Young Soldiers’ Tales of War in Nagorno-Karabakh

Nona Shahnazarian & Ulrike Ziemer. Europe-Asia Studies. Volume 64, Issue 9, November 2012.

The active participation of children and young men in armed conflicts has not lost its significance as a global phenomenon in the twenty-first century. In Eurasia, where numerous regions are plagued by violent conflicts, many of the everyday realities these young soldiers experienced still remain unclear and continue to be under-researched. Through the use of biographical interviews, this essay retrospectively explores the ways in which war in Nagorno-Karabakh impinged on male teenagers’ identities. A biographical approach not only reveals these former young soldiers’ experiences which may have otherwise never been told but also allows them to reflect on their war experiences more than ten years later. In this way, we aim to complement existing research on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with new insights.

The study of wars and military conflicts has been central to political debates and international relations (Bull; Kaldor; Suganami; Waltz). For a long time, the study of identities and their transformation during war have been less central to these debates. Only in recent years, has the study of identity found its way back as an important element in understanding questions of peace and war (Bloom; Neuman; Suganami; Williams & Neuman). Academic scholarship began to focus on the culture-changing aspects of war and the ways culture might impact on wars, especially when it comes to new technologies and conflicts in the post-socialist space (Campell; Wills & Moore). As early as 1941, Malinowski wrote that war is not merely a military undertaking. Whether it is rooted in human nature or social calculation, war soon becomes a key factor in the cultural lives and instituationalised relationships of all societies as well as identity transformations. In this vein, war is considered as much a cultural endeavour as it is a military undertaking.

Young people’s suffering from, and fighting in, armed conflicts continues to be an everyday reality in many parts of the world in the twenty-first century. More than 250,000 children between seven and 18 years of age are actively involved in conflicts in over 40 countries (Denov & Maclure, pp. 244). In view of the international impact of armed conflicts and the consequent civilian suffering, there now exist considerable scholarly publications on young people and war in different parts of the world (Amone-P’Olak et al.; Bonanno; Hamilton & Man). Most of this literature focuses on the individual in medical terms and researchers have measured the psychological impact of war with an assessment of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and abilities to engage in the ordinary routine of everyday life. While the influence of the trauma model and other psychopathological paradigms is beyond doubt, more recent research shows that a fuller consideration of the assumptions that underlie such models questions the relevance and validity of the key findings (Boyden & de Berry, pp. xiv-vi). This type of research also highlights that during conflict a blurring of the boundaries between military and civilian life takes place (Feldman). It has been shown that militarisation permeates all aspects of economic and social life (Enloe). Accordingly, in recent years anthropologists and sociologists have begun to explore meaning-making and identities during conflict often by means of interviewing and providing ethnographic accounts of social practices and discourse (Denov & Maclure; Honwana; Swaine & Feeny; West).

Despite the growing interest in young people and their war participation, many of the realities these young people have experienced remain unclear and continue to be under-researched, especially when it comes to conflicts in Eurasia, where numerous regions have been plagued by politically induced violence. While the history and politics of these conflicts are widely debated and researched, an explicit focus on young people’s experiences resulting from these conflicts has been almost absent from these debates. Our essay explores how war and warfare encroached on the identities and actions of former young soldiers in Nagorno-Karabakh, complementing existing research with new insights. In this essay, we use testimonies of the now adult men to show the various pathways of entry for young people into child soldiering and explore their diverse roles and experiences during war. In this way, the identity transformations of these young soldiers are told in retrospect.

