'The Bullet Went Straight Through Me': Armenian Fighters Recall Frontline Combat

Three fighters -- two of them wounded in the ongoing battle between Armenia and Azerbaijan for Nagorno-Karabakh -- tell RFE/RL what they witnessed in battle.

Karpis (29)

I volunteered to fight right after war broke out. I was working in the press office of the president, but I could see immediately that fighting was more important than office work.

I’d served in the army 10 years ago so have I experience in the trenches, but it’s another world out there now.

You hear the drones almost constantly humming in the sky. They’re like those creatures in The Matrix, creeping through the sky, hunting for you. We have large foxholes dug into the ground that we take cover in, and we sleep in these “cells,” too. Another defense from drone strikes is to avoid gathering in groups. It’s economics; the enemy know the price of their weapons. It’s not worth hitting a single soldier with an expensive missile. Instead, they target groups or big equipment.

The worst moment was when a drone missile hit a group of reservists just a few meters away from me. I saw how the guys I knew were blasted into little pieces. It took 20 days before they were all buried because they couldn’t tell which parts belonged to which person.

I was the only guy from Yerevan in my group; the rest were from Nagorno-Karabakh, so they saw me as someone from an easy life. They were so hospitable it was embarrassing -- trying to make sure I didn’t get hurt, and that I was always comfortable, etc.

The locals down there are a very different people. It’s easier for me to understand your English than it was to understand their Armenian.

There was humor sometimes. Once, we were under intense artillery bombardment and an older reservist who normally works as a taxi driver in Stepanakert had forgotten to turn off his mobile phone. Someone called him from the city and wanted to know if he could pick him up. The old reservist was swearing like a sailor at this “client” as shells were exploding around us.

I gave myself about a 50-50 chance of coming out of the experience alive. At one point I lost hope completely. I was lying in my foxhole under constant artillery bombardment, thinking how much I wanted to see my daughter and see Yerevan one last time. But you get through it. You learn to turn your brain off and just keep going.

I should make clear, the main burden of this war is not on the shoulders of older reservists and volunteers like me, it is falling on the kids -- 18, 19, 20 years old. Sometimes I feel they are braver than we are. It’s amazing watching a teenager stand up and fire a Fagot wire-guided missile at a tank. They even came and encouraged us sometimes.

That was the best part of being out there, knowing maybe you’re helping these kids’ chances to survive. Older guys like me have gotten married, we’ve held our children in our arms. I want these young soldiers to come back, live their lives, and have a chance to see the same things we have.

The biggest change is that I’m now sensitive to loud noises. The first morning after I returned to Yerevan after a month on the front line, I woke up to the sound of a plane taking off from the airport. I jumped up in a panic trying to find a foxhole to jump into.

I’ll go back soon, but I don’t have concrete plans yet. While I was away, my 18-month-old daughter was asking constantly where dad was. Now she’s attached to me all day long. She won’t leave my side.

Georgi (19)

I was at the front when the second cease-fire was announced. A friend of mine in Russia wrote me and asked, "What is it like there? Aren’t you afraid?" So I made a video while I was eating some crackers. In the clip I’m saying, “There’s nothing to be scared of; it’s a cease-fire,” and as I’m talking you can hear artillery screaming in above my head. I sent that to my buddy, then he passed it to some of his friends, and soon it went viral.

About four hours later, I got shot.

I was the only soldier on watch duty. We have a main lookout post, but it was often coming under fire from SPG recoilless guns, so I was a little back from it, behind a small hill with just my upper body visible from the enemy lines.

I was trying to listen to what the Azerbaijanis were saying. They were about 250 meters away, so you can’t hear conversations, but you can hear when they shout commands. I heard the Russian phrase “Nastupayem!” (“Attack!”), then a moment later I felt the sharp impact of a sniper’s bullet on the right side of my chest.

I felt hot all over and headed back into the bunker a few meters away. When I pulled my vest off, I could see two holes in it. The bullet went straight through me and blood was coming out like a fountain. A medic tried to patch up the hole, but he didn’t do a good job.

About 700 meters behind the front line we have a small field hospital. Vehicles don’t drive across that space in the daytime because the Azerbaijani artillery targets them. So another soldier was ordered to walk with me to the field hospital. I was pressing a blanket against my chest to stop the bleeding as we set off.

The soldier was a very slow walker, and I remember thinking, "Really? Is this how it’s going to end!?” But we made it there eventually, and I was transported to a hospital here in Yerevan.

Soon I’ll have another medical checkup and then I’ll head back, whether or not the army asks me to.

One of the best things about being on the front is the food that people send. Especially the candy with handwritten notes attached. Girls write flirty jokes and then tape them to Snickers bars and drop them at collection centers in Yerevan and other cities, from where they are sent to us on the front.

There was one that was very erotic signed by a girl named Hasmik. She wrote a note on a candy bar: "Come back soon so you can enter me like a Smerch missile." All of social media became very interested in this mysterious Hasmik after that!

Hayk (20)

I live in Moscow but was here for military service when the war broke out. When it’s peaceful, we can go and earn money; if there’s war, we need to come home and fight.

I’m trained as a tank gunner, but our T-72 was destroyed by an artillery round after two days. I was standing behind the vehicle when it happened. After enough incoming rounds you come to know from the noise when a shell is about to land close, and you have about two seconds to react. I heard the shell and dove onto the ground and then the tank exploded.

After that, I was given a rifle and worked as a sniper.

We were based in an abandoned village very close to the Azerbaijani lines. Once they came to within about 35 meters of our position. During one intense firefight I was taking cover behind a wall when a sniper bullet hit my helmet and tore it straight off my head. Then, a moment later, he shot again, and the round impacted about 5 centimeters from my eye. I changed my position, and then later we got rid of that sniper.

We were eating cold food from cans and packets because the heat and the smoke from a fire can get you targeted for a drone strike. Sleeping was hard because you don’t know what will happen in the next minute. I slept maybe an hour or less each day. Some of us were resting in the ruined buildings; others were sleeping in the open. We tried to spread out as much as we could because of the drones.

It affects you, seeing your friends get hurt and when you see some of them dying. Then, at the same time, the enemy are constantly trying to surround you and you’re killing them.… There wasn’t any place for joking around where we were fighting.

One day, we noticed a group of enemy fighters had taken over a hilltop near us. Then the next morning, at around 8 a.m., I was having breakfast next to one of the old houses and we suddenly came under heavy attack from missiles, rockets, and artillery.

I actually found a video of the moment of the first strike from that morning on an Azerbaijani website. (Hayk showed RFE/RL a video, apparently shot from a drone’s thermal-imaging camera, showing around a dozen soldiers moving near ruined buildings before an explosion appears to kill or seriously injure most of them.)

After that missile hit, guys were running around trying to find cover. My injured friend was in a field hospital that had been set up in one of the abandoned buildings, and I was running toward that when it took a direct hit. There was so much noise and dust and smoke, I didn’t see or hear how I got wounded. I just know a piece of shrapnel from something hit me in the side. I looked down at my shoulder and saw the blood and then the pain hit me. Thirty guys died in that attack, including my close buddy who was in the hospital that got bombed.

They evacuated me to Goris. My family are from southern Armenia, so my mom was able to see me before I was taken by helicopter to Yerevan. She was crying. What else could she do? I was still in uniform when I met her. Seeing my uniform soaked in blood really hit her hard.

On the front, no one is talking about Europe or America coming to help. This is our fight. Our faith is only with God, and we hope this will be over soon.

Translations by Aren Melikyan; with reporting by Harutyun Mansuryan