On Tuesday I drove my friend and former editor of the Armenian Weekly turned deputy director of Armenia Tree Project, Jason Sohigian, to Karabagh as he had never been before. We returned Wednesday due to personal reasons on his part, but it was a way for him to finally connect to the sacred region that holds such high, historic importance to the Armenian people. We stayed at a recently renovated hostel called Olymp Plus, which bills itself as a “Health Restoration Complex,” like a spa or something. The room was extremely clean and tidy, with new furniture, although the bathroom was separate, located across the hall. We were the only guests on the floor, and the room costing only 10,000 dram contained two twin beds with thick homemade wool blankets, which essentially serve as personal furnaces. The disco on the other end of our floor blaring rabiz dance music was annoying, however.
Unfortunately the rain as well as thick fog engulfing Shushi prevented Jason from seeing the Persian fortress, abandoned yet standing mosques, and the churches, but we were able to drive along the recently paved thoroughfare in the town’s center. The roads leading into the town however from the south and north are still devastated, something I cannot understand, since Shushi is such a strategic area. In the evening we went to a modern Internet café along Azadamartik Street, the main drag in Stepanakert, then went to a newly opened restaurant called “Dghyag” near the Nayri Hotel, which served very good pizza and salads. The capital city is still pretty clean compared with Yerevan, and seemingly dozens of businesses are preparing to open with several stores being renovated. It was good to see increasing progress, up from last year. Jason said he was expecting to see a magical city to some extent due to all the stories he has heard about how wonderful Stepanakert is. He seemed disappointed, but then I reminded him that a dozen years ago the city was in absolute shambles. I do like the city—it is much more relaxed than Yerevan and people seem much more patient as well as courteous.
Yet I found Karabagh a desolate place. While we drove along about half of the North-South highway on the way to Gansasar, which has been a destination for me and my companions to visit three of the four times I traveled to Karabagh, I found that there were virtually no other cars on the road. We counted a few minibuses full of tourists on their way to the site as we were returning to Stepanakert, but I do not recall more than a few passenger cars driving the opposite direction.
The landscape is exceptionally stunning—a turbulent sea of hills intertwined with jetting mountains. Areas are checkered in farming plots where various crops are grown or have already been harvested, such as corn, wheat, and vegetables. The tilled soil is nearly jet black, the richest soil I have seen. But I didn’t see anyone working in the fields, which was surprising. Once in a while we would run into an old man pulling along a donkey by a short rope tied around the animal’s neck, with a wrapped pile of dead tree limbs strapped to its back. But I did not see anything bustling in the villages we drove past. Perhaps I did not look hard enough or maybe I should have actually driven into them to get a better look. But the roads were empty. Karabagh seemed to have been ours for the early afternoon.
In the village of Vank where Gansasar is located perched atop of a mini-mountain, there is a strange resort with water sports apparently, something similar to Water World in Yerevan, but with seats surrounding the place like it was an amphitheater. The walls of the complex are covered in old, out of register license plates—it made me wonder where did all the cars go? The portion of the 15 km road leading to the village—which last year was a muddy nightmare when I took my parents to the monastery—has been completely paved with asphalt. Incidentally Gansasar is a fantastic place to visit, the most well kept monastery in Karabagh according to the priest that serves there. He personally defended the compound against Azeri gunfire during the war, and bullet holes are still visible in the walls.
People living in Karabagh have always been characterized as long as I can remember being told as extremely resilient as well as self-reliant. But I think this characterization is mostly out of date now. Regions are visibly emptying as my trip through Lachin, notably the administrative center Berdzor, proved. The town which was once inhabited by about 15,000 people now has an estimated population of 7,000, due to the inefficiency and incompetence of administrative officials. Some estimate the number of inhabitants in town to be lower. Last year while passing through there it seemed that many new homes were being or had recently been constructed. My trip this time showed the opposite to be true, or perhaps I was seeing things I did not before, such as dozens of abandoned or dilapidated buildings. Incidentally, abundant information about the depopulation of Lachin as well as other regions in Karabagh has been documented on Hetq Online
and the Oneworld blog
, both of which offer excellent accounts of what is happening there, including suggestions that the governments of the Republics of Armenia and Nagorno Karabagh are intentionally promoting a mass exodus by refusing to build the infrastructure there, as most villages have little to no running water as well as problems with readily available electricity, let alone natural gas lines.
There is speculation that in a final resolution to a peace deal regarding the status of Nagorno Karabagh, the Armenian side would be willing to even return the Lachin region, as well as the remaining ones surrounding Karabagh that Armenian forces now control. To return Lachin as well as Kelbajar to the north would be a strategic fiasco, but it seems it would be the only method to encourage the Azeri side to agree on finally relenting Karabagh without supposedly going to war, despite its seemingly weekly statements that suggest otherwise. I have often expressed on this blog that all regions occupied by Armenian forces should be returned to Azerbaijani control except Kelbajar and Lachin, and that Karabagh along with the two aforementioned regions should be united with Armenia in a referendum to be held immediately by the Karabagh people. I still hold this viewpoint as being the only viable, logical agreement to a peace agreement.
But everyone is leaving. Some think that the population of Karabagh has dropped from 120,000 Armenians to 50,000 since the declared ceasefire in 1994 or even before then. No one knows for sure as reliable census practices do not exist—people are counted twice or those who own houses but live abroad are still counted in current population figures. The same holds true for Armenia.
Although I feel that Karabagh has lots of potential, there is little to no investment there. Hotels are opening to serve tourists, which is great. But opportunities need to be created to employ the masses, whether they are in the form of opened factories, infrastructure building projects, or construction. Something needs to be done to jumpstart the economy in the region immediately—this also holds true for virtually all of Armenia except Yerevan, especially villages along state borders. There needs to be millions of dollars of investments made in Armenia—millions have already been made as we know but the funding up until now has not nearly been enough. Armenia has huge manufacturing capabilities—there are arguably hundreds of abandoned factories throughout the country to demonstrate this. Trade across state boundaries also needs to increase drastically.
A recent poll shows that 77 percent of people between the ages of 16-30 want to leave Armenia.
I’m sure the percentage is just as high for people in Karabagh. People need to live here, and the youth need to stay. A lot more opportunity exists than before in Yerevan mainly but something needs to be done to prevent the current generation from leaving. Otherwise the country will be mostly depopulated in 20 years time at the rate things are going.
Armenians worldwide have lots of work to do to save Karabagh and Armenia. In my opinion they are not really doing much about its future and long-term sustainability. Everyone makes excuses, mostly social and cultural it seems, to not do the work that needs to be done, as Armenians can’t seem to get along with each other anywhere in the globe. But we have only one country, one nation that exists today. It should not be taken for granted, and its borders should not be considered forever permanent. Armenians more than ever need to work together, and vigorously at that, to secure its country’s place in the global community as a leading nation with strong industrial output as well as a land with a rich, cultural legacy that promotes active tourism. The latter thankfully is happening now but not the former. But it has to if Armenia and Karabagh—which must finally unite as soon as possible—is going to get anywhere. There’s too much at stake.
FYI--There is a new petition aimed to force the authorities of Armenia and Nagorno Karabagh to address the socioeconomic situation in the Lachin region, which is incidentally now known as Kashatagh. Go here to sign online.
Labels: Nagorno-Karabagh, Personal Experiences, Social and Cultural