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Women in Arms: from the Russian Empire to Post-Soviet States - Conversations (2)

"War is Not Just For Men": Interview With E. Aghaian, Nagorno-Karabakh, 2001

Nona Shahnazarian

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Full text is grateful to Lilia Antimonova who translated this interview and to Victoria Clement who edited it.

  • 1 This interview was previously published in Russian in N. Shahnazarian, V tesnykh ob’iatiakh tradits (...)

1This interview1 with Elmira Alexandri Aghaian was conducted in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh, in May 2001, by Nona Shahnazarian, Institute of Ethnography, National Academy of Sciences, Yerevan and Independent Social Research Center, St. Petersburg. The two interviews were conducted at different times (8th and 26th of May 2001, Stepanakert) during an 8-month fieldwork of participant observation in 2000-2001 in Nagorno-Karabakh.

  • 2 In 1988, inspired by Gorbachev’s slogans of democratization and promises to correct all the wrongs (...)

2“Freedom is a way of life” – reads a phrase from a documentary on Elmira Alexandri Aghaian, who is known to locals as Khanum (Mrs.). The film tells about the life and deeds of Elmira Aghaian in the Stepanakert regiment during the Armenian-Azerbaijani war for Nagorno-Karabakh2. She was born in Stepanakert in 1945, her father was a serviceman and her mother a housewife. During the Karabakh movement and the bloody conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan, Elmira made significant material, emotional and financial investments in the Karabakh war, she donated a significant portion of her property and capital to help create the Stepanakert regiment. Since 1990, she also organized a canteen for soldiers and undertook the improvement of barracks. Elmira held several positions at the Central Defense District (CDD), including the post of Deputy head for logistics. E. Aghaian became the first female colonel in the Caucasus and the family album carefully keeps her picture with the President of Armenia Levon Ter-Petrossian.

  • 3 To describe Elmira the director uses the expression “single oak”, which became a cliché for the con (...)

3At the end of the war, a film was produced titled “Mrs. Colonel: Elmira Aghaian”. The video features her picture in military dress uniform, as well as a picture of Elmira with her regiment Commander of whom she speaks with undiluted respect. In the voice of Soviet radio announcer Iuri Levitan, with the use of numerous metaphors and cliché3, the director presents the “history of a woman, who is equally difficult and easy to introduce to the world…”

4One of the first signs of Mikhail Gorbachev’s new economic development course, a cooperative restaurant “Takhuhi” (translated from Armenian as Queen) which she owned turned at the beginning of the war into a basement, headquarters, gathering place for Armenian military men of various ranks. “I owned my business… I became very rich during the cooperative boom –in fact, I became the richest woman in Stepanakert. I achieved success on my own,” stated Elmira at the very beginning of the interview.

5Elmira Aghaian (Khanum) took part in the war during its most active phase and she was together with her war comrades from the first and until the last day. Besides, she participated in the battle for the city of Aghdam, significant both to Azerbaijanis and Armenians in Karabakh. The fragments from the two video interviews, conducted in the capital of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic Stepanakert on the 8th and 26th of May 2001, reflect her view on the complicated war situation, on her hopes, but also human relationships under extreme, inhuman tension in the context of incredible, hopeless distress. Our first meeting began with her confident nostalgic statement, “I would like to contact the TV program “Ishchu tebia” (Looking for you), so that they find Nazakiat for me (an Azerbaijani girl, whom she saved). I would like to see her, I am missing them a lot”… This is how Khanum anticipated my first question on what she feels towards Azerbaijani in the long run. After I heard these words, I felt warm at heart.

6Today, Elmira is a business woman, a florist, who is working hard to develop the flower business in her city. This business is flourishing – as does everything she sets her mind to.

7N. Shahnazarian - Please, tell me about yourself.

