#9 Armenia & Nagorno-Karabakh

It’s time to make sacrifices when packing my bag in Tbilisi. Temperatures have dropped recently and I got myself a winter jacket. As always, space is in short supply and I now have to choose between the tent and the jacket. In three months of travelling I’ve hardly camped. I decide to get rid of the tent and leave it at the hostel, someone will probably need it more than I do. Despite the basic rule of hitchhiking that one should start early, I leave Tbilisi in the afternoon. A first car soon stops and takes me to Marneuli, about 40 kilometres further. It’s already mid-october and the days are significantly shorter. The sun is starting to set and I’m still over four hours away from Yerevan where I’m hoping to spend the night…

Once more it seems I’m in luck, two friendly Armenians pick me up within a few minutes and they tell me they’re driving all the way to Yerevan ! I can relax and enjoy watching the sun setting behind the wooded hills. The road that leads to the Armenian capital is quite chaotic. My drivers are nonetheless extremely hospitable : they buy me dinner on the road and drop me off at my hostel. A nice start, I’m liking Armenia so far.

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Yerevan greets me with never-ending downpours. Nevermind, I use the first days to update my travel diary and sort out my photos. When the sky finally clears up, I go out and start exploring the city. Yerevan is a pleasant and dynamic capital. The streets are large with a lot of parks and green areas. On a clear day, you can even catch a glimpse of Mount Ararat in the distance, symbol of the country. It now belongs to Turkey, much to the discontent of most Armenians. Still, countless banks, restaurants, hotels are still named after it. I make good friends at the hostel where I quickly feel at home.

I’m curious to learn more about the Armenian genocide. After reading a few books I decide to do some field research and write a piece on the topic. Over one century after the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians from the Ottoman Empire, what memory work has been undertaken to ensure the tragedy is not forgotten ? How is the memory passed on from one generation to the other ? Have the attitudes changed over time ? Which role does the genocide play in Armenian collective consciousness and national identity ? How can we think of a positive and prosperous future between Armenia and Turkey ? The article is the fruit of interviews I conducted with various people: students, journalists, historians, staff of the Genocide Museum of Yerevan, children and grand-children of survivors of different social backgrounds. It will be published shortly.

After two weeks working on this project in Yerevan, I’m off to Nagorno-Karabakh for a few days. The country is de facto independent and has a complete state apparatus yet it isn’t recognised by the international community. Let’s have a quick look at the country’s recent history.

There are three things you can’t predict in life: the weather, women, and Russian foreign policy” jokes a local man of Shushi, the country’s third largest city. Despite the fact that its population was almost entirely made up of Armenians, the province was given to Azerbaïdjan as gift by Stalin in 1921. A decision with devastating consequences that seems to exemplify perfectly the imperialist ‘divide and rule’ policy. Seventy years of azerification of the province and repression of the Armenian population ensued. The referendum held in 1988 turned into a landslide for the integration of the region into the Soviet Republic of Armenia. Moscow rejected the vote, heightening existing tensions and eventually leading to a bloody 6-year war with Azerbaïdjan during which nearly 30.000 people died over 1,2 million were displaced. The republic declared its independence in the middle of the war in 1991. The conflict ended in a military victory of Armenian forces. Since the end of the war, the Armenians have controlled the province but also 9% of Azerbaïdjan’s territory. Up to the present day, Azerbaïdjan has claimed the province and condemned a serious infringement of its territorial integrity. The latter principle has been perpetually in conflict with the right of people to self-determination put forward by Armenians.

Until recently, the country’s name was Nagorno-Karabakh, a mix of Russian, Turkish and Persian meaning “black mountainous garden”, illustrating the region’s turbulent past. Last year it was officially given its old traditionnal Armenian name: Repubic of Artsakh. I ask Nune, a local woman from Shosh, a village outside the capital, what she thinks about the change of name. “I don’t care, it’s only words. All that matters to me is that we finally live in peace”. Over twenty years after the cease-fire, no resolution has been found and every year, dozens of young Armenian and Azeri soldiers die at the border during gunfire exchanges.

The similarities with Armenia are striking, to the extent that you quickly forget you’ve crossed a national border. The flag is almost identical, the same currency is used, the population is still overwhelmingly made up of Armenians and the language, despite some minor changes and a good deal of Russian influence, is still pretty much the same. In terms of size, Nagorno-Karabakh represents about one third of Armenia’s size but has a relatively small population: merely 150,000 inhabitants, one third of which live in Stepanakert, the capital. Time appears to have stopped in the middle of the Soviet era, reluctant to resume its natural course: heavy military presence, old Ladas (cheap Russian cars very popular here) rushing down the streets, smoky restaurants, markets selling various trinkets, etc. Why should you limit yourself to traveling in space when you can go back in time?

 

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Back in Yerevan, I finish writing my article and start getting ready for my next stop. The administrative nightmare is starting, I need to get a visa for every single country I’m going to visit during the rest of the trip. I get my visa for Iran from the embassy in Yerevan without too much hassle. So far so good.

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