In the Armenian villages along the Azerbaijani border, sporadic violence intermingles with people’s daily lives. While people here try to build a future, they are aware that their livelihoods are often at the mercy of politicians from both sides.
Several years ago, after machine gun fire shot through Mayranush Aleksanyan’s garden, the 58-year-old woman asked her husband to teach her how to shoot. Zakar Aleksanyan is a member of Armenia’s Union of hunters, so there are always registered guns in their house.
Zakar has played a part in the defence of his village, Voskevan, since 1992. The village is just a kilometre away from the Azerbaijani border, in Armenia’s Tavush Province. Weapons were in short supply back when war broke out, which is why he and his friends went by truck to Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and brought back weapons and ammunition in diesel barrels.
‘All this was distributed to rural volunteers; this was how we defended ourselves. But the authorities now, for some reason, are not happy about us having these weapons, and over the last few years all the weapons have been taken away by police. They took them away, but let those in Yerevan always remember that we are here to protect not only ourselves, but also them’, Mayranush said.
When police searched the Aleksanyan's house not long ago, they did not find anything. According to many residents, it was the weapons in their homes that let them sleep at night.
The politics of war
Mayranush is confident that no ordinary villager wants war, especially mothers with young boys. Nevertheless, in the 23 years since the conclusion of the armistice agreement, for residents of Voskevan, the war has not ended.
‘No mother deserves this, and there is no difference between an Armenian or Azerbaijani mother in this. I wish that all those who sow tension at the border and prevent us from living in peace would live as we have been living for 25 years’, she says.
Every time she hears her neighbours gloating about the deaths of Azerbaijani servicemen, she feels uncomfortable.
‘The war manifests itself in that we cannot cultivate our own land, it manifests itself in explosions of mines laid back in the 90's, and most importantly, the war is propagated by the authorities of our countries’, Mayranush says.
Karen Mamikonyan (not his real name), a contract serviceman from a neighbouring village also blames politics for the conflict. He says it was used for political gains during the last parliamentary election campaign in Armenia.
When Seyran Oganyan, one of the leaders of the opposition Oganyan–Raffi–Oskanyan bloc went to visit the border villages, he was forced to turn back.
‘We received an order from Yerevan, they said to start shooting at Azerbaijani positions. After the Azerbaijanis returned fire, including at the highway, Oganyan’s convoy turned back for security reasons’, Karen said.
Hope for a better future
The village, like many in Armenia, suffers from the seasonal migration of men. With the coming of spring, about 80% of men between 20 and 50 travel for seasonal work, mainly to Russia.
‘This is our greatest pain. Most of the arable land is there’ — Mayranush points to the east — ‘and we cannot cultivate it, of course. But the fact that our men are not at home three out of four seasons prevents them from cultivating land outside the zone of shelling as well. We just don’t have enough hands.’
[Read also at OC Media about labour migration in neighbouring Gegharkunik Province: The manless villages of Lake Sevan]
Fortunately, Mayranush’s family — her husband, son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren — are always with her.
The family is trying to lead a normal life despite the constant tension on the border. For over five years, the Aleksanyans have been participating in a programme to develop local organic products supported by the European Union.
The programme gave the Aleksanyans and 20 other Voskevan families a stable income, the opportunity to continue living in their native village, and most importantly, a belief in a better future.
‘Today we grow things in our own gardens, forage in the forests, and dry everything that grows in our village: fruits, vegetables, herbal teas, and medicines’, Mayranush says, proudly displaying a package of dried fruits on the table with the label ‘Made in Voskevan’.
According to her, the main problem the villagers have faced has always been the remoteness of Voskevan: 177 kilometres from Yerevan and 44 kilometres from the regional centre of Ijevan.
The programme has managed to overcome this, with the Centre for Agricultural Assistance, a local NGO, exporting all the produce to France. At the very beginning of the programme, the French partners invited the beneficiaries to France to familiarise themselves with the technology of drying and harvesting fruits, vegetables, and herbs.
‘For us, residents of a border village, such support is truly priceless. It’s very important that we were helped not only to establish correct production techniques, but also to open the way to the market where we can sell our products. However, our cooperation is mutually beneficial, all our products are environmentally friendly and, accordingly, are in great demand in Europe. This, of course, we are proud of’, Mayranush said.
All conversations lead to war
Once a week, Zakar sits behind the wheel of a minibus connecting Voskevan with Vanadzor — the regional centre of the neighbouring Lori Province. Zakar knows all the villagers, and often takes the needy free of charge, earning him a reputation as a local hero.
‘Uncle Zakar is often compared to Seyran Oganyan’, says Artur, a neighbour’s boy. The mention of the former Minister of Defence encourages other neighbours to start talking about him. According to them, Oganyan frequently helped the Tavush people while in office.
‘One of our guys has been lying in coma for 10 years because of an Azerbaijani bullet. And all these 10 years his family has always been cared for by the Ministry of Defence. You can talk about our minister for a long time, but is it worth it? The main thing is that we do not forget him today, when he is no longer in office. Our doors are always open to him’, Mayranush says.
But Voskevan’s residents don’t have open doors only to benefactors. Aleksanyan’s family greet all guests with hospitality: from Armenia, from Russia, from France. The head of the family, Zakar, says he hopes to one day, as in the good old days, welcome guests from Azerbaijan.
This article is published as part of International Alert’s work on the Nagorny Karabakh conflict, which is part of the European Partnership for the Peaceful Settlement of the Conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh (EPNK), a European Union Initiative. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and may not necessarily reflect the views of International Alert or its donors.