Okay – heads up for very long posts. You better go and get yourself a cup of coffee or tea before starting to read this. Last weekend we spent four days in Artsakh together with AVC and Birthright and around 90 other volunteers – an amazing trip that is unfortunately is going to bore you all because it is just too much to write about it. But before I start telling about the trip it is necessary to tell you a little bit about the area itself, so that you can understand some of the depths of the things we have experienced.
Artsakh (or, Nagorno-Karabach as some still call it) is an area between the south-east border of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Internationally accepted as a part of Azerbaijan, but declared as an autonomous republic of Artsakh where most of the population being Armenians, the currency is Armenian dram, the passport they travel with are Armenian. It is the heart of a conflict between the two countries, who fights over who is the rightful “owner” of the region. The fight has been ongoing the last century, but fully sparked by the fall of the Soviet union – when the population of Artsakh region then governed by Azerbaijan tried to break free and unite with Armenian. A war broke out in the beginning of the 90’s and ended in 1994 when the two countries declared a cease fire, but a peace treaty has never been reached. The conflict sustains and has resulted in active border protection and casualties on both sides upon to today.
Since we have only heard the Armenian version of the conflict I am not sure what is the honest truth, I believe that regardless of how much people here like to stay objective in the matter they are still Armenians. What I do know is that Artsakh population view themselves as Armenians, and that Armenia protects the region as its own. There have been significant actions of the Azeris that implies a desire for ethnical cleansing of Armenian population that are hard to ignore. It all builds up to an understanding of Armenia’s relation to Artsakh, geopolitics, the fragility of the state, and the incredible force and ability to move on.
Because despite the current situation of unresolved conflict, the region is doing what it can to restore itself from war times. It has a fully functioning government with trade deals with other countries, the capital of the region is Stepanakert, and the region is known for its incredible beauty and landscapes. The trip to Artsakh with Birthright and AVC is the most memorable one you could do while you’re volunteering. So says the staff and so say also all the volunteers that already been on it. They do it twice a year and we were lucky to go during fall, as apparently the nature is even more beautiful now. So, finally, let me tell you about our first day.
The first day began with a drive past the border to Nakhchivan region (you see it as the “Azer”-marked area in the map above), the border to Azerbaijan territory southwest of Armenia. A few hundred meters away we could see the hill that has been built to protect the people from bomb shells and sniper fire but the area is very calm at the moment. Luckily. We continued our way to Tatev, still at official Armenian ground. Tatev is considered the queen of monasteries in Armenia and it is not hard to understand why. It resides on the very edge of a cliff overlooking a huge gorge, and to reach it you either have to drive up a steep mountain road or you can take, some unexpectedly, the worlds longest rope way up to the top. Of course, our route went via rope way. So a few butterflies, screams and beautiful landscape views later we were at the top, I was happy to put my feet on solid ground again reminding myself that being afraid of heights is not ideal when travelling around in Armenia.
Tatev monastery was interesting but not as impressive as the views around it, a fact that seem to be true for most monasteries because they are placed in these amazing landscape. For those being religious it was a significant experiences, and apparently people of this christian belief travel to this monastery from all over to get a blessing by the priests who still work there today. That was impressive, that it is still in use, and it is true for many of the hundred years old monasteries over the country. The religious practice is very strong in the whole country.
After having taking in as much as we could of the views from Tatev we continued to the Artsakh border, passing it without any further ado, and stopped first at a smaller village just on the other side of the border. I don’t remember the name of it, and when I try to find it on Google maps I realise that all the names in Artsakh region (which is not even marked) is in Azerbaijani. So never mind. There we met with a returning diasporan from Los Angeles, who worked as Chief of Staff of the community and also had a private fund investing in the region to help it back on its feet. He answered many interesting questions on both private, regional, national and international level and shared with us his vision and hope for the area. It was really interesting to hear how much effort they put into this without knowing if the conflict will be resolved, or if the Azeris will again start a war or how the geopolitics will affect them. But I understand it at the same time, how would you ever otherwise be able to go on if you did not believed in and hoped for a peaceful future.
After that we finally made our last drive up to Shushi, the city where we where to spend our upcoming three nights in Artsakh together with host families. We were divided into groups of 2-5 people and taken to our family stays. I got the opportunity to stay with only new people I had never met before the trip; two french girls and an American woman that did her eighth or tenth volunteering with AVC(!). She comes back every year to do a couple of months of volunteering and see it as her retreat and recharge of batteries before going back home to US where she has her family and business. We four got to meet our host mom Elina who was a lovely lady with such a warm smile and gentle care for all of us. She had prepared a typical Armenian dinner with dolma, rice, chicken, all kinds of breads, pickles, sallads, vegetables on the side. It was impossible to eat it all but we did taste the dolma to not upset her too much before we all went to bed, sleeping like logs after a very long day. Oh, and we slept even better since lovely Elina had put in an extra heater in our room and turned it on, so it would be warm and nice for us when we went to bed. It was only one of all the small gestures that she did for us that just made me fall asleep convinced that we had got the best host stay.