Ethnographic fieldwork was conducted in Martuni, a small town and administrative centre of one the five districts in Nagorno-Karabakh. In this essay, we draw on biographical interviews with former youth soldiers. Nona Shahnazarian started her research in 2000, and returned to Nagorno-Karabakh every year since then. In addition, Nona Shahnazarian made a fieldwork trip to the region to conduct research focusing on the war experiences of these former young soldiers in 2008. Ulrike Ziemer made a fieldwork trip to the region in 2009. Both of us let the interview participants choose the location for the interview. Research participants chose the place where they felt most comfortable. In most cases, this was the respondents’ home, but also parks, on street benches outside their homes or even cafés. While we both conducted our ethnographic fieldwork separately and our cultural backgrounds are different, we soon noticed that we covered some similar themes in our interviews. In addition, during both trips (Nona in 2008 and Ulrike in 2009) we experienced great difficulties in conducting interviews on the specific topic of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, or even just asking questions about the war. While some interviews were conducted with a Dictaphone, other research participants refused and we had to take notes. On many occasions former soldiers refused to talk about the war and their experiences, showing that this memory is still alive and that there is a ‘no war no peace’ situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Biographical interviews not only encourage the individual to talk about his or her life ‘as completely and honestly as possible’ (Atkinson 1989, p. 8), but also illuminate the ways identities have been shaped by the interplay of individual practices and structural aspects of culture and society during childhood and adolescence. Biographical interviews provide a platform for the native voice and a valid source for insider knowledge (McBeth). A biographical approach is particularly relevant to the study of these young men’s war experience because now, more than 15 years after the end of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, they reflect on their experience by retelling it, while during the war their experience was rendered voiceless.

Theoretical Framework: Identity, Belonging and Conflict

Identity itself is a slippery concept and the way we use identity in this essay is based on four theoretical assumptions. First, following Hall, it is presumed that identities are not fixed, but rather processual and constantly changing in the process of making sense of experience. Second, identities are discursively constructed through difference, whereby they are established by a symbolic marking of representation in relation to others. Identity formation is part of a meaning-making process, where meanings are the symbolic identification by social actors of the purpose of their actions (Castells, p. 7). In this way, identities involve a process of self-construction that takes place ‘within’ and ‘not outside discourse’, at times consciously and unconsciously (Hall).

As for the concept of identification, Brubaker and Cooper (p. 14) argue that the use of this concept stresses the importance of ‘agents doing the identifying’. In addition, they contend that the process of identification takes place within wider historical, political and cultural contexts, where ‘actors’ are affected by practices and discourses external to them and that change over time. In the context of war and conflict, it is important to note that, following Tajfel and Turner, it is assumed that people prefer to have a positive self-concept. They prefer to see their ingroup in a positive light, that is positively distinct from other groups. Positive distinctiveness can be achieved by (biased) intergroup comparisons. In other words, social identity is ‘that part of an individual’s self-concept which derives from his knowledge of his membership of a social group … together with the value and emotional significance attached to that membership’ (Tajfel, p. 63). In the context of this essay on war identities in Nagorno-Karabakh, it is presumed that membership and belonging has different levels, as the subsequent discussion shows. For example, individuals may belong to the Armenian nation, to Nagorno-Karabakh, to a specific group of fighters, as well as a family.

Third, identities are constructed through our daily narratives, which constitute the ways we experience social life (Somers & Gibson). Such an approach stresses identity as a relational and situational category and presumes that ‘social life is itself storied and that narrative is an ontological condition of social life’ (Somers & Gibson, p. 38). It is ‘through narrativity that we come to know, understand and make sense of the social world’ and can form our social identities (Somers & Gibson, p. 59). Somers and Gibson (p. 38) further argue that the stories we tell each other guide our actions and are ‘a repertoire of emplotted stories’ which people employ ‘to make sense of what has happened and is happening to them’.

Finally, identities are performances that vary in different contexts. Following Butler, this postulation presupposes that narratives are more than informative; they are also performative. This last assumption about identity is mainly considered with regard to these young soldiers’ gender identity. Performing gender means that the presentation of self ‘will tend to incorporate and exemplify accredited values of society’ (Goffman, p. 45). Individuals express themselves in order to affirm and reproduce societal values with their social performance. Gender is, therefore, constituted in ‘acts, gestures, and desire which produce the effect of an “internal core” or substance, but produce this on the surface of the body, through the play of signifying absences that suggest, but never reveal, the organising principle of identity as a cause’ (Butler, p. 173). In other words, the effect of acts, practices, behaviour and mannerisms bring gender performatively into embodied being. For Butler, gender attributes are not expressive but performative and thus constitute the identity they are said to express or reveal. Accordingly, gendered behaviour is produced by gender identity which is ‘tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylised repetition of acts’ (Butler, p. 174).

