ordered us to entrap and kill our praying enemy. The commander is a machine. He would say, "A ten to twenty percent loss of collateral damage is common for operations like these." He was an officer in the Soviet Army and an expert on losses. He said this in the presence of the commander of our small group of seventeen servicemen. Our brigade consisted of one percent of the operating participants. It was possible that we would all die.
The old man is crazy, I thought. He probably lost his mind in Afghanistan, where he'd been promoted to the rank of General. It was the first time during this war that such a large-scale operation was taking place. This explained the General's presence on the battlefield.
The prayer coursed through my veins and I was sure that I was losing my mind. I had seen the terrified eyes of one of the youngsters in between the soldiers. I prayed to my own god. Dear god, not now. Make it so that there won't be shooting. This is the end. This will be the end of us. If we shoot at children in prayer there will be no god that will forgive us. Who brought us here? Who placed us over these people's heads?
The lieutenant didn't blink and wouldn't remove his gaze from the children. We all noticed the children. "Slowly retreat," he whispered again. Sweat dripped into my left eye and began to sting.
We moved closer to each other as the lieutenant gestured us to move back. "Don't shoot, don't shoot. Get out," he said, as we approached the door.
"Pray, you bastard, then we'll talk," we heard Hayko from Ashtarak say, before crying out. "My god, what is that child doing?"
One of the children picked up a rifle from a kneeling officer and began to raise it.
"Don't do it, don't shoot," screamed the bearded Turkish officer in front of him.
The boy wasn't listening.
"My god! My god!"
"Don't shoot," the lieutenant shouted. "Don't shoot, move back!" But it was too late.
The gunshot rang out. The lieutenant moved his hand toward his breast where blood was pouring out.
"Don't shoot." Those were the lieutenant's last words but the shooting had already started. This was the continuation of an unending and unexpected nightmare that had clutched us by the throats and was now choking us. A nightmare without borders. Blood was flowing. It had reached our legs. There were already bodies lying in a sea of blood. The white walls that surrounded us were stained. And then a silence reigned. All at once, independently of one another, we stopped firing. The blood on the ground began to coagulate. We were standing like stones.
"My god, what have we done? My god, what happened?" we repeated in our minds as we carried the lieutenant out. He had been our only loss. Gago from Yerevan turned on the radio to announce our victory.
"Eagle, eagle! A bug is coming to your aid. Answer, Eagle!" The radio hummed.
We had killed three children. Two of them were between five or six years of age. The boy who killed the lieutenant was approximately fifteen.
"My god, what have we done?" It was Artash, sobbing as he held one of the children in his arms.
Some days later, six of us soldiers were honored. The lieutenant received his award posthumously.
But Artash was not able to sleep. He was afraid to close his eyes. Every night he would awake screaming, his whole body covered in sweat. "It wasn't out fault," we would say to console him. "We didn't want to shoot, right?"
He wasn't listening to us. Nineteen year old Artash was not listening to anyone around him. For several days we would carry him by the arms out of the barricades. We would give him water and he would calm down a little, but he continued to sob out loud.
They sent him back home. Months later when we returned to Yerevan, we found Artash in Nubarashen's psychiatric home. We would visit him with friends once a month. He didn't seem to recognize us. He would be sitting in silence, staring off into the distance, his face bereft of any emotion. We stopped visiting because it was too difficult. After each visit we didn't know what to do and we never visited him again.
Then, one day, in August 2001, a television news report was broadcast. "A young man, aged around thirty years old threw himself off the Kievyan bridge today. His identity is unknown. If anyone can help identify him, please contact the police." Phone numbers were mentioned so that those who recognized the victim could call.
In the photo that accompanied by the police announcement I could see it was Artash sprawled on the ground.
Who ordered us to attack the enemy at prayer? Who said shoot? It has been twelve years and I still find myself asking these questions.
Edik Baghdasaryan is currently the head of the Investigative Journalists NGO and Editor-in-Chief of the online newspaper HETQ. He served in the Armenian armed forces from 1992 to 1994.
Milena Abrahamyan, who assisted in the translation of this piece from the original Armenian, is studying Peace and Conflict at Uppsala University. Her work includes connecting women across borders to build solidarity and peace in post-conflict societies. Check out her peace-building project at www.linkingourstories.com.
Image via Marco Fieber under Creative Commons license.