It has been a whirlwind couple of weeks and I feel like I’m almost never at my computer, let alone sitting down to write on this blog. I’ve written so much in my journal though, so at least when I look back on this time in the future I’ll be able to remember all that I’ve seen and felt while here, even if words so often feel inadequate to truly capture this experience. Bear with me – this post is gonna be a long one!
Last Friday we met at the office at 7:30 to head off to Artsakh by way of Tatev. We had breakfast on the side of the freeway with a stunning view of Ararat behind us. In typical Armenian fashion, our bus wouldn’t start when we were ready to leave, but eventually managed to get us back on the road again. The drive quickly turned from urban to gorgeous rural scenery and it was so nice to be up in the mountains again! We had a picnic lunch that really upset my stomach, but I was still able to mostly enjoy myself in the afternoon. Tatev is in a really beautiful location in the Halidzor Gorge, and we took the tramway to get there – the longest in the world! 3.5 miles without stopping. The monastery was stunning as well. I love that these monasteries are always in the most breathtaking places. It makes them perfect for thinking about God and appreciating His glory here on earth. We returned across the cable car just in time to watch the sunset and experience magic hour in that beautiful location before heading across the border into Karabakh. The roads were winding and mountainous, and not the safest feeling. I thought the border would be more intense than it was – instead it was just a little building, no wall or anything. I guess Karabakh has great relations with Armenian, so naturally it wasn’t as secure as the border with Azerbaijan. We had dinner at a hotel in Shushi and were joined by some generals who fought in the liberation war. It was such an honor to be able to dance with them and some locals who were there and really feel like we were connecting with our history in a significant way. I have started to really love Armenian music and the traditional dancing. I hope that the longer I’m here, the more lyrics and actual dance steps I can learn, both so that I can participate more now and have more to pass down later to the next generation. The mood at that dinner really set the tone for the weekend though- there’s a powerful energy in Artsakh that’s electric. No matter where you are, you feel it.
We were fortunate enough to be in Artsakh for the holiday of Victory Day! May 9th was the day Shushi was liberated during the Karabakh War, which is now commemorated yearly with parades and concerts and other festivities. It was awesome to be present for those events – another perfect example of how lucky I am to be here now to be part of so many major events in Armenia during my time here (like everything for the genocide centennial). Because we arrived in Artsakh at night, I wasn’t able to really see anything or get a feel for the land, so Saturday was my first opportunity to appreciate the absolute beauty of the region. It’s colorful and mountainous like Colorado, and the air is just as crisp and pure. After attending a parade in Stepanakert, the capital, we went to have lunch in a village called Azoch. We ate a delicious lunch in a house that was being rebuilt and toasted to life and to peace. After, we went to a winery and were able to sample local Artsakh gini.
oh- did I mention they loaded us into the back of a massive truck to drive us to the winery? how we all fit is still beyond me
A few years ago, Birthright started a tradition called “wine mob” where they gave groups of us volunteers a bottle of wine and let us loose in Stepanakert with the mission of inviting ourselves into a random house and sharing the bottle with locals. Some of this is to promote the homestay program to new families, but also for our own edification. No one could welcome us or educate us about life in Artsakh like people who live there, especially those who survived the war. I was so surprised how easy it was to be welcomed into a stranger’s home and how willing they were to tell us pieces of their story. The head of the household looked to be in her 70s, but turns out she was born only a few years before my own parents. Amazing how stress can age people prematurely.
A few years ago, a group of engineers and architects built this wonderful airport in Stepanakert, but it has never been used due to threats from Azerbaijan to shoot down any plane that uses it. Our director talked about what this means in the life of ordinary people – for example, people whose child would fall sick and need emergency surgery, but who could not get on a medical flight to Yerevan where the hospital is better because they can’t use the air space. Maybe they wouldn’t survive the 7 or 8 hour drive. It struck me that this is what war is, just as much as the soldier to soldier conflict. War is about civilian life being turned upside down, about people dying because they can’t be med-evacuated. War is women looking 20 years older than they are, muddy dirt roads because infrastructure doesn’t exist, and building frames that are overgrown with plants.
the frankincense was absolutely divine in this church.
Gandzasar in the mist
Our last activity of the day was heading to Gandzasar monastery to have dinner. We traveled through more winding, perilous seeming roads, but danced in the aisles and sang the whole time. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard – I was crying and my stomach literally ached! The fog rolled in just after we got there, which had an eerily beautiful effect on the setting. As we gathered around the table, our group director talked to us about how meaningful it is in Artsakh to toast to peace because they’ve known the opposite. The people who really value peace are those who’ve been through war. His words deeply resonated with me, mostly because I think all of us have our own internal battles that we have to face, some more than others, and when you come out the other side of a war like that, you too value peace in whatever form you once lacked. Not a day goes by that I don’t feel incredibly grateful for my peace of mind, for example.