Drifting into Violence

The self-declared, internationally unrecognised republic has existed for almost two decades in a state of ‘no war, no peace’. Since the ceasefire in 1994, Azerbaijan and Armenia have remained at stalemate over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Armenia and the Armenians living in the mountainous Karabakh insist on sovereign self-determination for the republic, which was previously an autonomous unit within Soviet Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan, however, insists on territorial integrity within its Soviet-era boundaries. To date, the conflict is a central obstacle to the political development of Armenia and Azerbaijan and a key impediment to the development of the South Caucasus region as a whole and its integration into the wider world. The complex social problems generated by its marginal status are almost physically tangible in a region still struggling to overcome the economic, social and psychological consequences of the tragic events of this conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.

In 1988, inspired by Gorbachev’s slogans about democratisation and promises of correcting mistakes made by previous Soviet leaders, Karabakh Armenians turned to Moscow with a petition for the re-establishment of Nagorno-Karabakh under the jurisdiction of Armenia. However, this movement provoked a sharp reaction amongst Azerbaijanis, who opposed a sovereign Nagorno-Karabakh. While Moscow quickly lost control, the Armenian-Azerbaijani confrontation grew considerably, changing from a verbal battle to a war between militarised youth, equipped with stones, sticks and knives; and then to persecution and pogroms driven by ethnic hatred.

Aram was aged 14 in 1988 when the Karabakh movement started. Together with his friends he threw stones at Azerbaijani cars, which drove through Martuni, as he tells us in the interview:

In 1988, the Karabakh movement started and the war against Azerbaijanis began. They [Azerbaijanis] wanted to kick us out [of Nagorno-Karabakh], but we started to fight back and threw stones. We would hear, for example, that there in Aghdam, they threw stones at our buses… so why should they drive through Martuni? Then after Sumgait happened we again [threw stones] … why should they [Azerbaijanis] stay here [in Martuni]? … Well, we were kids …, the truth is, that adults told us to throw stones or do something, they gave us the idea: ‘You’re kids, no one can punish you for it, you’re just kids, just go and do it [throw stones]’.

This interview excerpt with Aram highlights how these young men became drawn into political violence. First, Aram emphasises the power of ideological propaganda that took place after the first demonstrations had started. When the dispute broke out with demonstrations in 1988, teams of pamphleteers and propagandists on both sides conducted intensive ideological propaganda (de Waal). One could say that at the beginning of the conflict, in Armenia and Azerbaijan only one issue, Nagorno-Karabakh, was able to raise passions and bring large numbers of people out on to the streets (de Waal, p. 83). Armenian-Azerbaijani tensions had persisted and even intensified under socialism since ‘ethnonationalism was in certain ways “built into” the organisation of socialism, manifesting itself differently in different countries but fully absent from none’ (Verdery, p. 174). Hence, it was no surprise that by 1988 when socialism had vanished as a guiding principle, it led to a growth of Armenian and Azerbaijani nationalism.

Second, Aram refers to the pogroms in Sumgait, which are crucial for popular memory and sparked communal actions and hatred amongst Armenians. Shortly after the peaceful demonstrations in February 1988, riots broke out in Sumgait, a drab industrial Azerbaijani city near the capital, and later in Baku itself. A total of 31 people were killed, many were injured and thousands fled in panic (Kurkchiyan, pp. 153-54). For Armenians, the pogroms of Sumgait were proof that Armenians could never live under Azerbaijani rule and feel safe. Armenian accounts refer to these events as evidence of Azerbaijani ethnic hatred, of the genocidal tendency among ‘Turks’ that Armenians experienced in the Ottoman Empire in 1915, which Azerbaijani ‘Turks’ were now reviving (Laitin & Suny, p. 152). As such, Sumgait activated the historical memory of the genocide as well as of the mass killings of 20,000 Armenians by Azerbaijanis in Shushi, Karabakh in 1918-1920.

Although it was relatively easy to draw these young men into political violence, it does not mean that they acted without self-doubts. In the following interview excerpt, Artak, aged 13 in 1988, feels the need to justify himself for not going to school but instead for participating in activities like ‘throwing stones’ at ‘Azerbaijani’ cars and buses. He even defends his action by emphasising the cultural tradition of younger people listening to their elders:

When I was in the 9th form at school, the [Karabakh] movement began. I maybe went to schools once or twice. My parents thought that I went to school much more often than that. I remember that once U. Marat approached us on our way to school and said: ‘Don’t go to school, everyone has gone to the demonstration’. You see, they say that the younger ones should listen to the older ones… we were brought up like that. So, we went to the main square in Martuni. We stood there for more than 24 hours, with the eldest together. It was an interesting time, a very unusual time.

