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A personal history of trauma: The soldier with no photographs

10 September 2021
An ethnic Armenian soldier smokes by drying sleeping bags on a motorway in Nagorno-Karabakh. Photo: Jack Losh.

This series explores the phenomenon of societal trauma through the personal stories of Armenians and Azerbaijanis, how this trauma manifests, and how it contributes to ongoing conflict dynamics. In this instalment, one veteran laments how selfies, social media, and propaganda have twisted the horror of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War.

My grandmother used to say that wherever blood has been spilt, happiness will not soon return. As a child, I never understood this, and only years later did life’s lessons show me the truth of her words. She said that when the military machine falls silent, and the bombing, shelling, and shooting stop, this doesn’t mean that the war ends. The echoes of those sounds, the energy of devastation take root within people and society.

Happiness, it seems, has many reasons to avoid such places, though they can all be explained in terms of ‘societal trauma’. I will talk about one striking aspect of societal trauma, when post-war societies manipulate and distort the experience of war. Twisting and using it for their own gain, various groups create an entirely different societal rhetoric that impacts options for resolving the conflict and renders the peace process highly problematic, if not impossible.

A few days ago, I spoke with an ex-combatant from Yerevan. A student, he had fought on the frontline in the 44-day war. A keen photographer and creative young man, he was wounded and spent three months in hospital. When he was discharged, he saw that a lot of the lads who had spent their time in Karabakh taking selfies and holding photo sessions, had been decorated as heroes.

He himself didn’t have a single photograph from the war. Mobile phones were not allowed on the front line. It was as if he had never been there. The pictures he does have, are in his head – and he would far rather erase them. They still stop him from sleeping at night, rising again and again in his memory, preventing him from getting back to his carefree student life, those days when he had still made plans and led a busy life.

He doesn’t want to be named a hero. He doesn’t even want people to know that he fought in the war. He just wants his old life back, the life that was taken away by the hell of war. When we met, he smiled and talked to me openly, yet he says this was just a façade. A façade to hide his pain, and the fact that he is a different person now, one that he doesn’t yet fully understand. He says that after all he has been through and witnessed, he often doubts whether he is alive at all.

Before the war, he felt he had understood the meaning of heroism, and how such heroes came to be revered. Today, he is no longer sure of much. During the war, he witnessed young men commit acts of bravery just as striking, or even more courageous, than those of their famed predecessors of the first Karabakh war. But for some reason, these young men have not been recognized as such.

More than once, he admits, he had held a grenade in his hand, wondering if the time had come for him to leave this world. Yet, each time, he had secretly hoped that even if he lost his arms or legs, he would still, somehow, return home alive.   

Then he suffered a concussion, completely losing his hearing. In his mind, he decided he must have died and been transported to a different world, one where complete silence is possible. Eyes wide open, he could still see everything happening around him in the hospital, yet the shock of what had happened and his deafness made him certain he must be dead. A religious man, he assumed this must be the place where people are sent either to Heaven, or to Hell. At peace with his conscience, he awaited his turn to be sent to Paradise.

Yet this was not to be. Instead, he was returned to earth with a bump, the doctor yelling in his ear that he was feigning deafness so as not to be sent back to fight. His parents paid for him to be seen at a private clinic, which confirmed he had lost his hearing and prescribed treatment. What pleased him the most, however, was not the prospect of restoring his hearing, but his honour being restored. The doctor’s accusatory yelling had, to him, meant he would have to leave Armenia, never to return.

Back in his hometown, he dreamed of returning to his old social life. When he met people, he would show them that he could not hear, passing them a pen and small pad of paper, gesturing to them to write. Some, though, merely turned away.

Today, his hearing has returned, yet he no longer feels able to socialise. Everyone in his town, he says, constantly talks about the war, accusing the authorities of treason, all but suggesting they colluded with the enemy. Those who talk the loudest and voice the most confident opinion on what to do next are those who took the most selfies during the fighting. Ignorant of the real face of war, they never truly witnessed it, and have no idea what really went on at the frontline.

He agrees that the authorities have a lot to answer for, but not what they are being accused of. He says they took too long to sign an agreement to stop to the fighting, they took their time, all the while observing the huge disparity in military might. The sides had totally different access to modern military hardware and equipment. The authorities observed as the enemy took region after region, society and government officials carrying on their crowing, cocksure rhetoric all the while. Had they taken a more sober view, had they taken time to think realistically, they could have saved so many young lives. So many lads blew themselves up, opting for death to do their duty or avoid capture.

He seeks no help, although he clearly needs it. He doesn't feel defeated - he did everything he could. He believes that his family and beloved girlfriend will see him through. The only people he still sees are his old fighting companions from the front-line: only they, he claims, know the truth about the war. Only they are capable of understanding how he feels, because they feel the same. 

When they meet, no one says much. They sit in silence, drinking beer, looking at one another, exchanging terse jokes. They clap each other on the shoulder as if to make sure they are all still there, then all of a sudden, they burst out laughing. Then they all go home. It’s the same each time: they laugh at themselves, at the world around them, so full of illusions, vanity, and madness.

Together, they feel, they will be able to deal with this new life, but they worry about their society. If the public sees the war through the eyes of those lovers of selfies, social media, and political games, reality could get so distorted that before long, society will once again be happy to send its young men off to the same slaughter they so well recall, and from which, perhaps, they have not yet fully returned. 

These articles are part of the Healing Collective Trauma initiative implemented by Indie Peace and funded by the European Union. The views expressed in the article are the sole responsibility of Indie Peace and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union. Toponyms used reflect the toponyms used by the subject of the article.

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