8E. Aghaian: My mother was still young when she died, at the age of 49; my father died after my mother’s death at the age of 54. He left me responsible for three minor children – my twin brothers and my sister Eleonora. These were the severe Khrushchev years (1963): hunger, cold, shortages, the coupon system. However I fought and I survived. I graduated from the Stepanakert University. My brother got higher education in Poltava (he graduated from the Trade Institute), my other brother graduated from the Mechanical Institute in Stepanakert. Then, I entered the University, the Department of Economics, then the Law Department. This is how I found my way in life. I worked for many years as Director of a procurement office. I had a good life in all respects – material and moral, and psychological.

9N. Shahnazarian - How did it feel to witness the war? What do you remember most of all?

10E. Aghaian: … What I experienced at that time cannot be compared to anything. The war is horror, fear, a continuous nightmare. I know just one thing that having seen all this, a person cannot eat. It remains fresh in your mind. You keep recalling details, how it happened, what was where… Then it fades away. One factor overlaps another factor… You recall that you have already seen this before, and this, and it’s all sympathy, and pity, and frustration. And you start to cry when you see persons in such a state, even if you don’t know them…

11The son of one of my classmates lost his way and fell into the Azer’s hands. They killed him just on the spot. It took me eighteen hard days to establish communication with an Azerbaijani in order to negotiate the exchange of one dead body for another dead body. On the eighteenth day I managed to contact a colonel, a Russian colonel who served in Azerbaijan. And the first question he asked me was “Who are you?” I answered “I am the deputy commander of the regiment. Maybe you can listen to what I want…” He said, “Woman, I can only help you in exchange for other information. The condition is: you need to tell me – on such-and-such a date on the Aghdam bridge a tank crew was killed. Who was the head of the crew? What did he wear? What was his last name and what weapons did he carry?” Six months had passed since that date, and he asks me such a question …

12However, on the very same night, thanks to Vitalii Balasanian, the commander of the sixth defense district, I learned that the last name of the commander was Zeinalov, and that he was wearing a red coat, holding a “Makar” and a Kalashnikov machine-gun. Then on the next day I called him on radio. His call sign was 06 and mine was 07; I gave the last name of that commander, to which he immediately replied “I have no more questions to you. As for your matter, you may go to a place where there is a structure in the shape of a mushroom next to a river, and this is where he is buried…” We went there and found this… our missing. We took the body. He was his father’s only son – a young man, he also had two daughters; he had married early.

13They also asked me about eleven people they had lost, we handed over their bodies. This is how it was – they could demand ten bodies but give only one back. Then we handed over eleven bodies and took one body. Just to help the family, at least to bury the body. That’s the way it is. If they knew that they had somebody dead here, but ours was alive there – they would first kill him and then give us the body. They did not exchange the living for dead. They could keep these people alive and exchange for living ones – it was living for living, dead for dead. They did not do this, but we did. We had a more humane approach, a more humane treatment. War is a cruel thing, this is true, but everyone should take a humane approach. Do you understand me? Everyone should know that, if I do act in a way… well, how can they treat my people otherwise? But they did not.

14We once took thirty seven prisoners. We took them to a hospital – we provided treatment to the elderly or the sick, and we treated them very well. We ate together with them, we gave them the same food we ate. But they did not treat our captives this way – no, they could ti ea person like a dog to a tree and hold them as a dog for three to four days in a row, twenty four hours, under rain, snow. These same people returned alive and told us. But we did not do this. Not that we did not do it…, we would not be allowed to do this… our commanders would not let us treat military captives cruelly. They also have rights which no one can violate, treat them so badly. No one would allow us to do this. But I would like to assure you that our people returned like bags of bones [she binds her finger]. But they left us with round cheeks [she rounds her palms and shows round cheeks on her face].

15Like those two girls lived at my place. They had the run of the place. They used everything at my house, they cooked and cleaned everything, that is it. Mamedov aNazakiat and Nazly Mamedova. I tell you, they were hostesses at my place. They served tea and cooked meals. One of them slept in one bed with me. Sometimes I put my pistol under the pillow. She knew that it was there, she could have taken it and shot me. This is horrible! But she was so loyal to me that I kept her so well that I did not even suspect that she could do this. Although everyone warned me that after all she was Azerbaijani, that I should have been careful with her, I trusted her as if she were my daughter (she was just 16 years old).

