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A New Armenia: How The Country Endures Through War and Unrest
6 December, 2018
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Armenia and Azerbaijan spent six years at war from 1988 and 1994. However, clashes on the border continue to this day. The last time armed hostilities started up again was in April 2016. They lasted four days.  

Legally, the war is over. But real peace between the nations never came. The borders remain closed: Armenians are not allowed into Azerbaijan and vice versa and there is a hostile political atmosphere between the two countries. After the Velvet Revolution in Armenia and the change in power, many are worried that fighting could again resume – especially in villages where the war has left a deep mark and continues to influence people's lives.

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"See, that black mountain there? This is the Azerbaijani border. They shoot at us from there, with ordinary machine guns, shells, and snipers,” says Haykaz Vardanyan, a resident of the Armenian village of Nerkin Karmiraghbyur. He stands in the middle of the tomatoes patch in the garden and  points his hand forward. He can see the positions of Azerbaijani border guards from his yard. From here to the border, it’s no more than one and a half kilometers.

Photo credit: Olekdandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

The village of Nerkin Karmiraghbyur is located on the border with Azerbaijan; it’s translated from the Armenian name for "red spring." There has never been a red spring here. But a lot of blood has been spilled.

Photo credit: Olekdandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

“It's more or less calm now, for about a year no one has fired at us. Before, there was shelling almost every day. Here, I have two vineyards. One of them is a few hundred meters from the border. It’s big, 400 square meters! Every autumn I would collect 10 tons of grapes. And then I left it. Every day, like a fool, I would come to the field, and they would be shooting. I would wait a bit, then come again – and they would be shooting at me again. I would be working in the field, and then...” Vardanyan breaks off mid-sentence.

“I thought: to hell with all this. I'd rather leave it than put myself at risk. I have not been there in three years, it’s frightening going there. What else can I do – I want to live.”

Better Than The City

Everyone in the village knows Vardanyan. Everyone here knows each other – it's hard not to, when there are less than 700 people living in the village.

Photo credit: Olekdandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

“My father, grandfather, great grandfather – everyone I can remember – was born here. When I was young, I would go to Russia to earn money. I worked there in a shoe shop. But in 1991, when the war began, I returned to home to be with my parents and friends – I could not tolerate at a distance. And here I remained,” Vardanyan said.

Aside from the vineyard, Vardanyan’s wealth is made up of a small garden, a cow with a calf, two pigs and a house that stands half in ruins. Instead of glass, there is film on the kitchen windows. Grass grows from a leaky roof. Signs of war are visible on the walls.

Photo credit: Olekdandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

"Here, see these marks?” He points to the wall next to the bedroom window. “Bullets flew here in the spring of 2016. I packed the window with stones so that they would not get inside while we were sleeping.”

Photo credit: Olekdandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

Now the house is quiet. Vardanyan’s son, like his father a long time ago, has gone to work in Russia. His daughter left to voluntarily fight in Nagorno-Karabakh, a region that has been a disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan, two years ago. She remained there, working as an elementary school teacher. Only Vardanyan and his wife live in the house.

“Amest-Djan, give these guys something to eat,” he shouts to his wife. While his wife is busy in the kitchen, we go into a large half-empty room. There is a table, a couple of chairs, a sofa and a cupboard with a bookshelf.

Photo credit: Olekdandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

“I loved to read in my youth. Here I have [Mikhail] Bulgakov, Jack London, [Alexandre] Dumas... the classics,” Vardanyan said.

Their house looks no better inside than outside. The walls are all peeling and it seems that every crevice of the floor, made of rough planks, every rag – absolutely everything here was saturated with the damp smell of mold. If the furniture was not there, the interior would only differ from a cellar because of the presence of windows.

Photo credit: Olekdandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

Amest brings out fried potatoes and salted vegetables to the table. Her husband gets out a bottle of home-distilled spirits and pours it into cups that smell of cow's milk.

Photo credit: Olekdandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

“It's better here than in the city. There is nothing to do there. And here I feel like master of the house. Let’s drink to meeting one another,” Vardanyan toasts.

Ghost Street

In the 1990s, almost all the houses in Nerkin Karmiraghbyur were destroyed. After the hostilities ended, some houses were restored, but many buildings remain in ruins. Most of them are on the main street, where the shooting was most intense. It is quiet there now. But back then, locals say it was hell.

Photo credit: Olekdandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

“See, that house that has been destroyed,” Vardanyan points at the remains of the concrete walls. “They hit it with a “Grad” (a Soviet truck-mounted multiple rocket launcher - ed.) – with three shells at once. The buildings after that are also destroyed, as are those behind them."

He paces along the ghost street and examines what remains of the houses.

Behind tall bushes walls stand in ruins – for more than 20 years nobody has lived here. But in Vardanyan’s memories, these places are still alive. He talks about Rafik, who lived here with his wife. And there, where the gates were torn up by fragments, lived the late Zohrab; and then further – Aram. The whole village worked to put out the fire in his house but they didn’t manage to save it. So Aram left and never returned – so that he wasn’t upset by it.

Photo credit: Olekdandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

Vardanyan’s house also suffered – a bomb completely tore off the roof. When the shell came, there was no one at home. The neighbors told them about the misfortune. They said: "you’re lucky”. All the houses were shelled, but not everyone was lucky to be out of the house at that time.