In 1988, when the Karabakh movement began, 15-year-old Arsen was not interested in politics. Nonetheless, right at the start of the whole conflict, he had a traumatic experience that made him want to be actively engaged. One day, his younger sister and his parents drove home to Martuni from a neighbouring settlement where they had been visiting relatives. The road was blockaded by two Azerbaijanis. His father tried to somehow get through the blockade but did not succeed. Instead, Arsen’s father was stabbed several times and almost killed. Arsen’s mother and sister ran to town to get emergency help for their father.

To be fair, I was too much in love at that time to be really interested in politics and throwing stones… But after what happened to my parents, I didn’t have any choice, in fact, no one really had any choice, when the real war began… except maybe to leave Karabakh and never come back… but this [the decision to leave] would have been shameful in the eyes of other people….

As becomes clear from Arsen’s interview excerpt, it is not that every young person was actively involved in the political violence spreading across Nagorno-Karabakh. Yet, the events took such an omnipresent character and communal pressure that there was no choice but to participate.

War Narratives

Although demonstrations started in February 1988, the actual war did not start until August 1991. The outbreak of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh was closely linked with Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s declarations of independence, which raised their dispute to a new interstate level. Now Azerbaijan immediately felt it possessed an even stronger argument than before. Formally, the new states retained the borders of the old republics and so Nagorno-Karabakh was—and is—an internationally recognised part of Azerbaijan. However, Armenia ignored international conditions and declared Nagorno-Karabakh ‘independent’. The regional Soviet in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, declared independence for the new ‘NKR’ on 2 September 1991, three days after Azerbaijan had declared its own independence (de Waal, p. 161). To date, the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is a de facto independent state within the former territory of western Azerbaijan.

When war broke out the situation became chaotic. Both newly independent states were at war with each other but with no armies. As a result, weapons were being handed out to men who had displayed nothing more than a willingness to fight. There was almost no coordination or training available (de Waal, pp. 163). In Martuni, the situation was no different from the rest of the region. There were only a few men who knew how to use weapons. Those who had served in Afghanistan passed on all the knowledge they had. Gagik, for example, had served in the Soviet Army in Afghanistan and only returned to Karabakh in 1990, when he was 19 years old. Unable to overcome the horror of Afghanistan, he quickly threw himself into the war preparations in Karabakh, where his knowledge proved extremely useful.

Well, I saw that they threw stones at buses… and I thought it would be better to show these kids more useful stuff then just throwing stones. So, I formed a group and once a month I took them into the forest to train them properly….

Gagik not only talks about another possible way how young people got involved in the war preparations, but also about different statuses amongst young people. Gagik, then 19 years old, literally a teenager, talks about ‘kids’, thus referring to those even younger them him, some of whom were only 12 years of age. All of them were young, including Gagik, but Gagik in his own way is mature and experienced enough to teach those younger inexperienced teenagers. On the whole, for many young soldiers, like Gagik, the war created a unique space and opportunities to acquire a high social status amongst their peers. They became equated with adults, their status and communal rights sometimes surpassing them.

He continues by reminding us that danger was everywhere and to become a proper man, like Gagik, these young lads had to endure some physical tests.

Well, I ate frogs and snakes, but at first they [the other young men] couldn’t do anything like that. It made them sick at first. But after two or three days in the forest, how can I say it, the bloody hunger taught them… When I suggested frogs or snakes for the first time, they thought I was mad, but when they tried it, they discovered that it was actually tasty… I trained these kids—they could live a month without food supply.

However, despite ubiquitous dangers and physical tests, these young soldiers had to deal with death on an almost daily basis. For example, Manuk lost his Dad and his two brothers, Suren (17 years) and Vahe (10 years) when he was only 15 years old. Even Gagik, who had experienced the horrors of the war in Afghanistan, did not find it easy to come to terms with the deaths of his close friends, as he talked about it in the interview with us.

… I trained them, yes, these kids, they were only kids. Suren [17 years], Varuzhan [19 years]—they were killed… You know what, I had 21 kids in my group, and most of them were killed, 14 kids were killed in total… (he clears his throat loudly). Everyone died in battle, everyone died with honour.

