By Ani Paitjan
“Does a village like this really exist?” my friend asked.
We were sitting in one of Yerevan’s cafes when I told her that I will spend my weekend in Georgia, where I will visit a village that is home to Armenians and Azeris who have lived together for decades.
For 30 years, the media has informed the public about violations of the Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire agreement, the death of soldiers and sabre-rattling on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border and line of contact. Given the situation, it is almost unthinkable that those two ethnnic groups might live in the same place as good neighbors. So, how do these ‘forever foes’ coexist in serenity?
Growing up together
The village of Tsopi is located just a few kilometers (24 minutes by car) from the Armenian border and is hard to get to without a car.
The nearest town from the village is Marneuli, where 83 percent of the population are ethnic Azeris. The bus terminus is Sadakhlo, a border town between Armenia and Georgia.
Not a single bus goes to Tsopi and so we have to negotiate with a bus driver and pay him $5 to take us there.
It is late fall and Tsopi seems like a sleepy place, as if the village was getting ready for the harsh winter ahead. At first glance, it seems to me that the main road is completely dilapidated, and then I understand that there is absolutely no road…
A tall and thin old man looks intrigued by us. His name is Osman and he was born and raised in Tsopi. I am accompanied by an Azeri friend. The old man is surprised to find me with him.
“How did you reach the village without biting each other’s heads off?” he jokes with a smile on his face.
Osman has three children and he boasts that all of them speak perfect Azerbaijani and Armenian.
In this village, Armenian and Azeri children grow up alongside eachother and go to the same (and only) local school. However, they are placed in separate classes, each learning in their own language. They meet and play during the break on the playground.
Language is a barrier to finding work locally and most of the inhabitants of Tsopi do not speak Georgian. In Soviet times, Russian was the bridge language of the region. But since Georgia’s independence in 1991, Georgian has become the official language in the country. Many residents conclude that the only way to earn a proper living is to go to cities in Armenia, Azerbaijan or Russia.
It’s only recently that the current generation of pupils at the local school have had a teacher of Georgian descent who teaches them the state language. Before that, no one was sent to remote villages to learn Georgian.
Decades long coexistence
From afar, a figure approaches us. Artur, a resident of the village, warmly welcomes us and switches from speaking Armenian to Azerbaijani in less than a minute. He takes time to check in on Osman’s children.
“All is good, apres Artur jan [‘Thank you dear Artur’ in Armenian],” replies Osman.
According to the November 2014 census in Georgia, ethnic minorities make up 13.2% of the population. Azeris and Armenians are the two largest minority groups. Azeris account for 6.3% while the Armenian minority accounts for 4.5% of the total population.
Artur tells us that their village expanded during Soviet times, in the 1950’s, although it existed before.
“Back in time, they built buildings for the residents and workers. Here we had various factories,” Artur says. “Surrounding village workers were coming to Tsopi to work in our factories. It was a multicultural village where Greeks, Russians, Georgians, Armenians and Azeris were living together.”
Now only Armenians and Azeris remain in the village, besides one Greek woman. Tsopi has approximately 450 residents, of which 75% are Azeri.
Edgar, a Tsopi resident who works as an electrician in Marleuni, decides to walk along with us.
“We’ve been living together forever. Our schoolmates and friends were Azeris. We invite them to drink coffee or to eat with us and they do the same, as good neighbors,” he explains.
After climbing a small hill, we reach the top where we find a pile of rocks that was once a Georgian church from the 5th century. Villagers now have no functioning church or mosque.
“It’s fine, our faith is in our heart,” Edgar says.
Shadow of the conflict
Although tensions linger between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the two groups coexist peacefully in this remote Georgian setting.
However, we had to ask the burning question: There is no hostility or conflict between these villagers whose countries are at war with one another? Osman and Artur both say, “No, no, never.” Artur adds that what happens between Armenia and Azerbaijan has nothing to do with them.
But sometimes, the shadow of the conflict hangs around the village. This was the case during the April War that took place in April 2016 between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
“We just did not talk to eachother about that. Not in public, not with the Azeris. Of course we were discussing what was happening in private, with family members, and we know they were doing the same, but we live in the same village, we do our best to avoid internal conflict,” Artur says while walking through the village.
