Borderlands Under Fire: Sketches of War and Resistance
Lange-Taylor Prize 2018 Finalist
I. Nerkin Karmir Aghbyur
“When we go back to America, what do you want us to tell people?”
Armen looked at me with a heavy, earnest gaze. His tired, intense brown eyes stood out against his gray buzz cut and the camouflage of his uniform.
“Tell them that we are being shot in our own fields.”
He looked back towards the table, at the family friends he had stopped by to visit. The table was full, its wooden surface covered by cheese, bread, apricots, sour cherries, candy, chocolate, steaming cups of coffee and homemade wine poured from two-liter soda bottles. They had pulled out all the stops to welcome the strangers, and you would never know that they were running on reserves.
No new wine had been made for months, as long as Knareg’s husband had been in the hospital. Three glossy printed photos lay on the table as evidence, gruesome, bloody images of the bullet still lodged in his leg.
“The Azeris used to come back and forth across the border to these villages,” Knareg told us. “So they know when our harvest time is. They shoot when they know the farmers are working, and they aim at the legs so that they will be paralyzed and not be able to work again.”
Since the incident that disabled Knareg’s husband, the shooting never stopped. Just a fence away, Karen’s fields were lost to him, and with them, his family’s main source of income. Even the house was not safe. He had been reinforcing the first floor with a second layer of tufa stone, turning his home into a fortress so that at least the family would have somewhere safe to go.
“Sometimes you can’t make it to the shelter in time,” Knareg said.
“One day, Ine was in her room playing with one of her toy trucks,” he told us, looking towards his two-year-old daughter. “Suddenly, Mariam and I heard gunshots. We ran up immediately, and my heart stopped when I saw that one of her toy trucks had been blown up. Thank god it was not her.”
I nodded, silently, with a few murmurs of sympathy. In the second year of working in the border villages, I could no longer feel the shock I had felt at first. It was replaced by a gaping, hollow sensation, like what you feel when good friend of yours is suffering nad you desperately want to do anything you can to stop it. It was an everyday reality. My friend came to visit. I talked to my mom. They shot my fields again.
Karen and his family, especially Knareg, talked to us with all of the enthusiasm of people who are trying desperately to find hope.
“I just want my daughter to be able to play in the village,” Karen said. “I don’t think I will find a better life than in my village, so if there was any way to make a wall around the garden and secure the house I would stay.”
But with no income, no international recognition of the attacks on his home, and no way to make his family safe, the chances seemed bleak. Karen had looked out over his empty fields day after day, and begun to plan the unimaginable. He never, ever wanted to leave his village, but the money was running out. If he couldn’t work in his fields, how could he feed his family? How could they live?
He couldn’t shake the feeling that Azerbiajan had won this battle. The village had been his life, but now there was no life for his family. And what could he do? It seemed that no one was willing to stop it, no one was willing to help them. They were protecting the country with their lives, but they had been forgotten.
So with a heavy heart, he prepared for the only solution he could see to make a life for his daughter.
“If things do not change,” he told us, “We will have to leave.”
“You just missed the concert!” Mayor Andranik Aydinyan greeted us with what I at first failed to realize was a joke.
My eyes followed his gesture up to the sky and returned, confused for a second before I realized with a sinking feeling that he was talking about gunfire.
As we talked to Andranik throughout the day I kept seeing scenes of everyday life spotted with bullets. On the wooden windowsill of his office, he had a collection of bullets, and even a large shell that he’d planted a flower in. He said that he promised the kids in the village that he would buy them ice cream if they brought him bullets, to keep them from playing with bullets that would explode in their hands.
In the kindergarten, the evidence was all around. We entered through a door in the tufa stone wall that surrounded the building and its playground. The playground equipment was overgrown with weeds and rusty, but it’s most prominent feature was an underground shelter with flowers growing on top of it. Inside the school, the first few rooms were empty. The windows were scarred with bullet holes, and the children’s drawings had been taken off the walls once that part of the school became unsafe.
Mayor Andranik Aydinyan’s story seemed to almost represent his village. He had been mayor of the village for years, and had lived there all his life. He was of the last generation that could remember an Aygepar where the fields were safe, and the only things to look for in the sky were planes taking off from the town’s airport. It was an industrial border town then, drawing people from both Armenia and Azerbaijan to work in the brandy factory and tobacco factory. Before the war there were just people, Armenians and Azeris came back and forth to work, to shop, and to have coffee at each other’s houses.
