A cold dew drop landed on my cheek, having fallen from a low branch. I was crouched behind a tree waiting for any deer to break the treeline. Hamlet was waiting just ahead of me to the left, also hiding. Borea and the others had disappeared into the foliage about an hour ago. I asked Hamlet why we had to take cover behind trees in order to hunt deer.
Because we might get hit by accident, he replied.
I didn’t know deer carried guns, I said.
They don’t, he smiled, but the other hunters do.
I had been issued a Bulgarian-made AK-47, which was different than the older Russian versions, using compressed plastic instead of wood for the handles, and boasting a collapsible stock. The sight was set at a hundred meters, which through the thickness was almost maximum visibility. I thought I heard something move behind us. Hamlet had heard it too. Wild pigs, he whispered, but too far away.
At that the cries from deep in the forest started. Borea and the other hunters were pushing the quarry up towards the perimeter of snipers which had been set up at the top of the incline, and the idea was that we would shoot anything that broke cover in our direction. The approaching group fired an occasional shot into the air, which resonated off the sides of the mountains and sounded like a roar, as if some missile was fired into the sky.
My eyes scanned the shady greenness for any kind of movement. My fingers tightened around the safety release and I unclasped it with a loud click. Hamlet turned and shushed me. As the automatic was raised to my shoulder, something deep inside me trembled; I was one of those Americans who did not kill my own meat. I would never have hunted if I had not been starving and twenty pounds lighter than when I first got here.
Here was somewhere few in Los Angeles, or the rest of America, had heard of. A thousand miles or so east of Bosnia lies a region of high, green mountain ranges called Nagorno-Karabakh (or Mountainous Karabakh) which, populated by an ancient strain of Armenians, had always managed to keep its autonomy. The Bolsheviks had handed it over wholesale to the newly formed Azerbeijani Soviet Republic. The Russians had themselves gotten it from the Persians via treaty in the early 1800’s. The place where that treaty was signed was historic Gulistan, not a few kilometers from where I crouched. The whole Gulistan valley, however , was still under Azeri occupation. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Armenians of Karabakh decided they’d rather be free, allied to their kinsmen in Armenia to the West. Azerbeijan said no. The fighting began. That was over four years and 10,000 lives ago. It was now May of 1994, and after driving over impossible roads coated with mud, hiking for hours on end, I had come to one of the remote mountain outposts that overlooked Gulistan. A week before I arrived, the Azeris had tried to storm the mountain top and failed. Then two Armenians had been destroyed by a mortar attack. Then it had rained for days without any let up. Then, on the first sunny day of that month, I crawled into camp, my weak, untrained city lungs heaving for air.
Food had been a problem. The rains had started again soon after my first day, and we had subsisted on wild plants, boiled in water with a can of pork fat thrown in (that was a luxury item). The mud itself had become like quicksand. There were places one did not step in the clearing, lest one sank up to the knees. When the sun did peek out from behind the clouds, a hunting expedition was set up. I volunteered, out of boredom more than anything else.
The paths we had made our trek over were winding and narrow, blocked by the occasional fallen tree trunk, which was soft with termites and moisture. The forest itself was tall and ancient, and virtually untouched. Until recently, anyway, when GRADs (missiles fired from multiple tubes on the backs of trucks) came crashing and splintering. Once we came across a missile that had not exploded, its nose buried in the softness. Fungus grew in empty places in trees, surrounded by huge cobwebs of spiders I did not want to meet. Low branches scooped down and tore at my headgear as I did my best to balance myself between camera and gun. Birds were singing everywhere, especially the cuckoo. A bold wasp or two strafed us, quickly losing interest and going after sweeter things. I thought of Hamlet, with his veteran coolness, having eaten bear in the snows of the winter just past. Seventeen of them had held out with almost nothing against four hundred better equipped Azeri troops, until reinforcements had arrived. They had run across a bear and consumed it, very thankfully at that. The name of their fighting unit was “White Bear”, and the nickname of the unit we were with now was “Deer”. Bears that ate their namesake and Deer that hunted theirs, and a well-fed enemy waiting for the next order from Baku.
The shouts of the hunt were getting closer. Any moment now, I thought. Would I freeze and thereby subject myself to ridicule for the rest of my stay? After Bambi, could I waste one of his Armenian cousins?