We meet Mustapha and his wife Pari. In their living room, the TV is switched on and we can hear the voice of a dynamic Azeri song using Tar, Oud and Kamanche instruments.
Trees with round and bright orange persimmons decorate their yard. Pari peeled the persimmons and hung them on her terrace. Autumn is the best season to dry them and winter is the best time to eat them.
In his youth, Mustapha was a trader, buying and selling stuff here and there. Now he is a retired man. He regrets the conflict between the two ethnic groups: “I used to go to Armenia to buy stuff and sell them here because it was cheaper,” he tells us. “I was the tamada [toastmaster] of an Armenian wedding once.”
Mustapha thinks that the reason why they stay far from tensions is because they are not in their land.
“We are in Georgia, not in Armenia or Azerbaijan, so we get along well. When the April War started, a small fight happened in another village and they were immediately put in jail. We don’t want that here,” Mustapha says.
Warm relations have their limits
Edgar then invites us over for a cup of coffee at his house. Syuzanna, his wife, is cutting up fruit, while Edgar’s sister-in-law, named Syuzanna too, is preparing traditional Turkish coffee.
Edgar’s wife is from another village in Georgia, while the other Syuzanna grew up in a village in Armenia, where Azeri was a dim word used to designate the enemy.
For her, it was a shock to see Azeris for the first time.
“I come from Armenia, I’ve never seen any Azeri in my entire life. We associate them with war, death of 18-year-old boys, widows and orphans…” she says.
Edgar’s wife is nodding her head. “But here, there is mutual respect and assistance. When we need help, our Azeri neighbors come and give us a hand,” she adds.
But those warm relations have limits. Even if Armenians and Azeris of the village grew up and spent most of their lives together, mixed marriage is not accepted.
“That cannot happen. This would be a misfortune for both sides. We are Armenians, we have to keep our identity, our culture and our religion. The Azeris also think like this,” Artur says.
“Marriage and subsequently family ties are far more personal than a simple friendship – marriages yield children, and children are the future of every nation. Changes in the traditional conception of a national identity based on ethnicity is perceived as a threat to the survival of the nation in its present form,” reads the Caucasus Research Resource Center’s report.
The truth of Malayka tatik
Back at the table, coffee is being served and cookies are being eaten.
A new guest enters the living room. Malayka, a 72-year-old lady, with red cheeks and a black veil over her head, greets us with a smile and sits next to Eteri, an old Armenian lady, Edgar’s neighbor.
Malayka is Azeri and lives alone in the house next to Edgar’s. Her husband died years ago and her daughter left the family home to get married. Both Syuzanna’s children adore her and call her “Malayka tatik” [‘Granny Malayka’ in Armenian]. She comes to Edgar’s house almost every day, takes care of the children, cooks them scrumptious food and helps with the household chores.
“She’s like a member of the family,” says Syuzanna, Edgar’s wife.
Malayka tatik is surprised to see us in Edgar’s house and wonders why we are so interested in this topic.
“So what? How about Tbilisi? Don’t different nationalities live there together? What’s so amazing here that you travelled all those kilometers to meet us?” she asks.
The question leaves a silence in the room. Next to her, Eteri nods.
After all, she is right. Armenians and Azeris have been living together for centuries and this was a natural phenomenon.
For Malayka, the inter-ethnic coexistence of their village isn’t special or interesting. She suddenly switches topics and says pessimistically to Edgar, “Presidents are changing, but nothing is changing in the country. We still have no gas…”
Syuzanna’s children are sitting quietly next to the only source of heat in the house, the wood heater in the living room. Life in Georgia imposes other priorities that are more present in the villagers lives than the Karabakh conflict.
I came to Tsopi to find a specific answer to my question but after talking to the villagers, I now understand that ethnic tension is not nearly a top dilemma.
Poverty, unemployment, access to education, water, gas and electricity are. And these issues strike everyone, Armenians and Azeris alike.