The war suddenly took on an all-encompassing character, reaching the whole society in Nagorno-Karabakh, independent of gender, age and class. For example, during the bombardment of villages by the Azerbaijani army, Karabakh Armenians offered their precious stored food, like honey-comb or dried fruits, to the fedai/azatamartik (freedom fighters) (Shahnazarian). A group of women baked bread around the clock for the soldiers on guard and in the trenches (de Waal, p. 160). Everyone was affected by the war and thus united by one shared aim—to protect themselves. The home front and war front became almost indistinguishable and often it was not possible to determine where it was more dangerous, at home or on the front line.

During the war there were only a few positions that could be taken up by these boys or young men for them to be directly involved in the war. There were special units (spetsnaz), who would sortie into the opponent’s camp, usually with an intelligence aim or the seizure of weaponry or just participation in open confrontation. The most significant task during the war became the protection of Martuni. Guarding a post became the most sought after and symbolic act of ‘serious’ war for young men. In fact, many young soldiers were killed while performing guard-post duties.

I was on guard in Guruchukh … this was a guard post… you could throw a grenade with your eyes closed and it would land somewhere in Martuni, we took our responsibility seriously. Usually the Azerbaijanis either attacked early in the morning before dawn or before midnight… once during guard change at 5pm … the fight for the guard post started and there was an exchange of fire for about an hour. But Avo got there in time with his tanks, four volunteers from Armenia also came with him and they [Azerbaijanis] retreated ….

For many children (10-14 years), guarding a guard post became an everyday activity: ‘I slept right there on two chairs, and from the constant reloading of magazines my fingers became almost numb in this position (he shows the position)’.

While they were still too inexperienced to fight, this task gave them a chance to be directly involved in the war. For example, they would carry cans of food under constant fire to the guard post of Guruchukh, located at the top of the mountain. Often these cans of food would weigh more than 10 kilograms.

In 1991, I began to help the soldiers… Everyone wanted to guard the post (laughs). As they [soldiers at the post] said: ‘Even horses died [when carrying food up the mountain], but this 14-year-old lad [Sevak] can carry everything, he can bring everything to the post’. In general, I brought food to the post.

Noteworthy here is that Martuni’s defence was organised by the whole population. Men older than 45 were mobilised to dig trenches around the town. Four guard posts were built around Martuni: Orla, Guruchukh, Elektroset and Russkii Kvartal. Each of the posts was equipped with three hunting rifles and one improvised machine gun. In addition, the defenders had knives and other cold arms. Each of the four posts was guarded by adults as well as young soldiers like Artak and Sevak, who were 15 and 14 years old at the outbreak of the war in Karabakh in 1991. This act was dangerous, the narrow path to the post was constantly under fire and children, like Artak or Sevak, who guarded the posts, were like targets for Azerbaijani snipers. Sometimes parents and relatives would not want their children to guard these posts, but these children would resist and do their duties:

My Mum and Dad didn’t want me to guard the post at Guruchukh, but I didn’t listen and did it. No one wanted to bring food to this post, because they heavily bombarded Guruchukh—our near by mountain was a strategically important point.

Despite encountering opposition from their parents and relatives, these boys and young men reassured us ever so often during our interviews that they never experienced any communal pressure to guard any post. Without exception all research participants maintained that it was their choice to participate in the war: ‘Everything was voluntary, who could force whom!? If I’d said that I didn’t want to go, they’d say: “Ok go home and relax. If you’re scared, don’t go”‘.

The Politics of War Identities

Without question the war became a determining factor and cause for self-identification, dynamically transforming boys’ and young men’s identities. To date, life in Karabakh is divided into two periods—’before the war’ (Soviet period) and ‘after the war’ (post-Soviet period). On the whole, research participants draw on five major identity narratives during the war in Nagorno-Karabakh: ‘I am a patriot of my country’; ‘It is my highest honour’; ‘I am a real man because I fought’; ‘I am a staunch friend’; and ‘I am a killer’. Research participants draw on these five identities to different degrees to justify their actions to survive during the war.