Andranik was twelve when the war started. The Soviet Union was collapsing, and his peaceful, quiet village was suddenly shattered. It was hard to imagine men who had worked with each other on the factory line suddenly killing each other, but the Azerbaijani nationalism that was born in the collapse of the USSR was a force too powerful to be contained. The first attacks in Aygepar were part of the war that started when Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnically Armenian autonomous region placed under Azerbaijani rule in the Soviet Union voted in a referendum to declare independence, and was met with massive waves of government-supported ethnic cleansing. The planes got as far as Berd, the main city of the region then. But Aygepar was on the very border, so close you could throw a soccer ball across it, so for them there was no rest.
A few years later, there were military parades celebrating the victory that made Nagorno-Karabakh, or Artsakh, as it was traditionally called in Armenian, an independent country. A government was set up in the capital city, and people started to rebuild their churches, houses, everything. The ceasefire promised peace, and Armenia put down its weapons. But the shooting didn’t stop in Aygepar. The attacks continued without a war, and the Azeri snipers made bases on top of the mountains, so that they could shoot directly into the houses, schools, and fields. In the era of the ceasefire, Aygepar became the site of a campaign of terror that seemed like it would never end. Everyone talked about Artsakh, but nobody even seemed to remember Aygepar. And the shooting continued, so long that it became a permanent fixture of life, like the wind and thunderstorms, and seemed to fade out of other people’s memories.
Twenty-five years later, Andraik had two sons of his own. It was horrible to know that something was trying to kill your children that you couldn’t protect them from. He hated having to explain to his children that the cracking in the sky was men he had once kicked a soccer ball with were now trying to kill them.
“We know the Azerbaijani villagers don’t want this either,” he told us. “Their villages are very poor, and the army uses them as shields, putting its bases inside the villages so that we can’t shoot without hitting civilians.”
As mayor of the village, he had to explain the situation to a lot of other people too. He had to explain to an NGO that they needed a blast wall around the kindergarten because the Azerbaijani soldiers had chosen five-year-olds as their newest target. He had to explain it to the Red Cross volunteers, who left because they were afraid of the shooting. He had to explain it to potential investors, who then excused themselves politely and went back to the capital in Yerevan. He had to explain it to representatives from the OSCE, who came, saw the bullet holes in people’s houses, looked at the picture of the girl who had been shot in her living room, met the children who didn't go to school every Thursday to avoid getting shot in the road, and left. He read the report a few days later, saying the OSCE had found no evidence of Azerbaijan shooting across the border.
He must have been tired of it by the time he explained it to us. As we walked through the villages, in the shadow of the crumbling factories that had once been the people’s livelihood, it was easy to see how one could lose hope.
“The people in this village could tell you stories for hours,” he said. “But there is no one to listen, no one to hear us.”
But sometimes people remembered. An NGO restored the kindergarten, and put more walls up in the streets so that the children could walk to school safely. At Christmas, he took his sons out with the other children to hang a string of lights on the side of the wall where the Azeri soldiers couldn’t see. A woman with three children moved into the village so her husband could work as a soldier on the border. Four brothers came back from Russia to build a church that they had seen in their dreams.
He was the mayor of a village that was under fire, but a village that was still standing. And any village that was still standing after twenty-five years of attack was a real fortress. Like a commander, he led his village in their own kind of resistance. He made plans for a tile factory they could run with stone from across the river. He worked with local organizations to see which families most needed help and what he could do for them. He hosted strangers in his office with fruit and chocolate and brandy and so many stories to see if there was any way they could help the people in his home. The factories were empty, but the people were doing everything they could to stay.
There wasn't much, but there was hope.
“It’s difficult when your husband is not with you,” Rosanna said, looking at her son Vahag and her daughters Anahit and Milena.
The absence in the house was so strong that you could feel it, and it seemed to hang over the family’s home like a shadow. It had been there for two years now, ever since Rosanna’s husband had been killed on the border. He worked as a career soldier, alternating fifteen days on the front line and fifteen days home with his children. Every time she kissed him goodbye, Rosanna feared it would be her last, and waited for fifteen days with that constant, nagging fear. When the notice came that her husband had been shot by enemy fire while protecting the border, it hit harder than she could have imagined.