Sunday was another foggy day, which we began with a visit to the Ghazachetots Cathedral in Shushi. It was stunning from the outside, with the fog creating a haunting sort of beauty. Following this, we went to the ruins of a former university and then to fallen soldiers museum, where we were able to see the portraits of all those who perished fighting for Karabakh’s liberation, as well as those who remain missing. Multiple times this weekend we were reminded of the special relationship between NKR, Armenia, and the diaspora, and how it is our “duty” to make sure NKR stays free, that Armenians get to keep their land, and that our country thrives. However, I’m reminded of something I read in an article about the triangular relationship between Armenia, the diaspora, and Turkey: “Diasporas can promote dialogue and encourage cooperation. However, when the diaspora holds inflexible perceptions of the conflict, it can constitute a major obstacle to a solution.” After this weekend, I think this just as aptly applies to Armenia, the diaspora, and NKR – and it’s a point I hope to discuss in our group reflection tonight.
entrance to Ghazachetots
Afterwards, we went to a military base and were able to go through their obstacle course and training area (or at least try to), and then ate lunch in the mess hall. I was surprised at how good the food was actually! Sadly, no pictures allowed of any of the rest of the afternoon, at least not on any public web or social media platform. Perhaps the most memorable experience of the weekend for me was actually going to the front lines and visiting soldiers in their outpost on the border with Azerbaijan. I mean – what a privilege to be able to walk through trenches with soldiers, to get access to a place that’s usually closed to the public? Here again we witnessed the civilian side of war in the form of an abandoned and destroyed town. The hundred thousand Azeris who once lived there were given 24 hours to leave, and then all the buildings were destroyed so there was no chance that they could or would return. It was jarring to see these razed buildings bursting with colorful flowers, in front of lush mountains and a blue sky. How could there be so much beauty in such a sad place?
Borders are such strange things when you think about them – arbitrary lines that we draw, imbued with the idea that land is ours, that it belongs to any one group over any other. The older I get, the more I appreciate the Native America ideology: we belong to the Earth, not vice versa. Since coming here, I’ve consistently been discouraged, frustrated, and/or upset by the hatred that’s so engrained in the hearts of people here, as I just can’t force myself to purposefully hate a whole group of people on the basis of their ethnicity. I’m struck by the hypocrisy in this as well – we hate them for doing exactly as we are. As Armenians, I would hope we could strive to rise above, that we could release the hatred and tribal mentality that killed so many of us a century ago. I can’t buy into the fanatic nationalism I see here, even if I love the national solidarity and sometimes envy those in my group who are so visibly filled with a pride I can only imagine. I feel more joy in my Armenian roots each day, but I hope I never feel the hatred, the stubbornness, the blind belief used as a weapon, the tendency to create an “other” while condemning that very group for “othering” us. I suppose all groups face challenges like this, and as I’m currently more engrossed in my Armenian-ness than ever before, it’s natural that I’d be finding the flaws as much as the strengths and unique attributes.
Driving through that ruined city, I couldn’t help but think that western Armenia must look like that, if not worse. The Azeris have a town with an unchanged name, and fragments of buildings; in western Armenia, the names have been changed, the culture erased, the history all but silenced. It’s the same situation at the end of the day though: the people fled, the buildings were razed, and the possibility of going home again utterly destroyed. It meant a lot to see the aftermath of a warzone like that, because it gave me a bit more real world sympathy for the refugees I’ve work with and those I hope to serve moving forward. I can’t even imagine having 24 hours to leave my entire life behind, or on the flip side, to hate someone or some group so much that I’d do anything possible to keep them away permanently, to the point of destroying every building they ever lived in.
An overgrown building on the street where I was staying. Compared to the ruins by the border, there’s a lot of this building still standing.
After visiting the iconic Tatik-Papik sculpture, we enjoyed a traditional ‘kef’ at the house of one of the host families, but from what I could tell, each of the families hosting our volunteers contributed to the cooking. The khorovats (barbecue) was the best I’ve ever had in my life, and as the night went on, we began making toasts. The expectation was that everyone in the room would say something, and sure enough, we all did. Some people toasted to their Armenian pride, some to protecting Artsakh, some to the diasporans being able to come together through this program and fill in holes we didn’t even know we had. I spoke about my work with refugees and my hope that as Armenians we could learn from our past to work towards a world where there are no refugees, where we can let go of hatred, where we can see our neighbors as fellow humans and little else. I talked about how I felt driving through the abandoned village and about the clients whose former homes and villages must look so much like that. Everyone spoke in their native language, while other volunteers who spoke those various dialects translated for us. How incredible to be part of Armenians from literally around the world – the US, Canada, England, France, Lebanon, Ukraine, Syria, Germany, Jordan, Russia, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay- sharing a meal, an identity, and a connection that’s part of our blood.
a friend captured this great moment over dinner!
Finally it was time to come back to Yerevan on Monday morning. We stopped for lunch in Goris, and were able to witness some incredible clouds as we drove back through the mountains after that. One of my favorite traditions we have on these excursions is singing popular/ traditional/ important Armenian songs that we have a songbook for. It’s always pretty hilarious, as is always the case when 50 people try to sing together in a foreign language. By the end of the trip, we were all pretty much asleep on the bus and ready to be home in our warm beds with good showers – two luxuries we missed over the weekend!