But even during active combat, when about a hundred shells were flying into the village every day, Vardanyan and Amest did not go anywhere. “Where would we go, in whose hands would we leave the household?” he shrugs. “I was defending my house then. And not only the house, but also my homeland. The homeland begins with the village – right? You might be fighting for your village, but in reality, you are fighting for the whole of Armenia.”

Photo credit: Olekdandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

Vardanyan is silent for a while. He appears immersed in thought, trying to choose the right words in Russian, which he sometimes forgets. He suddenly starts speaking again.

“War is war: it’s no picnic. People are killed there. Only those who are making a profit from it want it. Moreover, those people fuel it. They sell weapons and who the hell knows what else – they make money off it. When our state becomes wealthy, and the army strong, then there will be no war. People will be afraid of us. I hope that after the revolution the new government will strengthen the country and bring peace. I would really like that.”

Free Country

"Petya! Petya!” the man calls out to a bull, who is sprawled in the middle of the yard. “What a rascal, just lays down on the doorstep! But what can I do? It’s his decision. We now have a free country. He also wants to live freely – where he wants, there he lies.”

Photo credit: Olekdandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

Somewhere near the house pigs begin to grunt – it's time to feed them. Vardanyan puts on gloves, takes a bunch of nettles and begins to cut up the grass. He adds millet and mixes it all up with water. Their food is ready.

Photo credit: Olekdandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

“At first we didn’t think that everything could be upended like that and that Nikol Pashinyan would stir everything up. But there was simply no other way – it was all or nothing. And the previous government also understood this.”

During the Velvet Revolution, Vardanyan did not go to Yerevan – there was no one to leave the household to. And you can’t declare a strike in your own garden. However, everyone watched what was happening on TV. Vardanyan would call his daughter and friends who were then in the capital. He worried with everyone who protested and made history.

Photo credit: Olekdandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

“When Serzh Sargsyan resigned, I celebrated. When he said 'I was wrong, Pashinyan was right,' I could not believe it. I started dancing. I have never danced in my life, but at that moment I started to dance,” Vardanyan lights up as he remembers the day. It was April 23, 2018 and for most Armenians it became a national holiday. But there were those in Nerkin Karmiraghbyur who did not support the revolution.

Photo credit: Olekdandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

“There are still people here who are dissatisfied with the changes. They want everything to remain as it was,” Vardanyan says, nodding in the direction of the village shop. The men sitting there swear loudly and play cards all day long.

“There are those who want to do things in the shadows everywhere. For them, if it's dark all around, it's...” Vardanyan stops mid sentence and gives a thumb up. “If there is opportunity to steal, to deceive someone, then why do they need Pashinyan, who says that we must live honestly. These people do not know how to live honestly. For them, Sargsyan and the previous government were much better.”

Photo credit: Olekdandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

After feeding the animals, he sits down on the porch to rest. He watches the sparrows scurry around the yard and fight for the millet spilled on the ground.  

“For me, the new Armenia needs to be a place where there is enough of everything for everyone. Where everyone is equal, and everyone has the same opportunities. I’m old already, I don’t need anything. But I want my children to live normal lives, so that they feel like people here. And, of course, so that there’s no shooting. Then I will be happy.”

When Peace Comes

Vardanyan’s red car, of the Soviet make “Zhiguli”, rattles as we drive around the village. It’s unclear how the car is still running: It seems like if you slam the door a little harder, it will crumble into small parts. However, there is not much of it left anyway. The car has no back seats, the layer of dust on the speedometer seems to be thicker than glass, and there is a bullet hole in the roof, sealed with tape. You can start the car by sparking the wires together, and Vardanyan has to hold on to the door with his hand so that it will not open mid-drive. And yet, it is still going. And it is difficult to imagine another vehicle that would fit in so naturally in this village.

Photo credit: Olekdandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

We are driving to one of Vardanyan’s two vineyards – the one he continues to look after. He doesn’t want to go to the deserted vineyard – says that it is dangerous there.

We go up the hill, from where the neighboring Azerbaijani village can be seen. A low fence separates the two countries. Behind it, the minefield begins.

“Who needs this war? No one wants it. I think today the Azerbaijanis also believe that no one needs war. I haven’t been to that village or spoken with anyone. But they are people too and they also seem to be suffering. I don’t think that there is one person who lives on the border and doesn’t want peace,” Vardanyan said.

Is he ready to forgive the Azerbaijanis?

Vardanyan looks down: “Yes. They are my enemies, but if forgiveness is needed for peace, I am ready to even live in the same village with them,” he said.

As we approach the vineyard, the sun is starting to set. Vardanyan puts a grape into his mouth and smacks his lips – it’s not ripe yet. “Aah, how much of this is going to waste in the other vineyard. I can’t express how much of a pity it was to leave it. I don’t even want to think about it, it only gets me more upset.”

Photo credit: Olekdandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

As we walk between the vines, Vardanyan remembers Soviet times, when he served in the army together with the Azerbaijanis. He remembers when he could walk freely into the neighboring village. We talk about war and the past, how difficult it is to forget fear and pain, and how the next generation will perhaps regard all this in a completely different way.

Photo credit: Olekdandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

“When do you think peace will come?” we ask him.

Vardanyan tears off a leaf from grapevine. He runs it between his fingers, tearing it up into pieces. He looks beyond the horizon and stays silent for a long time.

Photo credit: Olekdandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

“I don’t know. There might not be a war. But peace... It will come when I can go to the other vineyard again. That’s when peace will come for me.”

/By Ostap Yarysh and Oleksandr Kokhan

/Translated by Natalie Vikhrov