Our transport was far behind us now, hopelessly dead in a mound of brown, sticky mud a kilometer from its starting point in Yeghager. Its belly was still full of stripped tractor parts, which together with its baking exhaust and coated grease, had battled us during the short-lived but chaotic ride. There were about ten or eleven of us, already whittled away by fatigue and starvation. One of our party had a pinched nerve in his back, and had contorted into a staircase. His walking stick was barely enough to keep him up. Along with him was a blonde woman fighter, a young fighter of seventeen, and a few tattered others. Mataghis was over fifteen kilometers away, at least.
The sun was beating down on the exposed sections of mud and drying it into cement under our downhill steps. My right knee, which had been a problem during the whole trip, felt like it wanted to break sideways. The others were always way ahead of me. The weather had gone from rain to searing heat instantly.
Those returning from Ardatap, the farthest post, had walked almost thirty kilometers in two days. Small shrines and graves, either Azeri or Armenian, came up from time to time at each side of the road. When we finally broke tree cover, Mataghis was finally visible. My feet felt as if they had blisters growing in every direction, even up.
The chirping of birds was broken up by distant artillery and the roar of tanks. It was said that a certain general had made his base in Mataghis, where there was a hydraulic dam that provided Karabakh with its electricity. This general was battling the forces of Mir Bashir, which meant he had to move forward without the cover of mountains. These same treacherous mountains had helped their Armenian inhabitants fend off inhabitants, had helped them fight very effective guerrilla warfare. Now, the Armenians were outgunned and wide open. And this general was under a lot of pressure. And this general was driving his men to the ground, and had executed two of them, without court-martial.
Six years of war can do a lot to make a person go over the edge, especially when it means six years of losing your friends, of being under constant bombardment, of not knowing who your wife or sweetheart is sleeping with back home. Then, there’s the weed. Good, wild Karabakh Marijuana, and of course, as much vodka and cognac that you can get your lips to.
The tank yard was loud when we scraped in. To one side was a building that looked like it used to be some kind of mechanic’s shop. Around it were a lot of tank repair-men, and they had their shirts off. They were covered with tank oil and grease. Along the back wall were parked several different kinds of armored vehicles. The tank repair-men were revving up the diesel engines, filling the landscape with exhaust smoke.
We were sitting under the shade of some little trees near the yard, when a tank that had been parked to the right of us suddenly roared to life. It’s engine sounded like a bus with asthma. Lurching forward, it spun around and trundled directly at us. The driver’s head was poking out of the front, directly in front of the turret. His balding head and white mustache reminded me of William Saroyan. He had the mischievous grin of a teenager. We were up in seconds grabbing our equipment and trying to get out of the tank’s path. It was all very surreal, an olive green metal monster with a little pink ball on its front that was a human head, and a William Saroyan type head, at that.
The driver drove toward people and swerved aside at the last moment, as if it was a big game. He was treating this epic of machinery as an extension of himself, but the real reason he didn’t run over anyone was that we all ran away.
On its front was painted a white crescent and star, the Azeri symbol. On its turret were painted large words in Russian. Someone translated it for me: “Aliyev’s Grandsons.” At one point, this thing was driven by the enemy, and a rocket from the Armenian side had bought it, relieving the occupants of any further participation in the war.
The clumsy giant was driven over to the compound where it was soon coated by a swarm of repairmen, opening engine canopies, clambering inside, shooting smoke into the air. I now knew why so few insects had greeted us at Mataghis.
After an hour or so, the tank reversed, with everyone still on board, but now, a shirtless worker was straddling the main cannon and another was dangling from it. The driver threw his tank into a series of 360’s to throw the dangler off, who persevered and finally let go on his own, jumping back onto the main body before, amid much hooping and laughter, the collage of flesh and metal leapt away, down the road.
Feeling relatively safe, our group settled down for some imported tins of fish from China, called Quin Quang or something like that, and washed it down with room temperature vodka. Needless to say, fatigue had already gotten the better of me, and I succumbed to a half-sleep.
We were approached by a group of officers who had the faces of people who made life difficult for other people. These asked us if we had run into a certain deserter during our travels, and we said no. Even if we had seen him, we still would have said no. Being volunteers, conscript issues didn’t interest us. We all knew how tough life was out here. If the war didn’t kill you, the isolation and boredom made you crazy.
My blistered feet were complaining irreverently so I took them to a place where the washout from the dam collected. There was even more water there now that the Karabakhtsis had blocked the river’s path into Azeri territory. The water was green, full of algae, and I sat on a rock, amid soldiers in various stages of undress, to soak my naked bunions in the coolness. All around me, the men were carrying on like bathing, swimming, joking, and shaving. They were also laughing. I soaked my socks and wrung them as dry as I could, them put them back on, envying the fish.
When I made it back to the compound, the tank mechanic who had straddled the cannon of “Aliyev’s Grandsons” was engaged in a stone-throwing game with a tall Russian soldier who had a large tattoo of his sister on his chest. This was one of the few times I actually saw a Russian in Karabakh. He seemed to be very good friends with the crazy tank mechanic and a friendly kind of person. Any conversation was limited between us, probably because I spoke no Russian. We were both fish out of water, me, a Yankee Armenian in Karabakh, and him, a tall Russian with a tattoo of Sister on his chest.
We finally found a vehicle that was going our way. It was a covered truck that was a repair-shop on the inside, and in jangled and rattled with every bump. Two of our party, the commander and the actor, missed the ride, but the commander later told us he was treated to turtle-meat by the very people he borrowed the jeep from. He added that turtle meat was the best meat in the world. Meanwhile, another occupant of the truck, an old grandpa soldier who looked like Santa in camouflage, started to sing. I guess he was happy about going home and seeing his grandkids. He strummed his automatic rifle as if it was a guitar, and serenaded the blonde woman fighter, who blushed a gold-tooth smile. I couldn’t understand the words to the song, but she was visibly flattered. I remembered that she and I unflatteringly smacked heads earlier that day in the Armored Transport every time it shifted gear.
The driver of the covered truck let us off a full two kilometers before headquarters, and to the chagrin of my embattled knee, we had to walk uphill for half an hour. There, we ate and rested, then bathed and found a room to sleep in. As my eyelids grew heavy, I thought I heard tanks in the distance, and thought of Aliyev’s grandsons.