Rosanna’s husband joined the tradition of Armenian heroes, martyrs who had died for the nation since the Armenian Genocide, but that was no consolation. And in villages like Choratan, even mourning was dangerous. The cemetery was in the line of fire, so the funeral had to be held at night. Even in death, no one was safe from gunfire.
After her husband’s death, Rosanna tried to keep going for her children. She got a job as a cook in the cafeteria of the kindergarten, and did everything she could to keep the house bright and welcoming on her own.
“They have been working very hard, helping me a lot and learning English,” she told us when her children came into the room.
Anahit, the oldest, had started her school’s military program this year in eighth grade. She had already reached the school’s rank of sergeant, and was a champion shooter. She and her friends are well aware of the necessity of their military training, knowing that when they hear gunfire, their school and homes could be invaded at any moment.
Anahit’s school is named for its former principal Artur Udumyan. During the war in the 1990s, Azerbaijan invaded the village. They started bombing when school was in session, so Principal Adumyan and the other teachers sent the children down to the shelter and defended their school. Two of the teachers led the village protection and were captured, but even after that principal Adumyan continued. He was killed by a bomb, but once the rest of the teachers had defended the village, they went back to teach. The school was named after Principal Udumyan for his leadership, and the children continue to follow in his legacy, studying hard despite the sound of bullets, and sometimes even bombs outside.
“This is our land and birthplace,” the current principal, Vazgen Zargaryan told us, “We shouldn’t have to leave our home.”
Honoring the tradition of his predecessor, Vazgen leads his school in a different type of resistance. Instead of weapons they recieved building materials from the UN and a local NGO, and in two months all of the parents banded together to build their children a new cafeteria. The school is preparing to build classrooms for cooking, woodcarving, and sewing classes, and Vazgen is currently looking for funds to restore the school’s shelter. In last year’s class of seven graduating high school students, five were going to University, and one was becoming a hairdresser.
We came to visit Choratan with Margarita Khamoyan, who had come there as an English teacher for two years in 2015 through Teach for Armenia. She had lived her whole life in Yerevan, so living in a village with no running water had certainly taken some getting used to, but she loved her two years there. She showed us her house, a raised up wooden building, typical of the village houses nestled in the mountains, and introduced her to her next door neighbor who called “my second mom.” When we came into the school, Vazgen hugged her, and the teachers received her like a family member.
“When she first came, it was a very bad period,” Vazgen told us. “They were shooting all the time, so we weren’t sure if she would stay.”
But she did stay, and came to love her students and the village, even when she had to shorten her lessons because the stove heaters couldn’t provide enough heat for the classrooms and it was too cold for class.
“They are shooting, but we are used to it,” Vazgen said. “The village is still dangerous, and knowing our enemy we are not safe, but we are not hopeless.”
For the last fifty years, Armenia has had a very strong tradition of nonviolent resistance. Starting with unprecedented protests in the Soviet Union for recognition of the Armenian Genocide, these demonstrations have continued to advocate for affordable electricity prices, protest arrests of opposition leaders, and other interests of the people. This year, the protests reached such a scale that they were able to secure the resignation of the extremely unpopular prime minister, and force the ruling party cede power to the opposition leader in what has been called a “velvet revolution” by sources around the world.
But the tradition of nonviolent resistance does not stay contained in the capital. This year, people in the border villages joined the protests against the current government, but they are used to resisting. If you look, there are signs of it in in every village. Women whose jobs have disappeared into the gunfire are selling crocheted products out of their homes. Farmers have built greenhouses in order to grow food more safely. The villagers repurpose old building materials and find new ones to rebuild their houses and their schools, when they are hit. They live in a war zone, but forbidden to fight back by their government and the international community, they find other means of gathering the strength to stay in their homes. With determined resistance, and unshakable faith, they peacefully and strongly assert their human rights to stay in their ancestral lands and their homes.
Their spirit and strength has inspired other people to join the resistance. Teachers like Margarita have come to live and teach in the villages. We met a doctor from Georgia who had come to live in the region’s largest town of Berd simply because “they needed me.” People in NGO’s in Yerevan and even Armenians in the U.S. have dedicated themselves to helping these villages stand against the attacks. Though conditions are brutal and people often flee the villages, there are still some finding ways and reasons to stay.
As Andranik told us when we first visited Aygepar, “The country starts from the borders.”