65-year-old Marietta Khachatryan has been wearing a military uniform for 26 years. An engineer by profession, she join up to fight in the Karabakh war in the early 1990s, not realizing how much her decision would change her life.
“I am a fighter by nature. I participated in numerous protests when the USSR began to collapse and tried to make make my voice heard. I volunteered soon after the war started because I couldn’t stay at home. I had to have my own fight,” remembers Marietta.
She joined the Sisiakan volunteer unit in the beginning of 1990. The unit left to fight in Berdzor (Lachin) in August 1992, but the soldiers didn’t take Marietta; she was the unit’s only female soldier. A month later, seven members of the unit were killed in a single battle.
“When our boys died I realized that I couldn’t stay in Sisian and my place was on the battlefield. I got permission [to fight], took my rifle and joined the boys, hoping that there would be peace soon and we would return home alive. I wanted to have a family but I waited for the war to end. I didn’t get married. Today my dreams are even bigger, overshadowing my old wish to have a family, which I never achieved.”
Marietta says that around 200 women fought in the war; 40 of them died. Today Marietta works with ‘Khachakir’ NGO, an organization dedicated to the issues affecting war veterans.
“We have many problems. One became disabled during the war; for others the financial aid from the government is not enough. We have a small fund that we finance through our participation in several programs and we also raise money ourselves. We use the fund to help each other. The war is over for those who didn’t take part in it, but it is still fresh in our memories since we help each other as we used to in the battlefield,” Marietta says.
She adds that for veterans gender is not important: they help everyone equally. “There is no such thing as a woman or a man in the battlefield. The same blood flows in everyone’s veins. Still there is one difference: women seek peace everywhere. When we returned to our barracks I would become the peace-maker. My presence would subdue the soldiers. They wouldn’t argue or fight or curse in my presence. I would feel that there was tension, so we would talk or joke until that tension passed,” Marietta recalls.
Marietta’s war uniform is now on display at the Sisian history museum. She notes that she was proud to donate it to the museum, and she visits the display when she feels nostalgic for her time with the unit. Marietta adds that she still has her military coat, the one she wore during her time fighting in the war, and she wears it - and her medals - every once in a while.
Another volunteer from Sisian, 59-year-old Nektar Ohanyan, chose to keep her uniform.
“The year was 1993 and my son was 12 years old. They announced that there was a need for medical professionals. I was a nurse and decided to volunteer. When it came to say goodbye I cried. I couldn’t tell him that I was going to war so I lied; I told him that it was a trip to Yerevan for a work-related meeting,” Nektar recalls.
Unlike Marietta, Nektar didn’t fight on the frontline; she fought her own battle against death in the hospital.
After the ceasefire Nektar decided to take a job with one of the Karabakh military units instead of returning home.
“My husband had died before the war started. It was only my son and myself in the family. He realized that my life was in the military and he respected my decision. Moreover, he even ‘caught the [military] bug’ and is a soldier now,” Nektar says.
“I am very thankful to my friends who did not see me as a woman. To them, I was a nurse, a friend, a mother but never a female in a physical sense. They told that I was their dove of peace and I did my best to honor that title, like I now wear my medals. I think that women’s presence is necessary [in the military]. Each unit must have at least one female member: a soldier, a nurse, it doesn’t matter. It stops the boys from expressing their negative emotions and it encourages them,” says Nektar.
She worked in Karabakh until 2006, when she returned to Sisian to work in a military hospital.
Ten years later, however, in 2016, she went to Karabakh to help during the April war.
Nektar notes that there is no such thing as a “former soldier.” Even today, despite her age, she is ready to go and stand with the soldiers if her help is needed.
Nektar says that one must love her country and appreciate peace. ‘Before demanding peace from someone else, you must first create it yourself and defend it’.
October 2018, The 'Peace Builders' edition