16Obviously there were problems on both sides, but a lot more on their side, this was obvious when seeing the persons we exchanged – those we handed over and those we received. It was obvious, this could not be hidden. Those whom we received sometimes did not live longer than five months, or some of those captives were crippled and now became invalids: they were beaten up, given injections, they were driven insane…

17N. Shahnazarian - How did your military career start? How did you make it? What stages did you go through?

18E. Aghaian: The war started. But prior to this in 1988 a movement for freedom and democracy began in Karabakh, and I quit my job and went to work in the army, so to say. There was the so-called second regiment. Then in 1990, motor rifle battalion #71 was formed. I worked there both as deputy head for logistics and chief of staff, deputy on armament, and cashier and the hell only knows what else I did … The commander there was Babaian Karo. The construction started. After I finished there the commander ordered me to move to the Central Defense District i.e. CDD where Karapetian Samvel was the commander. This is one of the most honest commanders, always ahead of the soldiers in battle, he got to the rank of major-general all by himself, on his own brain and skills only [she enumerates his awards]. I served for eight years in CDD as Deputy head and went through all hardships of the Artsakh war. I am proud that I was born at that time, and participated in this patriotic war.

19In 1988, I realized that my country needed me, and that the war exists not only for men, but for women as well. When the Fatherland was in danger, and I felt that my relatives might come to harm, and that I could help my Fatherland at least a little, I decided to join the army. The notion of the Army was very meaningful for me, Babaian Samvel once came and said (well, you see, everyone was leaving, slowly moving to Armenia –we were experiencing hunger, blockades, no gas, no light, a general crisis), he told me that I should not go anywhere, that I should stay and help. At that time, I was the richest person in Karabakh. To tell the truth I could have been living in New York in comfort. But I decided to stay because I love my people (azg), my land and water, and my sacred ancestors. My parents are buried in Karabakh. Therefore, Karabakh is sacred for me. I stayed in Karabakh and entered the army. In 1990, I was in unit “N” in the second regiment, I mean, in the second company.

20Then the company was turned into a regiment (Gumartak in Armenian), which was transformed into the separate #71 motor rifle regiment. I began to serve there, I was the head of a canteen, I organized the barracks, where soldiers should sleep, everything. The money I spent on this was my own. I was very rich then, I even had my own restaurant. I gave everything, from refrigerator to pans and pots, to the #71 motor rifle battalion. Then the commander, having noticed my high organizational skills, offered me the opportunity to be a commander on the regiment level. I had no right not to fulfill the order of the commander. I accepted this proposal and went to work for Samvel Karapetian. He was a commander… And he still is now a deputy minister. He’s a man who was born for war, his mother gave birth to him and raised him so that he could defend Artsakh land, free these lands from the Azerbaijanis. A man whose footprints are everywhere on our lands. Where the 43rdOganovskii regiment went, it brought only victory. We returned only with victory. It was a horrible time of panic, when missiles exploded in the city killing people. A time when you heard that wounded people and killed were on their way and you had to receive and hospitalize them.

21Everywhere where the Oganovskii Regiment went, it returned with a victory. I learned a lot from my commander. For instance, my strictness and love for order were thanks to him. He had just one point of view - (gaghaphar) – You need to serve your land honestly and with clean thoughts (makhur), to your people, love your people, and the land. And, after that, your mother. He convinced us of this, and we accepted this and took this road. Only beasts, human beasts have no fear. The war is such a thing- everyone fears it. War is beyond understanding, missiles explode, people next to you die; you have to carry corpses, take them out and hand them over to parents. It is so difficult to come to parents and tell that them that their son is no longer with us. And I did this work. If the commander ordered us to bring corpses and do this work – I followed this order.

22N. Shahnazarian - You participated in the battle for Aghdam, did you?

