I met Saro Saryan on a chilly September evening in 2016, when the taxi a friend and I were riding in pulled off a rough and torn-up road in Shushi, Nagorno-Karabakh, and into the drive of his home and guesthouse — called Saro’s Guesthouse — where we hoped he might have room for people with no reservations. As we exited the taxi in the darkness, a gregarious man emerged in the yard and welcomed us. It was Saro, and there was indeed room. In the coming hours he (and his wife) would feed us, tell us about the landscape and history of Shushi (known as Susha to Azerbaijanis), and place in our hands cognac, books, and even an inert homemade grenade left over from the Narogono-Karabakh War, in which Saro had fought.
A little background to Nagorno-Karabakh: it is a disputed territory, a de facto independent state populated by ethnic Armenians but claimed by, and recognized internationally as part of, Azerbaijan, which lost control of the territory in a bloody ethnic war that coincided with the decline and dissolution of the Soviet Union. That war ended with a ceasefire in May 1994, but the ceasefire is habitually broken. The worst flare-up was in April 2016, when several hundred people were killed in what amounted to a four-day war.
Nagorno-Karabakh, then, is rightly called a troubled land. But its mountainous landscape is deeply beautiful — Nagorno comes from the Russian for “mountainous” and the Turkic/Persian-rooted word Karabakh means “black garden” — and many of the people I met, like Saro, are very welcoming.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I am Saro Saryan and was born in Baku [Azerbaijan] to an Armenian family originally from Karabakh. I was drafted into the Soviet army at age 18, and two years later I continued my studies in history in Yoshkar-Ola, the capital of the Russian republic of Mari El. In 1988, when I finished college, the Karabakh Movement began and I moved to Karabakh.
Now I am retired from the rescue service (after 24 years of military service). I continue to restore my 19th century house and work in the local mineral/geology museum named after the famous Armenian geologist Professor Grigory Gabrielyants.
I have two children, a 21-year-old boy and an 18-year-old girl, who study in the State University of Artsakh. They study law. I don’t know why they choose this because so many people are studying law now. I don’t know about prosperity, how they will find work. My son has a girlfriend. Maybe I will be a grandfather.
What was a defining moment in your life?
My life is divided into two parts. Before and after I took part in the Karabakh Movement and Karabakh War. It is a deep incision, through the heart, through the mind, like a surgeon. Before was like a dream.
Tell us about a favorite childhood memory.
One day when I was a small child, maybe three years old, my father took me rabbit hunting. He put me on his shoulders, shot the rabbit, and then asked, “Saro, where did this rabbit fall down?” Once he killed a rabbit but then wanted to continue on looking for more. He said we would come back for the dead rabbit but I said a wolf would take it. We argued but in the end we took the rabbit with us. So the nostalgia from my last life is very strong still.
What other child can say his father took him shooting on his shoulders?
Do you think you will ever see Baku again?
I’ve tried. I was a participant in a peace building association. We had negotiations between civil society representatives from Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Karabakh, sponsored by the International Alert (UK) organization. They tried to organize my visit to Baku, but each time the government of Azerbaijan denied my visa request.
Who do you most admire in life?
Every person has heroes, including me. Jesus Christ, step by step, maybe with age, influences my heart. I don’t want to speak about Stalin, de Gaulle, Roosevelt, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, Napoleon, etc. With age I think it is normal that we step by step return to our roots. And in Armenia Christianity is very deep. During Soviet times I was atheistic, and after that dualistic. Now I believe in Jesus but in the work he did before he went to heaven. His example is very good for the development of civilization. First, his example is love. We must love each other, but not only each other but nature, animals, life.
What is one of the most beautiful things you’ve seen?
I have seen a lot. I was in some European countries and in Russia. Here in Karabakh we have beautiful nature, ancient architecture, churches, bridges, roads, but anyway I remember Kathmandu. I was in Nepal for ten days with people from Armenia and Azerbaijan on a peace building mission. The temples! I was baptized with a Buddha in a temple. I remember people praying for peace day and night. The city has such color, and in the distance are the Himalayan Mountains.
What is one of the ugliest things you’ve seen?
I think it is war. When people are killed or wounded. But the ugliest is when you see people who were taken prisoner. You must imagine yourself in their place, held against your will.
How long were you a soldier?
From the beginning of the war in 1989, when we began defending our villages from bandits (groups of people not in uniform who raped, killed, stole, etc), until the ceasefire in 1994. I was wounded three times, the last time being one month before the ceasefire — bullets and shrapnel.
I hope you understand that at first we had good relations with many Azeris in Karabakh. Many even supported our move to independence and participated in our meetings. But Baku sent emissaries to stir up the passion and ugly emotions of the Azeri population in Karabakh and step by step things got worse. Innocent people were slaughtered in an ISIS way.
What brings you joy?
First of all, my children. Second, my new work at the geology museum. Every day for nine months I am researching mineralogy and every time I am amazed by the mineralogical world. It is real life. Minerals grow, they are born, they die. In looking at minerals, we have a lot of questions about life, our life, the origins of life.
What do you fear?
I have wondered if I am afraid of my death or not. I think if I continue in this esoteric knowledge I will not be afraid. I will be replaced to a different level, soul life.
Maybe I am only afraid of a new war that could be very dangerous, whether between big global powers or local powers, between us and our neighbors. That is the fear in me and every time I am praying for peace. Not war.
If you had a do-over in life, what would you differently?
In my life, I like to experiment with the things I am afraid of. I am afraid of heights and speed. Unfortunately, at my age I haven’t the time or health to to this, but if I could I would jump from a plane with a parachute and have a license to drive a car.
What was an embarrassing moment in your life?
I am a funny man. I like to make funny for everyone, make some tricks, make some dances. In dancing I can make moves that are not from proper dancing.
After living a dangerous life, I like to live a funny life.
What are three books you like?
I’ve read a lot, but still I remember every page of Alexander Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. I am always asking French people how did D’Artagnan, Athos, and Porthos die. Ninety percent don’t know. I remember every page. And it is not only one book but five. The second book is Twenty Years After, and then The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later [which is usually divided into three books in English]. Alexander Dumas wrote more than 400 books. Only the death of Aramis the author didn’t describe; he became a bishop.
What would a perfect day look like for you?
It’s a sunny day. It must be sunny. And my children are surrounding me. And there are kitchen noises.
Who is making the noises?
My wife, my daughter, sometimes me.
What do you like to cook?
Fried potatoes from my garden. Very tasty.
You live in a complicated place. Is there something you wish more people on the outside understood about Karabakh?
We like our country very much.
I want to send my greetings to all my neighbors near and far, and to explain that Karabakh is a place looking for peace. We are a kind people looking for prosperity, in order to grow our children, give them an education, and make something useful. We are proud of our old and new homeland and invite everyone to come see Karabakh for himself.
Anything else you would like to say?
Again I invite the entire world to visit the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, to visit and see its amazing sights that you can’t find in the world map. Believe me, you wouldn’t forget it and would keep it in your mind, forever.