1 Oct 2011
Constructing Reality through Memory of Time and Space: Armenian Refugees
Hidden between mountainous ranges the villages along the eastern shoreline of Lake Sevan are mysteriously cozy and yet experience one of the harshest climates in Armenia. Their history is also mysteriously left unknown to those coming from hustling and bustling Yerevan, let alone from abroad. My primary destination in Gegharkunik was Tsapatagh village (in Armenian meaning “a seashore neighborhood,” formerly known as Babajan or Kzylkend), which is a refugee village, meaning it was re-populated by Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan during 1988-1989, when the Azeri inhabitants left.
Kolya, the earliest Armenian resident of the village, moved to Tsapatagh from the village of Kushchi, or Khachakap (Dashkesan region), in 1965, when the village was “all Azeri.” He recollects that the village was primarily oriented to farming cattle and that Azeris “didn’t do much with the land.” In answer to my question about how was living with Azeris, Kolya said in Armenian, “normal.” According to him he was the only Armenian living in the village at the time. Most of the villagers today, 414 to be exact (according to the head of the village), came to Tsapatagh in 1988-1989 from Khachakap, as well as other villages in both Dashkesan and Khanlar regions. There were also former residents of Baku.
I found the most interesting enquiries to be about house swapping—every single recollection of whether it was a buy-and-sell agreement or a pure house-swap, was nothing but positive. Perhaps it was because it was done in a very organized manner, and under government control, or perhaps because Armenians subconsciously perceived that leaving their homes was the price they had to pay for the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh. Whatever the reasons are, it was indeed encouraging to hear from former Azerbaijani-Armenians positive recollections of their encounters with Armenian Azeri residents on the exchange of property, a rather sensitive subject.
Yet, these positive recollections did not ease the life of refugees in Armenia. Almost immediately engulfed in the war, the residents of these borderline villages were under direct fire during the four years of military hostilities. The war passed, but life was still in many ways challenging. Although the residents of Tsapatagh and nearby villages experience the magnificence of one of the most beautiful sunsets in Armenia – when the melting red ball of the pomegranate-like sun dips into Lake Sevan turning it into a sea of lava – which perhaps brings nostalgic recollections of the Caspian, the climate and soil are far from those in Khachakap. An elevation of more than 1,500 meters above sea level, sizzling summers, freezing winters, and nearly 20 degree Celsius temperature variations in a single day all make land cultivation a fascinatingly difficult task.
Piruz (“turquoise” in Armenian), a 70 year-old former resident of Khachakap, who lost her son in the war, greets me in all black but with the shiniest and most intensely colored turquoise eyes. “I miss my village. I miss the soil, the fruits, the land…the smells….it was different there,” she said. For Piruz as well as many elderly residents of the village time has stopped… somewhere in the 1980s perhaps. That time and the memory of the other space engulfs you through conversations in a specific dialect, the intensity of recollections, artifacts in those homes like old photos, and the mixed Ottoman and Armenian elements in the construction of the houses (there were a number of homes in neighboring Gill and Artanish villages that had windows and balconies with very distinct Turkic ornamental style).
I also encountered this time-freeze while hiking up a hill in neighboring Gill village, where I came across an Azeri cemetery. Although damaged from war, most of the headstones had engraved names and dates, and even faces of the deceased intact and clearly readable. Two headstones that I came across were dated from 1988 – it was chilling to perceive how close yet so far removed reality was. It was a constructed reality through time and space existing in the minds and living in the memories of the older residents who lived then and now, there and here.
“I miss Baku, I miss the city life, my street, my home,” said Romila, second in charge of Artanish. Her most traumatic yet vivid recollection of the escape from Baku, when the pogroms were already under way, was her encounter with her Azeri neighbor and friend, when she said “I am so sorry for what is happening, I do not even know what to say.” Romila responded, “My prayer will be one – that my son and your son do not use weapons against each other.”
The Armenian refugees of Azerbaijan living in Armenia for almost 24 years hold dear memories of their homes left behind in Azerbaijan, of the land they cultivated there, of their Azeri neighbors. They raise a generation that never encountered Azeris, that was born in independent Armenia, that lives and constructs a different reality without Azerbaijan.
In one of my interviews an Armenian politician noted that, “Armenians are vulnerable not because of our geopolitics, but because we forgive and forget, we do not hold grudges, yet we still survive. I am puzzled how this works.” However, I consider this not a vulnerability but rather a strength, as dwelling on the positive recollections gives you the power to not just survive but move forward. I left Gegharkunik inspired and more educated on the conscious, or perhaps even subconscious, choices one can make to construct a positive reality and brighter future.
 The opportunity to visit the villages was provided by the “Luys” Fund in the framework of the Develop Armenia Project.