Mkhitar Khachatryan remembers the first days . . .
Over many years of covering big events such as earthquake and the Karabakh Movement demonstrations, when I became aware that conflict had started on the Armenian-Azeri border, my first response was “It has to be covered”.
It was my great interest towards these events and probably the professional responsibility that led me in such a way to my first war. There was no fear.
However strange it may be, on that cold February day greatly excited I reached Ararat regional center from where first by car and then most of the road on foot I finally got to the conflict border.
I was very disappointed when I was told that only soldiers could go to the front line. After many attempts I also managed to get there but from that very moment my excitement changed to an inexplicable state. It wasn’t at all what I expected to be shooting. That was my first thought. And really, a war is not an event that can actually be shown through photos, point by point, episode by episode. But the outcome you can show as much as you want.
Since then I’ve been to the front many times, both at the fire line and in the rear.
On August 20, 1991 I was heading by helicopter to Shahumyan region where there were severe fights going on. On that day, because of bad weather we spent the night in a town, Gavar (Kamo).
There was a wedding in the big hall of the airport. All the people who were on the helicopter, soldiers and journalists, were invited to that wedding. Early in the morning, after the big party, thanks to the professionalism of the pilots, flying very low between mountains and gorges, and passing over the positions of Azeris we reached Gyulistan village of Shahumyan region. From there we had to get to military headquarters. While waiting for some transport in the center of the village we were talking to villagers. Two hours later one of the villagers invited us to his home “to eat something”. It was at noon, we were not hungry. I asked them to make us some tea. Karabakhis make good tea. The head of the family objected and said he would kill a pig and roast it on fire very quickly so that we eat something. I said no.
“In that case I’ll kill two chickens, they are cooked fast and we’ll eat.”
“No, make us some tea.”
“No, a pig or a chicken. You’ve traveled, you must be hungry.”
I asked (insisted) for quite long, saying we still have to travel and that tea would be fast…
“If so, then coffee.”
“Tea, and only tea,” I said.
Finally, they brought the tea, jam and a sugar bowl with 3-4 pieces of sugar in it.
My first words were that they were living pretty well and that they had everything. At that moment the old man’s daughter-in-law who was leaning on the door holding a child in her arms said, “But that’s the baby’s portion of sugar.”
For a moment there was complete silence, then we had the tea without any sugar and a little later we found out that there was a car that would take us to the front line.
Military quarters were in Shahumyan’s Verishen village. The Armenian side had already ceded some villages and was protecting Verishen village. We became aware at the headquarters that there was a riot in Moscow, an attempted coup d’etat. I thought ceasefire would take place those days, since the Russian army was attacking from Azeris’ side. With me there were two French journalists, a photographer and an editor.
There was turmoil at the headquarters. All the information was compiled here and all the orders were coming out from here. It was around 4 in the afternoon. A group of guys was getting ready to shift.
By the agreement of the commanders of headquarters we were also allowed to go with the soldiers and take pictures. We were to walk a road of about 4 kilometers. On the way soldiers were telling about their heroic deeds and interesting days. Time went past unnoticed and soon we reached the first line from where Azeri positions were seen with naked eye.
Our boys took a position behind a small hill.
Several minutes later two Russian military helicopters appeared. Commander of the detachment ordered to leave quickly, until they haven’t noticed us. But it was too late and the helicopters were right over our heads. We lay down at the slope of the hill. It was late. About 20-25 meters above us the helicopters made three circles and during that whole time they were shooting at us with automatic weapons and also were shooting at the tent destroying the boys’ support point.
After the third circle (it lasted for about 5-10 minutes, but seemed like a whole life), when we stood up it turned out that there was one victim. A local defender escorting us was killed.
(click on photos for enlarged view)