In Karabakh in 1991, a foreign journalist asked Liberation Army Commander Leonid Azgaldyan, "What color are you? I mean, what political party do you belong to?" Leonid knelt down, scooped up a handful of earth and said, "Here, this is my color."
On June 21, 1992, Commander Leonid Azgaldyan was killed near the village of Tonashen in the Martakert region. In an enemy ambush, the commander's car drove off the road in a hail of gunfire. His driver, Pavlik Tadevosyan, managed to leap out the car and escape. The circumstances of Leonid's death remain a mystery until now. His comrade-in-arms, Sargis Hatspanyan, says, "Leonid was the victim of treacherous bullets."
The Karabakh Movement originated in 1988 and attracted hundreds of thousands of Armenians to the Opera Square. For many, the Karabakh struggle meant going to Opera Square; for some it meant making speeches there. At the time, Leonid was already warning friends that the struggle would turn into an armed conflict and that people should be prepared. And he was getting prepared. Leonid's apartment turned into a laboratory where he and his friends tested different weapons. Then he gathered like-minded people and began studying and teaching how to be a soldier.
Leonid was born in Tbilisi in 1942. Some time later his family moved to Yerevan. He was a physicist by training, graduating from the Physics Department of the Yerevan State University and working at various scientific institutions.
At the beginning of the Karabakh Movement he found himself on the front line of the struggle. From February 1990 he was the commander of a military unit called the Liberation Army. He organized the self-defense of a number of regions and participated in the first liberation battles.
In 1991, he and his friends founded a military organization called the Independence Army. He served as its commander-in-chief till the end of his life.
"Until now, we have only surrendered our lands to enemies and the nation's psychology has been such that the spirit of resistance has languished. This comes from the fact that those who make up our nation's intellectuals are poor in spirit; they don't know how to struggle. And here are, in fact, our nations outposts - Getashen, Shahumyan, Artsakh, Zangezur. They are under direct threat of destruction, and these are not empty words, this is true. At any moment, a small well-organized force might attack, cut the roads off, and repeat 1915," Leonid Azgaldyan said in a March 1991 interview.
In those years, Azerbaijani military groupings supported by the Soviet Army were launching attacks on various Armenian settlements in Karabakh and in the Shahumyan region. Leonid's detachment organized the self-defense of these settlements.
"In the process a selection was made, only those stayed who came to defend their land, who truly understood that not a single inch of land could be surrendered, that it was, in fact, Armenia. Whatever international or national figures say, this is Armenia. Period. No one can say that it is not Armenia. No one has the right to put it up for sale, to exchange or surrender it. No idea can justify the surrender of Shahumyan, Getashen, Artsakh," Leonid said in the same interview.
There is no place in Karabakh where people don't know Leonid. Before he received an award from the government, he was decorated by the people. His photographs are displayed in all Artsakh schools and state institutions.
"We are creating efficient military camps here. We select from among the local boys those who are gifted militarily, and we train them according to a special program; we create groups of commandos for special assignments. Our Army is based on ideas of national rehabilitation, independence, fulfillment of national aspirations," Leonid said.
There were several Diaspora Armenians in his detachment, a fact that Leonid found inspiring. "It is no accident that Armenians gather here who understand the meaning of the nation's struggle. The presence of guys from the Diaspora here is an important source of inspiration, from a spiritual point of view. One guy's being in the camp, in itself, attracts others. People realize that their work is not in vain, that this is a pan-national cause, that we are indeed right, and that's why Armenians from very distant countries come and stand side-by-side with us and say, we are going to fight here."
In 1991 the Soviet Army and Azerbaijani military groupings were the masters of the situation in the Shahumyan region. Under these circumstances, Leonid and his comrades managed to carry out the self-defense of Armenian villages.
The Liberation Army stood out compared to other military detachments for its discipline. In the course of four years and dozens of battles, Leonid lost six only soldiers. He trained his soldiers to be ready for every hardship. Smoking and drinking were strictly prohibited. There was no other detachment like this in Karabakh. His boys trained for eight hours a day. He was preparing soldiers for a regular army.
Before combat he would always order, "Don't shoot at unarmed people," and would add, "Don't shoot at fleeing soldiers either. Let them go."
He gave that order the day the military station near the village of Aghdaban was destroyed. That same day the Azerbaijanis came and massacred the peaceful residents of the village of Maragha. Leonid and his unit rushed to Maragha. The enemy suffered heavy losses and retreated, leaving behind the villagers they had killed, dozens of mutilated bodies of children, women, and old people.
Leonid admired the natural beauty of Karabakh and said, "Armenians have no sense of beauty; if they had they wouldn't have given up Karabakh, for that reason alone. Giving something so beautiful away to somebody else is a crime."
Leonid's dream was to create a national army with a powerful Armenian state behind it. But the Army was taking shape slowly at that time. When we last met (it was after the opening of the Lachin corridor) he said, "These victories will come to nothing because there is no regular army behind them."
He could not reconcile himself to the surrender of the Shahumyan region and parts of Martakert after the opening of the Lachin road. The fact that some soldiers left these regions before the residents did filled Leonid with rage. He said that they should be punished. He was planning to liberate Shahumyan with his soldiers.
Leonid's best friend and his favorite soldier was the commander of the Artsakh Front unit of the Liberation Army, Vladimir Balayan.
Leonid considered Vladimir a born military expert. Vladimir Balayan was killed on June 9, 1992 defending the village of Chailu in the Martakert region. That day Leonid's soldiers saw their commander crying like a baby for the first and last time.
"He was killed, he went to the gods because they needed him there. Therefore, we have to defend our country so that he doesn't become a martyr. He is a victim, not a martyr," Leonid told the people who gathered for the funeral.
After Vladimir's funeral, he didn't speak to anybody for two hours; he just stood by himself. Then he waved his hand and said, "I'll go and meet Vladimir there - in heaven."
Twelve days later Leonid Azgaldyan was killed.
On different occasions, Leonid used say, "The nation that loses Karabakh will be completely overthrown."
Photos by Frederic Karegin Tonolli, Myriam Gaume Guragossian, Sarkis Hatspanian