The first identity narrative of ‘being a patriot’ of one’s country simply meant that each of the research participants felt like a responsible member of a small community loyal to their small homeland. Overall, this narrative is a collective narrative, where everyone is there for each other. In war situations, this identity does not require words, but collective actions and solidarity. It is an identity that can provide comfort in extreme situations, like war and fighting. For example, Irina, the mother of Manuk (15 years old in 1991), lost her husband and two sons, aged 17 and 10 years, in close succession, and only Manuk survived. Commanders and other soldiers who fought together with Manuk considered it their duty to protect Manuk during fighting. None of them needed to tell her this, she just knew and this was her last comfort, as she knew they would not give him any dangerous tasks. Everyone of them understood that they ‘should’ protect the last remaining son of this widow. This was a special duty—a duty that was created by feelings and did not need any words to express. This example and many others like it were constructed by a communal unity and communal values, where all members not only know each other but also know details of their biographies, and their personal problems and difficulties.

Moreover, this identity narrative of being a patriot also includes the feeling of belonging to a great nation—the Armenian nation, giving Armenians around the globe the belief in a big homeland and respect for shared national history (Ziemer). Evidence for this aspect of the identity triangle community-society-nation can be found in the thousands of Armenian volunteers from Armenia as well as from the diaspora who came to fight alongside Karabakh Armenians during the war. Representatives of the foreign Armenian diaspora came from the USA, European countries and from the Middle East, from countries like Lebanon and Iran (Shahnazarian, p. 162). Thus, Karabakh became the centre for diverse groups of Armenian patriots, fighting together for the republic’s independence. In other words, research participants’ identity boundaries are drawn and cherished from the local (Martuni) to the regional (Nagorno-Karabakh) to the Armenian nation.

The second narrative is linked to one’s ‘honour’. It can also be seen as an element of imposed observation of communal rules and regulations of correct and normal behaviour. In some ways, it can be seen as a cultural, perhaps even Caucasian trait:

Male dignity here [in Nagorno-Karabakh] is the most important thing [in a man’s life]… our men constantly think about it.

You see, it’s a question of honour (thasibi harts). You do things so that they [the community] wouldn’t say you’re a coward. It’s my dignity and honour to fight for my homeland.

The narrative of honour also correlates to semantic categories of folk narratives about honour like ‘in the name of’, ‘in the face of’, about ‘the corrupted, black face’. These concepts are widespread in the Caucasus and even beyond the Caucasus. Just as Nuer in East Africa have 100 different names for their cows (Evans-Pritchard), the concept of honour in Nagorno-Karabakh and for the entire Caucasian region has a whole range of names. The most important aspect of the diversity of names relating to honour is its local context, as Gagik proclaimed proudly: ‘I will give my life to the motherland, I will give my soul to the people, but I won’t give honour to anybody!’

This narrative of ‘one’s honour’ is especially crucial for those research participants, who were too young and too inexperienced at the beginning of the war, but after intense training and endurance got to the stage where they became experienced enough to hold a gun. It was a great honour when a gun was given to them and they could fight in the war. At this point, there was pressure from older people to fight, now they were perceived to be ‘adult enough’. Earlier we stated that they did not feel pressured to participate in the war, but now they did not have a choice, otherwise the community would have seen them as cowards. At this stage, it was as if society prescribed the boys’ feelings, which they should experience, but no one asked them whether they actually experienced them. In this way, their actions were constructed according to societal ‘norms’. Arsen told us an excellent example of this communal discourse. Arsen and his friend Serob were among the first to participate in the preparatory training camps in the forest and to be given a gun:

Serob [aged 18 in 1991] and me [aged 18] were the first to get guns, the others envied us. We entered a special unit (spetsnaz). Two were already injured—Gagik and another lad—and we went instead of them. The lads were injured and they gave me one of the 30 machine guns. I also kind of got the gun through connections, as in, my father got injured by Azerbaijanis and my friends got injured and killed… so really I should feel deep hatred and take revenge…..

Arsen continued our interview by talking about his friend and comrade’s death. When they brought the dead body of Suren, who was only 17 years old, Suren’s father took the machine gun from his dead body and put it around the neck of his middle son, Manuk. The father did not say anything but expected that his remaining son would avenge the death of his younger brother. In contrast to Suren’s father, all other soldiers witnessing this incident talked about honour and the need for revenge. In the end, even Arsen at that point felt revenge and hatred as a result of his close friend’s death. In short, in these situations, although there was no need to talk about honour, everyone talked about honour and honour was defined by male actions.

