He surprisingly and inexplicably combined a simple, even rustic, somewhat shy manner of communication in everyday life and some kind of epic audacity – not from our time and our reality – and courage combined with rare composure in extreme and critical situations.
Unlike so many of his peers and comrades in arms, he entered the Artsakh war as a seasoned and well-trained fighter.
Behind his back was the invaluable experience of a Soviet paratrooper from Kandahar. His order “For Military Merit” came from there as well. And from the epoch of that forever gone country, he had the nickname Dushman. Vardan Dushman, Dushman Vardan.
That was his name, that was the name he went by, that was how he was remembered, and that was how he entered the glorious chronicle and the immortal pantheon of heroes of the Armenian national liberation struggle of the 1990s.
Long before the beginning of large-scale hostilities, he was sent to the depths of Russia with an important and seemingly inconceivable mission which was on the verge of being insanely adventurous. He was to transport a large batch of weapons and ammunition across the whole huge country – the USSR – with its then vigilant and total control and then to Armenia for the self-defense of its border areas.
It is still not clear how, but he performed this task brilliantly. Then, during the last few years, the smoldering conflict broke out into a real war.
From the very beginning, Vardan was at the forefront of this war – in Noyemberyan, Ijevan, Yeraskhavan, and Kornizdor. And behind them were the first notable liberations of Armenian settlements – the ancient Artsakh village of Tog and the strategically important suburb of Stepanakert called Krkzhan.
Then were liberated Malibeyli, Gushchular, Antarayin… And then was the heroic defense of Karintak. The legendary battle on the night of January 25-26, 1992, when the enemy was completely defeated.
The liberation of Shushi was for him a realized dream and a shining victorious peak in his short military biography.
Immediately after the fighting ended in the city, friends found him in an almost destroyed ancient Armenian cemetery. He was walking by the surviving graves, sprinkling them with wine, and whispering:
“Sleep well, ancestors, Shushi became Armenian again…”
Vardan stood at the origins of the creation of the Shusha Special Separate Battalion and at the same time became its first deputy commander. The unspoken tradition when the deputy commander is no less important and sometimes even more than the commander himself probably began with him.
Observing how strikingly organic he was in the war, in the conditions of everyday military life, and its realities, you could not believe that someday, one day, he could be so easily struck by a fragment of a shell that had flown in, a bomb, or a bullet from a sniper. Probably, he himself understood, felt, and maybe even had a presentiment of this.
“Bullets don’t take me. If I die, it will only happen from a treacherous mine,” fellow soldiers heard from him, as it would turn out, these prophetic words.
A bullet didn’t kill him. A blind, accidental mine on the road caused the death of Vardan and his two comrades, Armen Yeritsyan and Arayik Avakian, during a special combat mission on July 3, 1992, in the vicinity of the Artsakh village of Murishen.
Though you can’t know which mine was special and which random. War is war. People, of course, always become soldiers eventually. But sometimes, rarely, people are born as soldiers.
Vardan Stepanyan was a warrior from birth. A warrior in his spirit. And a warrior on his life journey. A life journey unbearably short but surprisingly meaningful, conscious, bright, and always alive.