Only our lieutenant knew that the enemy was at prayer when the order was given for us to attack. That was the plan. That was the idea. Most of us, however, didn't know and were therefore surprised to see them kneeling. There were children among them. Probably they were the children of the locals. They were sitting in between the soldiers. It was evening and they hadn't expected an attack. Nobody in our group wanted to shoot.
We were pale from eight days and nights without sleep. Every day we waited for the order that could have come at any minute. The Turks controlled the nearby water spring and every day we had to melt snow to drink. Then, on the second day, we had stomach disorders. There was nothing to eat and so we mixed snow with doshab (mulberry sweet jam). After we ate that we had intestinal problems. Someone said it was tasty but I don't remember who.
There was no sun during those February days and it was cold but we didn't light a fire because we had already become indifferent to the temperature. In fact, we were indifferent to everything. We thought there was no end in sight to this maze but then the order had come to enter the village. A message came over the radio. "Eagle, Eagle, respond. We can't hear the sound of rain, respond. Eagle, respond."
That "rain" was meant to be the sound of gunfire but there was none. Our lieutenant, now covered in sweat, was staring at the enemy as they prayed while we waited petrified with our fingers on the trigger. They just gazed into the barrels of the guns that we were pointing at them. In all, there were fourteen of them kneeling on the ground and only seven of us. All it would take was one careless sound or one sudden movement and the shooting would start. No one dared break the silence.
We felt each other's gaze although we avoided eye contact. The walkie-talkie continued to buzz and so the lieutenant turned it off. The situation was tense and we knew that the silence couldn't last for ever. It was bound to explode at any second. Some of them continued praying. We could hear the name of Allah. "What will happen, my God? My God, Allah, My god Allah."
In our heads we called the name our God while they pronounced the name of Allah. "My God, why don't they stop?" I asked myself. "Why do they continue praying? I wish they would stop."
The lieutenant gestured at us with his hand and ordered us to move back. "Don't fire! Slowly retreat," he whispered. "Do not shoot. Get out, all of you. Take up positions near the windows. No one must escape but for now, let them pray."
Their prayers had entered our blood and started to madden us. Who brought us before these people at prayer and ordered us to fire? How can anyone shoot and kill someone at prayer?
Pray, so I fire. Pray to die.
The General probably thought that he was clever when he ordered us to corner and kill the enemy at prayer. The General is a machine. He said that during this kind of operation we could expect a ten to twenty percent loss. He had been an officer in the Soviet Army and was something of a specialist on losses.
He even told the commander of our seven man group that in our presence. Our group was only one percent of the total number of participants in this operation and so, it was possible that all of us might have died.
"This old man is crazy," I thought. He probably went mad in Afghanistan where he was promoted to the rank of General. Never before during this war had so many soldiers taken part in such a large scale operation and that was why he was on the battle field.
Their prayer continued to course through my veins and now it was I that was going crazy.
I could see the horrified eyes of one of the children interspersed between the soldiers and prayed to my own God. Not now, please God. Make it so that there is no shooting. This is the end. If we fire on children while they pray no God will ever forgive us. Who put us in front of them?
The lieutenant didn't take his eyes away from the children. In fact, all of us noticed them. "Slowly retreat," he whispered again. Sweat entered my left eye and it started to sting. We moved closer to each other as the lieutenant continued to gesture at us to move back. "Don't fire, don't fire. Get out," he said, breathless as we approached the door.
"Your mother. pray, then we'll talk," we heard Hro from Ashtarak say before letting out an exclamation. "My God! What is that child doing?"
One of the children had picked up a revolver that was lying to the side of one of the soldiers and began to raise it. "Don't shoot, don't shoot," shouted the bearded Turk sitting behind him but the boy didn't listen. "My God, My God."
"Don't fire, don't fire, get out," the lieutenant shouted but it was too late. The gunshot rang out and the lieutenant clutched at his chest as the blood began to seep through his clothes.
"Don't fire." Those were his last words but the shooting had already started - the continuation of an unexpected and horrible nightmare that had taken us all by the throats and was now slowly strangling us. It had become an endless nightmare.
Blood flowed towards our feet and the shooting continued although there were already bodies lying in a sea of blood that even stained the white walls that surrounded us. And then, silence fell upon the scene once again as the shooting stopped and the blood on the ground started to coagulate. We stood petrified.
"My God, what did we do?" everyone asked. "My God, what happened?" we thought as we carried the lieutenant out. He had been our only loss. Gago from Yerevan radioed in the report. "Eagle, Eagle. One bug is coming to help you, answer, Eagle," the radio buzzed back.
We had killed three children. Two of them were between five or six years of age and the boy that killed our lieutenant was about fifteen. "My God, what did we do?" sobbed Artash as he held one of those children in his arms.
A few days later, the six of us were awarded. Our lieutenant received his reward posthumously.
But Artash couldn't sleep. He was afraid to close his eyes. Every night he would wake up screaming, his body covered in sweat. "It wasn't our fault," we would say to console him. "We didn't want to fire, did we?"
But he wasn't listening. Nineteen-year-old Artash couldn't even listen to his friends.
A few days later we helped him out of the trenches and gave him water. By then he had calmed down a little but continued to sob out loudly and was sent back home. When we returned to Yerevan a few months later we found him in the Nubarashen psychiatric asylum. We visited him regularly but there was no sign that he recognized any of us.
His face was motionless, devoid of any emotion. He just stared silently at one point fixed in space and then, we stopped visiting because it was too difficult. After each visit we didn't know what to do and we never visited him again.
But then, one day in August 2001, a report was broadcast during the police news shown on television. "A young man aged around 30 threw himself off the Kievyan Bridge ," it announced. "His identity is unknown. If anyone can help identify him please contact the police."
The man shown sprawled on the ground was Artash.
Who ordered us to attack the enemy at prayer? In the twelve years that have passed, I continue to ask myself that question every day.