The village on the border

Note: The following is a story of author’s travels from last winter.

It is almost spring but the crisp weather would have you think otherwise. 

The mountainous road leading to the border village is long. It makes the distances in this tiny, rugged, land-locked country feel vast. This is what is left of historic Armenia, a precious, tiny sliver of land made up of silver mountain ranges, sparsely populated villages and occasional thick, green forests. We couldn’t travel fast on these snake-like roads even if our lives depended on it. The winding road forces us to see every detail, feel every rock and notice every tree, and read the names on every memorial dedicated to the victims of Azeri intrusion on the border. 

We are headed to Movses, on the northeast of Armenia bordering Azerbaijan. By any standard, Movses is not very far from Armenia’s capital. It is 198 kilometers (118 miles) from Yerevan. But, on average, the journey can take about four and a half hours. It takes about the same time to drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco (615 kilometers, 382 miles) in case you are willing to break the speed limit and about half that time to fly to Moscow from Yerevan. Of course, on both of these latter cases, you wouldn’t get to see much of what is in between the end points. At best, the land you cross and its inhabitants would remain a mystery. 

With the cosmopolitan façade of Yerevan well behind us, our initially reserved driver is more at ease with his thoughts about our destination. It seems the closer we get to his hometown, the more he gets into in his own element. He has no intention to gloss over anything or tell us what we want to hear. He has no patronizing words reserved for visitors that may be part of the hustling culture back in the capital.

“You know, there are 55 deaths each year in Movses and 5 newborns every year. In my estimate, in less than two decades, there will be no one left in Movses,” he says abruptly. “If villages like Movses disappear, then the frontline becomes Berd, if Berd disappears, the frontline becomes Sevan, and so forth, until the enemy reaches the gates of the National Assembly.” 

His words would sound extreme if we were sitting at a café in Yerevan sipping cappuccinos, but when you are approaching the border, the calm of the capital feels fake and illusive; the glitter, the chase, the hustle and the bustle can feel repulsive.

“It is different when soldiers are actually defending a village or a community as opposed to abandoned villages,” he continues. 

It takes centuries to build a village but can take just about 50 years for everything to disappear. Things seems to be in a  rapid state of flux; an unglamorous version of history is in unfolding in front of my eyes.

At some point we come painfully close to the border with Azerbaijan.

“Do you always take this road?” I ask our driver who has not only served his two-year mandatory military service but had returned to for another three additional years on contract.

“Yes,” he replies. “The less we travel on these roads, the more likely it is for them (Azeris) to fire on us. When they feel the road is abandoned they become more zealous.” 

Defying any common sense, his answer puts my mind somewhat at ease.

As we pull further away from Yerevan and closer to Movses, the music shifts from Russian to the Aram Asatryan and finally to Nersik Ispiryan singing the praise of Bedo, Dushman, Shahen Megheryan and Tatul Krpeyan (Armenian martyrs of the Artsakh war). The soundtrack seems to sense the mood and my desperate need for an adrenaline rush.

By the time we reach Movses, there is a feeling we’ve covered vast distances. These long roads are Armenia’s way of pretending to still be a vast kingdom stretching from ancient Paytakaran to Tzopq.

It is already late Saturday evening but the feeling of exhaustion from the trip and the late winter cold is quickly offset by the warm welcome we receive at our bed-and-breakfast stay by our hostess. We check in quickly and meet her back near the wood-heated stove for dinner and late night tea. Like many of the middle and older-aged residents of the village, her sons have also moved to Russia with their families in search of work and opportunity. For now, she has decided to stay and open her home to the occasional visitors to Movses. The feeling of anticipation for seeing Movses in daylight makes me anxious and excited at the same time. From when I was a child, I had learned that if I wanted the time to pass by quickly, to reach my destination fast, the best cure was to go to sleep. I hit the bed in the cold night eager to see Movses through my own lens.

My childhood sleeping trick works and the much anticipated morning arrives fast. After a rich village breakfast we head out to see the village on foot. There is a deceptive silence on these dirt roads. Everything here seems to fly under the radar but signs of life gradually begin to emerge. We come up to locals from time to time – an old woman carrying buckets of water downhill, a rooster who’s escaped his cage crosses the road and young girls dressed in full winter gear pass us by. People seem reserved here but they always respond to our greetings. 

I pass by a well-maintained, small but plush football field and my mind inevitably wanders back to my childhood where my friends and I would play our two-, three- of four-aside game on the asphalt roads of my hometown far away from the homeland. From time to time, I’d yell the names of Ararat’s (1973 champions of the USSR) stars whenever I scored a goal.

“Ishtoyan! Zanazanyan! Goaaaaal!!!”

Away from the homeland but dreaming of the homeland – that’s how we lived. It was romantic but that was the reality for some of us. And here I was 45 years later and the romantic had become very real. 

