Journal Highlights: Roads I Have Traveled ... Excerpt #2 Nagorno-Karabakh, 1998

(continued): Nagorno-Karabakh: August, 1998: The road to the city center of Yerevan, Armenia, passed by a lot of evidence of poverty and deferred maintenance. But the closer we came to the metro area, the more impressive Yerevan loomed. In the distance the beautiful national football stadium, which has a seating capacity of seventy-five thousand soccer fans, could be seen. There were several new buildings, and construction cranes were in place erecting other buildings. Could this be the city that suffered so much from the catastrophic earthquakes in Armenia in 1988, when a quarter of a million people were killed or displaced? 

The downtown hub of the city of Yerevan is one of the most attractive I have ever seen. Buildings of coordinated architecture form a loose circle. Fountains, trees, and one building with a huge city clock grace the city center. But the streets were nearly void of people on this quiet Saturday morning. Business people were home with their families, resting from a busy week, and the majority of movement in the streets was from a cool breeze that wafted its way through the large green trees lining the freshly washed streets leading toward the city hub. I thought to myself, These people have a lot of personal and civic pride. What a welcome contrast to the thousands of dirty, unkempt cities I visit in the developing world. 

Our plans had been to leave right away on our journey to Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh. But somehow the personal communications network had tangled, and since our hosts had not yet arrived at the hotel to meet us, we retreated upstairs and ate a lovely breakfast in the hotel dining room. Eventually our hosts arrived, and we piled into some Russian-built vans and headed to a domestic airport on the outskirts of Yerevan. 

While in Yerevan, we were introduced to one of the most interesting characters of the entire cast of players in Armenia. The historic saga has included many colorful players, but perhaps none more enigmatic as Zori Balayan. Zori is a trained surgeon and has throughout his life been a master sportsman. He has written more than forty books, and during the Soviet occupation of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, he represented his people in Moscow as a people’s deputy in the politburo. Now he is perhaps the leading member of Parliament in the Nagorno-Karabakh republic. In my estimation, Zori is the most influential behind-the-scenes leader in Karabakh. He has a godly old mother of character and wisdom, who prays for him daily, and he honors and respects her greatly. 

I might be mistaken in my personal evaluation of the situation, since I’ve known Zori Balayan for such a short time, but after reading some of his works, observing him up close, and watching the people around him, I judge that he is the kingmaker of Nagorno-Karabakh and perhaps even of Armenian politics. If Zori scheduled a meeting for Baroness Cox or me, the people at whatever level canceled everything else to attend the meeting. 

Zori led us from the downtown hotel to the airport. We passed easily through the heavy security, and our vans actually drove right down the runway to where the flying equipment was parked. 

You have no idea the delight I felt as I crawled out of the van. By going into that guarded airport facility, I had been suddenly transported back into the pages of recent Soviet history. The feeling of awe I felt as my feet hit the tarmac was supercharged as I looked up and spotted in the background another object with even more emotional significance to me. Imposing itself on everything within its influence was the gigantic, snow-clad phenomenon of Mount Ararat, where Noah’s ark had landed so many millennia earlier. The mountain towers more than sixteen thousand feet from its base, taller by two thousand feet than any of the majestic mountains in Colorado. 

Lined up on either side of the runway were pristine vintage Soviet aircraft from a bygone era. The Armenians are still using the large biplanes from World War II. Mixed in with the other planes were the Russian hot-rod Yak-40 military planes still used by many of the Soviet officers. The Yak-40, as you know if you’ve read my other journal entries, has become perhaps my favorite airplane. It seats about twenty-five people and is powered not by one jet engine but by three jet engines mounted at the tail of the plane. It’s like riding on the back of a rocket. 

Farther down the runway were parked perfect specimens of Russia’s famous MiG fighters. The Soviets had abandoned all the equipment in Armenia following the breakup of the Soviet Union. 

Our van had stopped right in front of two Russian Mil Mi-8 combat helicopters. One was painted in camouflage colors; the other was an ugly faded-orange color with blue-and-black trim. It was obvious that the helicopters had been used and abused during the war and in subsequent months. 

Zori told me, “We used to have to negotiate these rugged mountains with mules. Today the helicopters are our mules.” 

Our pilots jumped out of the vans and quickly began to scurry around performing the necessary preflight procedures. It quickly became apparent that we would be flying in the monstrous, ugly, orange-colored machine. At a later point, Rafee, one of the pilots, told me that they will only be able to use the old Soviet helicopters for a maximum of another two years. No more spare parts are available, and no one is making any parts for repairs or maintenance. I only hoped they had been diligent in their maintenance up to the present. 

Once I had satisfied my photo cravings to preserve in pictures the rare sight, I climbed on board the Russian-made bird. As I entered I looked up at the turbo engine that powered the Mi-8 chopper and noticed areas of fresh oil from the engine compartment on top that had run down over the old, oxidized paint. I prayed a brief prayer for protection as I found myself inside the padded cargo area. The seats were in a configuration around a command table in the center of the helicopter’s belly. Lady Cox went up and mingled with the pilots while the rest of our team slithered into the available seats. Zori sat at the head of the conference table, where I suppose he was most used to sitting. In Nagorno-Karabakh, the military people still refer to him as Commissar. 

It took a while to warm the engines up to operating requirements. As the massive blades on top began to rotate, the helicopter began to vibrate. The more I convinced myself to relax and enjoy the experience, the more the severe vibration made my teeth chatter. I decided it was better to be a little tense. 

The severity of the shaking intensified a great deal more as the giant bird tried to lift itself off the ground. But suddenly we reached the necessary height, and the nose of the chopper tilted forward. Immediately the long blades on top began to bite into the air ahead of us, and we took off like a shot. In no time at all, we were traveling not only up but ahead at terrific speed. It was a sensation and thrill I will not soon forget. 

In only minutes we were flying over very rough terrain and between steep mountain peaks to gain the necessary altitude required for our trip from Yerevan, Armenia, to Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh. I was sitting close to a round porthole window and had a perfect view of the terrain below. I spotted a narrow, winding road below, the alternative passageway to Stepanakert for those not fortunate enough to have a helicopter available to them. Some recent repairs applied to the roadway cut about four hours off the regular travel time. Now it only takes ten to fourteen hours to make the journey. We would cover the same distance in about an hour and fifteen minutes. 

No more than twenty minutes into our flight, I began to observe the ravages of the destructive war. I didn’t know then that I was being introduced to emotions and insights that would change my life forever. Having been born just before the United States was plunged into the Second World War, I had seen plenty of pictures and newscasts of the devastation of war. I remembered the pictures of the Korean War and the Vietnam War, and I had subsequently visited all those war sites in my travels. I had also been up close and had personally seen the results of African tribal wars as they were taking place. But before Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, I had never been to a war zone on the front lines and felt the impact of loss and the devastation caused by modern weapons of mass destruction.

As I gazed from the windows of the chopper, I began to see whole villages where every building had been blown apart. Trees were uprooted, orchards were burned, and bones of livestock were still strewn in the abandoned farmyards. 

Mile after mile along the once-closed corridor between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, nothing moved. Towns were totally obliterated. All was silent and left to ruin where families once lived in community, children had played, and old women had gathered to gossip. Now all was silent. 

Next Week: Meager accommodations

© Dr. James W. Jackson   

Permissions granted by Winston-Crown Publishing House