Suddenly, the cries were gone. We waited another fifteen minutes and finally decided to work our way down, to the others. A few meters later, Borea, the leader of the hunt, came up to meet us. His worry-strewn face was now also tired, and his graying, wavy hair was damp across his forehead. He caught his breath and then quietly asked Hamlet to go down and help the others bring up the kill. As Hamlet scampered down the steepness, Borea and I made our way back up the mountain. On the way , he pointed out a charred hulk in a ravine, overgrown by weeds. To either side of us were items of clothing, baby shoes, sheets that had been used to bundle hastily grabbed items. It was during the fall of Shahoumian, as Russian helicopters and tanks pushed into the Northern villages and towns, that tons of refugees had clambered all over each other trying to make it to safety. Vehicles had pitched and rolled in the darkness. The weak had been left behind, some had simply gotten lost. Many of the fighters who had stayed behind had been captured or killed. Yet now, in the sunlight, the remnants almost blended into the surroundings, dim reminders of an ugly past. In fact, if one knew where to look, one could find piles of rotting ammunition, spent cartridges, damaged or gasless vehicles, and makeshift graves, all covered by empty tin cans and crumpled cigarette cartons. I wondered how long it would take for the grotesque play to be swallowed by the beautiful stage.
The deer was carried to camp hung from a pole between Hamlet and another fighter. As the venison was hung to be carved, the camp buzzed with excitement. Shurra, the garrison commander, quickly stripped the bones dry. One of our number gobbled up a piece of raw liver. The pieces were then salted and skewered. The deer-kabob was roasted over an open wood fire. The remaining parts were stewed in a rich broth the next day. One of the rules of the game was that the doe and fawn were always off-limits. Only the grown male was hunted, and this was done to ensure the population of deer would never diminish. Experienced hunters like Borea doubled as preservationists.
This was an especially unpredictable time for the weather, and we were enclosed in a gray, wintry canopy soon after. It began to rain heavier than it did before. Someone cooked up some sweet-flour and mudwater muck on the wood burning stove, pouring in an excessive amount of sugar. I forced myself to eat it but an upset stomach made me regret my decision. To top the nausea off, I had caught a chill, and spent the night shivering my pieces loose. The company nurse, who was not really trained to be a nurse, soon showed up at my comrade’s behest with a long needle of something, but I refused. If it wasn’t morphine, I would have nothing to do with it. The next day, after forcibly emptying my insides, I was summoned to Shurra’s plintage (a mud hut dug into the safe side of the mountain). Shurra’s eyes were as pretty as a deer’s, almost holding to the same shape. He was one of the older ones, living a life of caring and killing, while his family lived in exile. He bade me lied down and strip off my shirt. Another soldier rubbed on alcohol and subjected my back to a rough massage, meant to activate any healing agents in my body. The fire was then turned up, and I was left to sleep and sweat it off. A few hours later, I awoke and drank some of that alcohol with the rest of them, which made me feel quite brave.
Things seemed to clear up after that. Light rains and mist were about the extent of it. Since a cease-fire had been called, I used the opportunity to get a closer look at the camp. Soldiers lived in mud with barely anything to cover them. Many let their beards grow without trimming them; their clothes ragged and tattered, and their boots barely holding together.
None of the sick were allowed to leave, because there wouldn’t be anyone left.
Our unit commander told me to get my gun and join another hunting expedition, which would be going in the other direction, bringing us closer to the enemy.
Watch for any forgotten mines, he said.
I’ll let you know if I step on any, I assured him.
The fact that I was lagging far behind middle aged men who smoked better than two packs of cigarettes a day didn’t inspire me in the least. At one point, I was lost and wandering around a hill of very tall grass. Mines would be hard to spot here. But a loud boom would tell the others where I was, at least. I stumbled across a GRAD tip that had embedded itself in the side of a tree, its hind claws radiating out like spider’s legs. Then, eventually, as the mist started to kick in, I came upon the hunting party. I was placed at the edge of the perimeter this time, where in complete isolation, I chewed my last piece of spearmint gum.
At one point, I was almost shot by the same guy who had pummeled my back the day before.
You looked like a bear in the fog, he said coming up, and it’s a good thing I took a closer look before shooting.
The mist had gotten thicker, but he wind carried it around this part of the hill. The forest was shrouded from our view, so the snipers gathered in one group and ate sour leaves. A couple even fired off a shot or two in frustration, which started an argument with some others. In all, the expedition managed to wound a wild pig, which had disappeared completely. So it would be back to weeds and boiled muck. That night, I dreamt of seafood and cursed the mountains.