The six soldiers (photo Margos Margossian)

Run Silent, Run Deep: The Six Survivors of War

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YEREVAN — Seventy days in a blockade, wandering around the abandoned villages, leaning on rice and compote. The story of six soldiers who were found alive after the war of 2020 is known to many. After a long recovery, they have reintegrated into their everyday routine and attempt to build a future for themselves and their homeland.

On September 27, Azerbaijan launched a full-scale military attack on the borders of Artsakh, initiating the Second Artsakh war. Soon, as the Azerbaijani army advanced in the territory, the connection was cut off. A platoon scattered in different directions, and six of them, Arthur, Arman, Ruslan, David, Nikolay and Arsen, decided to continue their route together.

Arthur (photo Margos Margossian)

Arthur: How the Story Began

“I imagined what my family was feeling, and it gave me strength to move forward and tell them that I was alive, and they didn’t have to worry,” said Arthur.

Arthur had served for only two months when the war started and had never even held a weapon. As the Azerbaijanis took control over Jabrayil, Arthur’s detachment soon moved towards Hadrut. The commander pretended to be wounded and left the battlefield, leaving more than a hundred inexperienced soldiers alone against the enemy’s strong, composite army. “They kept telling us that they would send additional troops to rescue us, but they never did,” remembered Arthur.

The group had to simultaneously find shelter, feed themselves and care for their wounded comrades. “We were short of food, and once we had to share two tin cans between more than 20 people,” said Arthur.

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Soon, they advanced deeper into the west and sheltered in Vank, one of Hadrut’s villages. “We found the residents’ documents and saw the village’s name,” recalls Arthur. Besides the location, they found an empty house which became their food storehouse, where they saved goods gathered from neighboring homes.

The artillery sounds always accompanied the food search, and once they calmed down, the boys realized the war was over. “They would shoot in the air for around an hour, and then silence fell,” explained Arthur.

Later, when the Azerbaijani troops began checking the abandoned village houses, the group of twenty was almost caught. They scattered into smaller groups, and six of them, including Arthur, left the house together. Their destination was the Iranian border, where they could catch a signal to make a phone call, but they stopped by another village. “I entered the village with Ruslan in a food search, and we were shocked to see huge storage there. We assume there was an Armenian military unit before,” said Arthur.

The availability of food and water allowed the young soldiers to continue making their way despite the winter cold and exhaustion. The lights from the Iranian side were barely visible because they went down the mountain, and the last glimmer of hope was fading away. However, success was just around the corner as they caught signal as they approached the Armenian border. On December 20, 2020, the first news about the return of soldiers appeared on the Internet – the group of six was finally taken out with the Russian peacekeepers’ intervention.

“I was sitting on a hill with Ruslan and noticed smoke in the air. First, I thought it was a cloud, then I realized that it’s car exhaust, a sign that the rescue team was finally coming,” recalled Arthur.

The echo of war still rings in Arthur’s head and reminds him of the travails he underwent, but he returned home, and now his parents are happy. “Once we were discussing our future plans with the boys, and I realized that I desired to see myself going to university,” he recalled, noting he has made that dream come true.

“Sometimes I feel phantom pains in my lower limbs,” said Arthur, “but it’s the least evil thing that happened.”

Arman (photo Margos Margossian)

Arman, the ‘Weirdo’

“My friends often say that I didn’t become a weirdo after the war because I was a weirdo before it,” said Arman. Not formally, Arman was the group leader in the blockade, who showed directions, motivated everyone, and brought them to mutual understanding.

“I always told the boys that we would get out of this, even when we were under attack, though I was often accused of being too optimistic in the game of life and death,” added Arman. Like all the others, he was unprepared for the war after only two months of military service. However, his cunning helped them survive. “At first, I even had no clue of where Hadrut is located,” he confessed, but his versatility paid off. He navigated the area through the sunlight, found the South and the North. The snow on the mountains also guided them. “The more snow we see, the closer we get to the South,” he recalled. The initial goal was to reach the Iranian border on the South to make a phone call, so the group moved in that direction.

The boundaries between reality and dreams got blurred during the war, as they both were abnormal and unreal. “During the blockade, my views and beliefs changed a lot, but once I was back, I became the person I was before the war,” he said. However, he realized that his pacific nature was no longer possible to maintain in life․. “I’m a pacific, peace-loving person, I never show aggression,” said Arman, “but sometimes you reach the point where you have to attack to defend your beloved ones.”

The boys made a mistake by moving towards the southwest instead of the South, and by a lucky chance, they approached the border with Armenia, where they made a phone call from a mountain top and were taken out. “We often argued and had conflicts, made some wrong decisions, which ultimately brought us back to Armenia. We were destined to get free,” he said.

David (photo Margos Margossian)

David, ‘The Guy that Survived the War’

“I’m no longer ‘that funny guy;’ I am “the one that survived the war,’” said David.

On September 27, 2020, war broke out unexpectedly and surprisingly for many, but not for the 18-20-year-old soldiers at the frontline, since the Azerbaijani troops were concentrated along the borderline long before the first sirens were heard.

“A few days before the war, the commanders started to circulate the message that we will have to give our lives to defend our homeland,” remembered David, “and I prepared myself for it.” “I analyzed everything, understood that had I lived an exciting and adventurous life, and I felt ready to fall under the menace of war.”

Due to the numerous movies and shows he had watched, David had certain ideas about the process of war. However, he witnessed the actual atrocities after the hostilities began, and he realized that people often chose violence over humanity. “My views drastically changed when I saw the weapons people invented – fragmentation, poison needles, phosphorus… It is too abnormal and inhumane,” he said.