Similarly, after his older brother was injured, young Sevak, who was only 14 years old, when he started to use a gun, gradually began active service in the Nagorno-Karabakh army: ‘When my brother was injured for the second time, I officially entered service in the army in Martuni’.

Although research participants interpreted the act of getting a gun handed over by an older person as an honour and a special duty, this act can also be seen as a ‘folk technique’ for ‘quick therapy’, to stop these young soldiers from losing heart. Despite being terribly upset about the death of a close friend, comrade, cousin or brother, acquiring an active position in fighting served like a mechanism to overcome sadness accompanied by possible doubts about the worthiness of such big sacrifices.

The third identity narrative refers to ‘masculinity’. The way these young men constructed their masculine identity is closely connected to the first two identity narratives, that of patriotism and honour, and is communicated as follows: ‘I am a real man and therefore I have the honour to fight for my country. I cherish this honour and I am not afraid’.

If a man isn’t a patriot of his motherland, he doesn’t have the right to call himself a man. If he can’t defend his family, his house and his country, he isn’t a man. A patriot is someone, who can defend his home, his land and his family.

Another important narrative which is also closely linked to the narratives of honour and being a real man is the narrative of being a ‘staunch friend’. Male friendship during war times seems like a part of a whole complex of masculine traits. Research participants spoke about friendship, mutual help and support in many different contexts. In every culture, there are differences surrounding the means of friendship. Specifically, in the Karabakh community friendship is organised according to gender. In Karabakh culture, friendship is a quasi-intimate formation in contrast to other societies where friendships between people can be found in a loose union of people spending their spare time together. There are different discourses in respect to friendship, but some are more important than others. First, there is the discourse of trust and reliability (one can count on a friend); then there is the discourse of unconditional loyalty. A ritual for these aspects of friendship can be found in having a joint meal together, sharing the last remaining bits of food together in the forest or at the guard post. To share the very last thing—these are multiplied acts of support and solidarity; unselfish caring for each other which fulfils the imagination of an ideal way of life that once existed for these young soldiers before the war.

The final identity narrative and perhaps the most difficult to clearly define deals with the question of how to cope with ‘being a killer’. All research participants thought of many reasons to justify and ease the killing they did. The strongest justifications for their actions was framed in terms of survival as well as self-preservation: ‘If I wouldn’t have killed him first, then he’d have killed me… it was all over in seconds’.

The narrative of ‘being a killer’ is rich in verbs like: ‘we—defended, protected, guarded the post, repelled the attack, survived’. This narrative is also full of nominations such as ‘our defensive position, an army of self-defence, military liberators’. In this sense, killing during war is justified as a moral act since war creates a special moral universe with its own rules, including the understanding of justice during war (Orend).

The second ‘powerful’ justification for being a killer has an ideological basis referring to Karabakh’s century-long struggle with Azerbaijan. Gagik told us during our interview how he felt about facing the enemy: ‘… the enemy isn’t a person and it’s necessary to try not to pity the person, first of all he’s an enemy, who suppressed our culture for centuries’.

In many instances, this justification was stridently constructed in Karabakh society as events unfolded. In the beginning of this essay, we explained that extensive propaganda was conducted on both sides. Ideological propaganda, however, did not stop during the war: ‘During war time, groups of 15-20 soldiers had to watch documentaries about the killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks. After watching these documentaries, we couldn’t feel any pity for the enemy…’.

Another justification for being a killer can be found in what could be called acts of vengeance for ‘my father, my brother, my friend, and for the whole Armenian nation’. Although the Karabakh war was not a religious war, as justification religion or religious elements were sometimes pronounced: ‘They turned Amaras [a holy church near the settlement of Machkalashen] into a sheep pen and kept sheep in it, can you imagine, in our church!’

At the same time, there was an alternative discourse of fighting as an objective necessity. In such cases, young soldiers talked about their war participation from a distance, as if they were not really there, as if it was just a game in which they had to ‘virtually’ participate.

Every time I took with me the gospel and put it inside my pocket of my coat and every time I prayed before the fighting started…. I vowed to hate Azerbaijanis for all this war… I kind of think it’s stupid to say and I shouldn’t really say it but before fighting I swore to God that I’d fight to the last drop of hate! Simply, because this was like a game for me….

