Becoming a True Armenian

From Shorja, I’m close to the border, so I decided to see if I could enter one of the military barracks there and experience life like every Armenian man, by spending some time as a soldier. It took a little convincing, but after I explained my story and passed over my passport, I was permitted entry.

It was too late to join for dinner, but in the kitchen I was treated to rock-hard sliced bread with pre-cubed butter and a can of condensed milk. With each bite I thought that I was going to chip a tooth, or at least loosen one. Afterwards, I was guided to the barracks, my sleeping quarters: a large rectangular room crammed with high metallic bunk beds, separated by a Soviet-era wooden chest of drawers. Oh, and before all of that, I was handed my uniform—thick, sturdy, and starched hard, it felt like wearing tree bark. The molded black boots that came with it would require months of breaking in before they could ever feel comfortable.

I joined my platoon of soldiers, young boys 18-19 years old, soft, juvenile, playing dress-up in their military uniforms, eager for the chance to talk to a foreigner, be part of a TV production. We did drills, marched in the main square, ran the obstacle course, swept the roads, slowly and methodically sewed my badges, and learned to take apart and put together an AK-47… in forty-five seconds flat. They were all willing to be of help to me, but I had the sense that while some were more naturally helpful, others were hoping for more time in front of the camera. We took countless pictures together, all the kids lining up for selfies, and I also received eight Facebook requests and gave several promises to meet up in Yerevan two years from now, once they had finished their service. Only after all of that did I leave to head up toward the border, encountering the soldiers that were patrolling the front line.

The boy soldiers were serving their obligatory two years, counting down the months before they could return home and continue living their lives. But the soldiers on front line were the professionals—career soldiers counting their years served. They were living along the border between countries at war, between life and death, knowing that at any moment, a sniper could fire down at them from an enemy outpost. In fact, we actually heard gunfire from afar during the daylight hours—one, two, light and far away. But once night fell, the real bullets flew—they were firing automatic weapons, and there was no telling from where or at who. To stay safe, the crew and I retreated back to the barracks in the city.

It’s sad to see how these two countries, sharing so many similarities, cannot find common ground. Peeking through sight holes with a sniper’s rifle scope, I saw Armenia, stretching off into the distance… the same landscape, the same dry grass, rolling hills, green trees and pockets of villagers. But I’m staring with the eyes of a soldier, staring at “the enemy”, a rivalry with a long history and no short solution in sight. The same people and kids I met today, and befriended, could find themselves fighting in the future, could very well die fighting for their homeland, protecting their families, their way of life.