Soon, the blockade indicated that the tide of war was turning against them, and it became challenging to find the aspiration to move on. “What gave me hope? Arman!” remembered David. They had a choice: life, which required efforts to reach, and death, which they could easily achieve. “Arman kept telling us that death is not a way out, and it motivated us,” he added. The range of choice became limited, and only one was left – to live.

At the beginning of the war, David received a shrapnel wound, which Arman tied with his spare socks and treated. And then he suffered from frostbite, and his feet were partly amputated. “At first, I felt like half of my foot sank into the ground while walking, but I recovered soon,” recalls David.

He didn’t expect changes in life after his return, but he had one special wish: “I imagined that I would tell everyone this story after I’m back.”

Ruslan (photo Margos Margossian)

Ruslan, the Friend for Life

“The strong part of our friendship is that we would be good friends in ordinary life as well,” recalled Ruslan, who became a family with the boys during the war.

Ruslan’s friendship initially started with Arsen before they met the others. “Though we were alone, we didn’t feel lonely because even if one of us inspired hope, we could keep going,” said Ruslan. Conversations with his friends made the journey a little less exhausting. They had many topics to discuss – movies, books, music, and they learned about each other. The boys shared the same desires and dreams: to go back to their previous lives, even in the smallest detail. “I wished to be able to relieve myself without the fear of being killed,” said Ruslan. In moments of despair, their will to live became something divine that they believed in.

Conflicts often took place throughout the journey, but the unity and sense of responsibility kept them on the right track. “We realized that conflicts would only bring misfortunes, and we strived to resolve them immediately,” added Ruslan.

The thought of coming back became a dream, and ordinary everyday things seemed aspirational. “During the blockade, I believed that my mundane life was ideal, but now, when I’m back, I see that it still has many flaws,” he added. He noticed a huge contrast between his expectations after the blockade and the reality he was in. “We planned to drink together right after we go back, but we found ourselves lying in hospitals for months,” recalled Ruslan. “If I could do something different back then, I would only be attentive towards my lower limbs to avoid the amputation,” he added, as the frostbite resulted in partial amputation of his lower limbs.

Nikolay (photo Margos Margossian)

Nikolay, From Moscow to Artsakh Frontline

“What has been an obsession for the last five years and a real struggle for the last year is finally taking shape,” wrote Nikolay on Instagram before starting his military service in July 2020.

When the April War broke out in 2016, Nikolay lived in Moscow. The thought of being far from his homeland during the clashes had been torturing him until he decided to move to Armenia in 2020. Unbeknownst to his family, Nikolay collected all the necessary documents to reach out to the draft board in Armenia to start his service. However, he couldn’t share his joy of fulfilling his duty to the homeland. “To my regret, I am alone in my joy. Whether it’s family, friends, a taxi driver, or an officer of the draft board, everyone keeps asking, ‘Why are you doing it?’” he wrote.

After long disputes with the draft board, Nikolay implemented his long-awaited dream to start his military service. The idea of war seemed intriguing and exciting to Nikolay, and he was curious to experience it on himself before the actual disaster crashed down on his head — he was in an actual war.

“Every time I saw Kolya (Nikolay), his glasses were in the dust; he was always fighting intensely,” remembered Arthur. To lighten the tense situation in the blockade, Koka (Nikolay) would come up with critical questions or sensitive topics like the definition of motherland and home. He didn’t forget his bookworm nature even in the blockade and strived to spend his short leisure reading books. Due to his deep knowledge of Chinese, Nikolay made up creative names for geographical locations surrounding them. One of the mountain peaks he called “Gaoler,” where “Gao” means “high” in Chinese, and “ler” is the Armenian mountain.

Nikolay had a tough time with the onset of cold weather. While crossing the river, he got his feet wet and couldn’t dry them, and therefore half of his feet were amputated. And despite the obstacles, his participation in the war justified Nikolay’s principles, which put homeland protection on the very top.

“I have fulfilled my duty, and now I have the right to life,” he said.

Arsen (photo Margos Margossian)

Arsen, the Cooking Enthusiast

“As the war ignited, I didn’t manage to wish my sister a happy birthday,” said Arsen.

On September 25, the first sirens sounded, and the next day the commanders took away all the telephones. “The war started on my sister’s birthday, and I couldn’t make a phone call,” remembered Arsen.

The intense military activities were a new experience for Arsen, which initially seemed interesting. Like many others, he believed that it would last for only a few days and would “give him adrenaline,” but things went too far.

Arsen became friends with Ruslan on the first day in the army after discovering that his sister and Ruslan’s brother starred together in a TV show. In the blockade, they had to either join the group (Arthur, David, Nikolay, Arman) or go individually. After long discussions, they decided to merge into a group and continue the journey together.

“We were all different but always found things in common,” said Arsen.

While hiding in a village house, they had several way to keep busy: reading books from local small libraries, playing children’s billiard they found, or even word games.

The group did a labor division to simplify their duties, and Arsen was in charge of preparing food. While they generally ate pasta or rice, Arsen tried to spice up their meals. “Once we made ghapama with a pumpkin,” he remembered, “or whenever we found animals, we ate meat.”

The boys’ destination and goal were the simple: to wake up in their homes again, have breakfast around the family table, attend university and do their daily jobs. However, the reality was way more complicated. “When we were finally back, things became difficult. I lost myself,” said Arsen. “I barely distinguish between what is right and what is wrong, and it often prevents me from making decisions.”

The boys often had roundtable discussions where they shared their plans for the future.

“Back then, we thought our plans would remain an unattainable dream,” recalled Arsen, “but it turned out that everything was possible.”

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