23E. Aghaian: This was horrible… My regiment burnt the house of my sister in Aghdam. I cried, but I could not do anything, I could not even save a single book from it. My sister now lives in Stepanakert. She is probably still deeply upset. She worked in Aghdam… as a tutor in Russian for the children of wealthy business people. She was evacuated in an armed motor carrier, in what she was wearing at that moment, she only took a few things with her… it is difficult for me to tell you this.

24N. Shahnazarian - How did participation in the war influence your character?

25E. Aghaian: At first I was afraid of missiles, explosions, and then it became my daily activity and I got used to it. Of course my heart was in pain when I saw the death of an 18-19 year old young man, when the soldiers of our commander died. This was very sad to see. War leaves such an imprint on women: they grow older. All this is painful to recall. I remember how I looked like when I came to the company- and now – what a great difference. I sometimes wonder if time did this to me or all these misfortunate accidents. I came to the conclusion that this was due to all these deaths. For instance my commander was wounded four times, and three times I was a witness. I stayed with him for months, taking care of him because my people needed him. He is someone whom the people respected. And I worried, did not sleep at nights because he was wounded and those hoses going through his nose and mouth, along his arms… how he groaned in pain… How did it feel to see all this? It was unbearable… I do not know HOW we lived through this, HOW we stood through this? News come that a missile got into an entrenchment and fourteen persons were killed. Isn’t it such a stress?

26N. Shahnazarian - How did your private life develop?

27E. Aghaian: About my private life I can say that I have no family. I was an orphan girl. I have no children, no parents, no husband. For the last years I have lived among soldiers, whom I liked very much and I felt that they also liked me. It happened so that after the war the army no longer needed me, and I was told that I was to retire. I accepted this decision because this was the army requirement, that is, this was binding. Was this was an order or someone’s personal ambitions, I do not know, but as the regulations said that I need to retire, I did it. Of course, it is painful, It’s difficult [pause] I live close to the regiment… these days… today is the sixth day literally…[pause] All right, if I was able to survive, having seen so much suffering and the war, I can live through this. The regiment – was my family. Soldiers were my children. I can show you thousands of letters which I receive from soldiers, officers, congratulations on the 9th of May, the Victory Day. I deeply respect my commander Samvel Karapetian. To tell you the truth, the reason I stayed in Stepanakert these days was for the sake of my commander’s spirit.

28Tomorrow is the 9th of May, I was not invited anywhere… [pause] I will go and congratulate my commander in the morning. This is a great honor for me. He is a kind hearted man, a Man with a capital letter, who - having gone through difficult moments - remains a human being. While others, having gone the same path, speak and behave with such arrogance. No, I am grateful to the woman, who gave birth to S. Karapetian for the Armenian people, specifically for Stepanakert. Sometimes… I wish that not even a hair from his head would ever fall… I don’t think that I was taken away the most precious thing in my life, because the most valuable thing is the health of my fellows in arms and the freedom of my country – FREEDOM – we write it in capital letters. We have suffered it through, paid for it with blood, sufferings, human lives. My will cannot be broken by this. This is insignificant.

29N. Shahnazarian - Now that the war is over would you like to return to the business sector?

30E. Aghaian: No. Go from the war into business? I have a problem now – what to do. It was a wound for me. I did not know how to leave the regiment…

31N. Shahnazarian - Do you have sufficient resources for a decent life?

32E. Aghaian: Of course, who is dying of hunger nowadays? I have a good life. I have my friends. In this sense I am very happy. But I am already missing that life… When I served in the regiment, we had such a discipline at the highest level, to begin with the commander and finishing with soldiers. I never felt like a women, and they never treated me as a woman. I was equal to the men. I could joke with them and shout with them. We were no different…

33N. Shahnazarian - Has anyone ever try to make advances to you?

34E. Aghaian: Absolutely not – first, I did not allow this, everyone can confirm it. But it also depends on the commander, how he sets it. I was a very strict woman in this respect. In terms of discipline I am a very hard woman – yes I liked them, the soldiers, but I am very demanding. I like to perform work honestly, conscientiously, and on time. And the commander always paid attention to this. I did not wait until he told me to do the work. I did it without a reminder. If he assigned work to me at a late hour and asked the next morning when I would start it I could respond that it was done. And he was surprised. This is the way it was. He liked those persons, who served faithfully their native land, the army and regiment.