The argument of having a fair fight not only helped to justify killings but also helped to find inner peace and establish an inner balance and harmony, as Aram (aged 17 in 1991) told us: ‘I, for example, fought and killed, but during the whole war I didn’t kill anyone who was defenceless, I never felt hatred and even today I don’t feel hatred’.

In this interview excerpt, Aram subconsciously refers to the de-personalisation of the enemy—the enemy has no name, but is everywhere. He demonstrates the ability to alienate oneself psychologically from the situation, and to protect one’s emotions.

Before concluding, we want to remind the reader that despite dealing with the consequences of being a killer, these young men also had to deal with being the focus of enemy aggression and witnessing the deaths of their fathers, brothers, cousins, comrades or friends, as highlighted throughout this essay. In principle, the whole town of Martuni became one big target during air raids and shootings. In addition, many of these young men became targets for snipers. Aram (17 years in 1991), for example, told us how a two dollar coin saved him from being shot by a sniper. Thanks to the two dollar coin, the sniper’s bullet only scratched his skin. Arsen (18 years in 1991) also told us that once a sniper fired several times at him at close range. However, it was obvious for Arsen that the sniper just wanted to play with him, not to shoot him otherwise he would have been killed with the sniper’s first shot.

Despite being a target, these young men also witnessed the killings of their relatives or close friends. Manuk (aged 15 in 1991), for example, never told us himself that he saw the killing of his younger brother. Instead, his friend told us the story. Nonetheless, in view of Manuk’s war experience it is noteworthy here that Manuk is one of the few young soldiers who dared to tell us his ambivalent feelings he had about the war:

… it was a strange day. We climbed up the mountain and suddenly saw… many Azerbaijani soldiers. We only thought for one brief moment that they could be ours, Armenians. But Armenians usually patrol only in small groups. We took our positions and started to fire at them. Well, it was here when I felt pity… I shot a couple of times and then stopped, I didn’t want to shoot anymore… I was terribly tired… What a difficult day… It’s all nonsense, complete nonsense.

Conclusion: Researching Youth in War and in Post-War Karabakh

Retrospectively, we find it valuable to think about the methodological and empirical contributions this investigation offers and possible future research directions. Throughout this essay we have demonstrated how the use of biographical interviews can facilitate an understanding of the changing and interrelated identities and actions of these young soldiers, explicitly because of their depth and detail. Every research participant we have interviewed for this research project had stories of violence, bereavement and loss to tell. They had fought in the war and had absorbed and responded to it in their own individual way. The identity transformations resulting from this war experience of these young soldiers are complex, contrasting structural and communal forces with the limited capacity to exercise agency in a war situation. It is beyond doubt that the Karabakh war had removed the possibility of choice for many of these young soldiers.

Even in the turmoil of war, these young men were not separated from the social relations and structure of their society. Research participants’ experiences and conditions during wartime were strongly influenced by these factors. In this respect, the Karabakh experience of war can be usefully compared with the experience of war in Israel and Palestine, where violence and warfare not only resulted in suffering and alienation, but also in human and humane possibilities. This may indeed yield useful research in the future. On the whole, despite the lack of choice, these young soldiers have proved to be not merely young victims of war, but competent individuals capable of developing their own analysis of the situation and their own responses.

Unquestionably, wartime experience has a strong influence on post-war integration processes. In ‘post-war’ Karabakh society, old patriarchal gender norms have experienced a revival. In this context, it would be useful to investigate through the use of biographical interviews these young men’s transitions from war to ‘no war, no peace’, in order to better understand post-war societal developments. In some ways, the revival of a patriarchal gender regime could be simply considered a strategy of resistance fostered by adults because they are directly connected to the memory of the war and the struggle for independence. In this case, it can take the place of a national idea, which has happened in other Eurasian regions fighting for independence (Sabirova). However, if we consider Beck’s Risk Society, then it could be merely a strategy these young men have used to cope with the many risks of post-war transformations by holding on to traditional gender roles. In any case, it is inevitable to explore everyday experiences of the ‘post-war’ generation of young men in Karabakh, especially as both states have not agreed on a peace settlement yet and fatalities continue to be part of everyday life despite the ceasefire.