What we would’ve given to have a field like this, I thought. I suppose, we’d be awake at the crack of the summer dawn and only go back home when my mom would shame me to join the family for dinner by sticking her head out the window and calling out my name repeatedly. That’s the only way she could get me to leave our street game as the sun set back home. But the vast gap that exists between my childhood and the reality of being a child in this border village is undeniable. Still, I looked at the green football field with envy. Only if I had a football in my possession and three friends…

People don’t just casually wander off outdoors in Movses; but they also refuse to hide. There is an organic patriotic, defiant feel to the place. Pictures of Armenian fighters of the past and present adorn building facades. Karnig Karkissian’s patriotic songs are playing on the radio as we walk into a village shop. Unlike the Vernissage or the souvenir shops of the capital, ‘patriotism’ is not just another consumer good sold to visitors. You can’t buy anything patriotic-looking in Movses. But we do manage to buy some candy and are off to the our next station where people are likely to gather.

We stop off at another store. This time, the store owner and his friend are a lot more inquisitive. After answering their questions about who we are, why we are in Movses and where we are coming from, we are offered hot tea and a chance to practice our shooting with an air gun. We take the former offer.

As we sip the tea, I get the opportunity to turn the tables on our host. It is now my turn to ask the questions.

“Does your family live here?” I ask.

“My two sons are in Moscow after completing their military service. There is nothing to keep them here. Young people should not and cannot be without work,” the store owner responds.

“And you?” I continue.

“I live here with my wife. I am happy here. I won’t live anywhere else,” he says firmly. “I have my store and my home. Kids visit from time to time. I have everything I need here.”

We take a small detour and enter the church where Sunday service was in progress. My attention span for church service is as long as that of kids aged five, maybe six. As I walk out to the church yard after about twenty minutes, I realize the caution and the reservation associated with being in a border village dissipates quickly when kids are playing. My mind wanders again. Where will these kids be in ten, fifteen years from now, I ask myself. Will they remember this day when they were in a far-away, strange land playing with friends who they’ve lost touch with, speaking a tongue they can barely remember now? Or, could the reality be something different? 

Away from the glitter of the capital and the dimming euphoria of the Velvet Revolution, the reality of Armenia’s rural communities can slap you in the face – really hard. It is not always the current state of things that can be a cause for alarm, but the way things are compared to the what was and what is to come. There is still plenty of life in Movses, but if one is to look beyond the heartwarming sounds of children playing in the church yard and older men gathered in the neighborhood store, there is a clear feeling of abandonment.

We make it back to our bed-and-breakfast in time for a hot bowl of borscht. It is the perfect antidote for the late winter cold, the drizzle that promises to become full rain soon and any negative thoughts that can infiltrate my mind.

It is time to return to Yerevan and our driver is ready. It doesn’t take long before we pick up the conversation where we left off.

“How much of this exodus is due to the occasion war, sniper fire, possibility of kidnapping and killings on the border how much of it is due to economic factors?” I probe.

“It’s economic,” he says. “Population of Movses actually increased during the war. Armenians at the border do not fear death. We’ve always been on the defensive. They attack and we feel our best option is to fight. Some call it heroic; I call it a survival tactic. Realistically, it gives us a better chance to survive; it is what we are used to. It is what we do best.”

He continues. “We are not afraid. When they don’t fire across the border, we feel something is wrong. We feel we are not important anymore.” He burst into laughter. But quickly, his serious demeanor returns. He points out to the barbed wire that separates Armenia from Azerbaijan. We are told it wasn’t long ago that Armenians were killed on this spot by intruders from across the border. A memorial stands on the spot.

“Aren’t you scared?” my friend finally asks. 

I don’t have an answer. I am not sure if I am melancholy or desperately looking for a silver lining from the trip. 

“What is your solution?” I ask our driver and change the topic. 

“First, let me say we don’t depend on the central government any more. That’s not necessarily good. Everyone has found a way to survive and that ‘way’ often means moving to Russia,” he starts with an introduction but he continues.

 “I’ll give you two possible solutions.” It seems he has already thought about this.

“Well,  things can work. There are actual models we can follow. Not far from here in Berd and Choratan, repatriate investors have set up manufacturing factories. They employ people. They do business. It means some models can work but the government needs to be involved to attract more investors. One or two may come on their own, but it is much more effective when it is part of a government plan and officials welcome and invite people to invest.”

“And the second idea?” I pressed him.

“The border villages can be the suppliers of food, clothes and other personal needs for army divisions. The project can create jobs while bringing the village and the army even closer together.”

The conversation has to end; we finally have arrived at our drop off location in Yerevan on Khanjyan street near the Vardan Mamikonyan statue where bars with cheap private rooms for rent dominate the street floor of residential buildings. 

I thank our driver for the conversation and getting us back safely. 

More than ever, I realized the great contrast that exists between the reality of the village guarding the border under constant threat of the adversary gunfire and the capital’s often carefree existence. 

I am not a fan of grand conclusions and giving morals to stories but I can’t just pretend there in not an elephant in the room at this point. Without a viable rural existence and sustainable, vibrant border village life, the slogans such as “not an inch to the enemy” can sound hollow. How serious are we as a people about our common future when our border villages feel abandoned? Are there even enough of us who believe in a common future on a common land? Are we even aware that we are headed to becoming just a city state if the current trends continue?

Emotional answers won’t do and neither will empty positivity. What we feel and what the reality is are often very different, emotion and fundamental action and commitment born out of emotion are two different things, and finally, hope and visionary plans are not only not synonymous, but they can sometimes get in the way of one another. 

An honest and brutal self-assessment, a soul-search for those who profess to care about the future of Armenia that doesn’t require a few decades to conclude would be a good first step.