35N. Shahnazarian - Are you happy that you lived this way, or is there something you regret? If you were given a chance, how would you “correct” your biography?

36E. Aghaian: I was 17-18 years old, when I lost my parents – my mother and four months later - my father, he loved my mother very much, he did not outlive her. I had many admirers from the cream of society. At that time none of their parents would have approved, who wanted to take me, with three orphans? And I decided that it would be better to support family and honor my parents’ memory than to strive for a solution in my personal life. My brothers and sister, who lived in the house and whom I raised, respected me, my word was law for them. I didn’t feel any deficiency in my life, I did not feel that to some extent I was infringed upon. On the contrary, I always … you know… I am talking about that podium (patvandan), where I stepped up in such a way. I felt myself in the family. I did not have to think of my future life….

37And then for the second time in my life Nature punished me. Within one year, to be more accurate within nine months my two brothers died of heart attacks. At that time, yes, I felt very lonely, in 1997. Now I am practically alone in my house, but I have children of my brothers, very good, well brought up, excellent students. One of them is in Yerevan medical school. Another brother’s daughter, (they are twins) is here at the university in her first year at the Law school. Another daughter is in Yerevan in her fifth year. To be true, now at my age I realize that I was wrong. But because my relatives are close to me, and they do not allow me to feel sad, I have no regrets. In my opinion, it is not a mistake to sacrifice one person for the entire extended family (gerdastan). Maybe this is the truth.

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1 This interview was previously published in Russian in N. Shahnazarian, V tesnykh ob’iatiakh traditsii:patriarkhat I voina, St. Petersburg, Aleteia, 2011, 240 p.

2 In 1988, inspired by Gorbachev’s slogans of democratization and promises to correct all the wrongs of the past Soviet rulers, the Armenian citizens of Karabakh launched a campaign of petitions asking Moscow to transfer their province to the jurisdiction of co-ethnic Armenia—another Soviet republic separated from Karabakh by just a narrow strip of Azerbaijan’s territory. This movement provoked a harsh reaction among the Azerbaijanis, who saw their own republic threatened by the Armenian secessionists. While Gorbachev’s Moscow had been rapidly losing control, the Armenian-Azeri confrontation escalated from a war of words into a war of combative teenagers armed with sticks and knives, and soon into wholesale ethnic expulsions and pogroms. The tiny, remote Karabakh totally unexpectedly grew into a problem that precipitated the disintegration of the Soviet Union. After 1991, the conflict escalated into a real war, with both the Armenian and Azeri sides using heavy weaponry and regular armies of their newly independent states. After several years of ferocious fighting, numerous casualties, and the exodus of refugees, Azerbaijan effectively lost control over the self-declared RMK and the adjacent Azerbaijani districts conquered by Armenian forces. In May 1994, Azerbaijan accepted the armistice that so far has lasted for more than a decade. But Karabakh, though militarily victorious, emerged from the conflict poorer than ever and, in addition, as an internationally unrecognized enclave accessible only via Armenia, which itself remains blockaded from the side of Azerbaijan. The common problems of post-Soviet transitions were thus compounded in the rebellious Karabakh by the effects of war, the lasting blockade, and the lack of international recognition.

3 To describe Elmira the director uses the expression “single oak”, which became a cliché for the confrontation with the foe, or “Artsakhian Goiamart”, which translates from Armenian as “Artsakhi (local toponym for Nagorno-Karabakh) war for survival”, and emphasizes the willy-nilly nature of the resistance.

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Electronic reference

Nona Shahnazarian, "War is Not Just For Men": Interview With E. Aghaian, Nagorno-Karabakh, 2001The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 17 | 2016, Online since 21 April 2016, connection on 15 July 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Nona Shahnazarian

Institute of Archealogy and Ethnography, National Academy of Sciences (IAE NAS), Yerevan/ Center for Independent Social Research (CISR), St. Petersburg

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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