By Raffi Yaboujian
As I sat in the airplane bored and tired of watching movies, I began to flip through the pictures I had taken on my iPhone. Like it always happens, my vacation had flown by yet again. I’d been away from home for 21 days, and in those 3 weeks had traveled through 4 different countries, leaving me with 5 different currencies in my backpack and not enough hours of sleep. It was safe to say I was tired. This trip was different, though. This trip was fulfilling. I was leaving Lebanon with something I didn’t have 21 days before.
Any Armenian who lives in the diaspora and who has traveled to the Motherland knows that it is something that cannot be taken for granted. There is a special bond that every Armenian can feel when arriving in Hayastan. It had been seven years since the last time I was in Yerevan and I could not be more excited to be flying in from Lebanon. I had heard so many great things about the capital city, about the improvements that had been made since the last time I was there, and was happy to see that Yerevan was slowly changing for the better. Two days into arriving in Yerevan, it was time to pack my bags yet again and say goodbye to the AYF internship house that had temporarily housed me. The time had come for one of the two reasons I had traveled halfway across the world (the second reason I’ll keep to myself): It was time to leave Yerevan and head into enemy territory to explore historic Armenia.
We had all agreed to meet at 5:45 a.m. on July 24. Accompanying me were two fellow East Coast AYFers from New Jersey. As we shared a cab in the early hours of the morning to the ARF’s main youth office, none of us really knew what to expect from the next seven nights. People started to scatter outside of the office little by little. All in all there would be 27 of us, plus our 2 drivers. It was a good mix of people from different parts of the world. There was a group from Lebanon, which I had a chance to meet on the plane ride to Yerevan, a few people from Tehran, one girl from Argentina, and the locals who lived in Hayastan. We split into the 15-passenger busses and began our journey to the Armenia-Georgian border. Our trip was going to be eight days and seven nights. Each day we would be traveling through different cities, stopping at a hotel for a few hours of rest and doing it all over again the next day. Our goal was to visit some of the most prominent Armenian villages, churches, castles, and cities before they were snatched away from us during the genocide. We would also be trying to seek out Armenians living in Turkey today, which would prove to be difficult as even now the Turkish government uses fear tactics and other methods to slowly wash away any trace of Armenians that still exist.
Looking back at the Armenian border from Georgia was when it first hit me: I was going to be a part of the tiny percent of Armenians who were fortunate enough to cross the borders and explore what most today consider to be Western Armenia. Our trip through Georgia was short. We had a quick pit stop in Akhalkalak, where the village was predominantly Armenian. In fact the village was so Armenian that there was actually an Armenian church and also a statue of Mesrob Mashdots in the town center. We continued our journey to the Turkish border. The next seven days would fly by. Before I knew it, we had travelled through 13 different cities, seen some breathtaking sights, met some amazing people, heard some astonishing stories, and felt emotions that I cannot put into words. Our busses turned into tight-knit units that will surely last beyond the trip.
Having traveled through Ani, Gars, Van, Mush, Kharpert, Dersim, Tunceli, Erzerum, Ispir, Rize, Hopa, and Ardahan, I can say that each city had its own story and that each brought its own array of emotions, but a few places stuck out to me in particular. Arriving at the Ani ruins, for example, was very special for everybody on the trip. When first pulling up to the ruins and seeing the giant Turkish flag planted on top of the massive walls, I felt a little out of place. It was weird to hear our tour guide explain to us that in its heyday, Ani had a population of more than 100,000 people and that it was one of the most prominent cities at the time. Now we were walking in an open field that had a few churches remaining. It was tough to take in, harder to think knowing what could have been. The Armenian border was so close that I could literally pick up a rock and throw it over the fence that was separating the two countries. This was going to be a feeling that would surface many times over the next seven days.
One of my favorite sights of the entire trip was arriving in the city of Van and laying eyes on Vana leej for the first time. It was pure beauty. Mile after mile and it just wouldn’t end. Our bus kept driving along the crystal blue water and our group grew more and more impatient to jump in, but our ungers who planned the trip had set up a surprise excursion for us. As our bus came to a stop and we got out, our attention was called to stop looking at the water and turn our eyes towards the mountains. Up there was the Soorp Thomas Church. From our bus it looked like a tiny dot on top of one of the gigantic hills. An hour and a half later, and about 50 thorns stuck in my legs, we had made it up the backbreaking mountain. In front of us was the Soorp Thomas Church and according to our tour guide, we would be the first group this size to travel up in about 100 years.
As we checked out the church more closely, the second reoccurring theme of my trip was once again present: Everywhere we visited had traces of Armenians around. Whether it was a khatchkar in stone or Armenian writings on the walls, the proof was undeniable. What made the journey up the mountain just a little sweeter was the fact that we had taken an Armenian flag up with us. So for those 30 minutes or so that we spent up there, we were able to reignite some of the Armenian roots that Soorp Thomas once had. The view of Vana Lake from atop the sacred church was alone worth the struggle to reach the top, but now it was time to go back down and actually jump in. The water up close was just as we had imagined it from the car—warm and clear and the ultimate refreshment after a tiring day.
The next day we would travel to one of my favorite spots, the Sulukh Bridge in Mush. This is where the legendary Armenian Fedayi Kevork Chavush was wounded and eventually died during the course of battle. To actually see the locations that I have heard in stories and sung in revolutionary songs was surreal. Chavush is a legendary icon to every Armenian for his heroic battles for freedom against the Turkish and Kurdish opposition. Until this day, he is celebrated through his stories and songs and will be forever remembered as one of the greatest revolutionaries in Armenia’s rich history.
On the final day of our journey, we found ourselves in the city of Hopa. Our agenda was a very simple one: We would travel up the mountainous parts of the region to nosebleed altitudes to see a small village of Hamshentsi Armenians. We were able to visit three families on that day. We met the most memorable of those families during our final stop, when we met an old Armenian grandmother with her two daughters and grandchildren. They had Armenian roots and although the daughters and grandchildren didn’t have any real recollection of their Armenian heritage, the grandmother would eventually reconnect with her Armenian roots right in front of us. After sitting down in their patio and offering tea for 30 people–which showed how Armenians are always hospitable to other Armenians no matter where you go–one of the main organizers of our trip, U. Haygaz, began to talk to our Hemshentsi nene. After 30 minutes of warming up to her, plus a bit of pleading mixed with arguing, he was finally able to convince her to sing for us. As our group sat there focused solely on her song, I felt as comfortable as I had ever been during our trip. To see and hear with my own eyes and ears that Armenians still existed in these remote villages was a high unlike any other. And as happy as that family was to see all of us, I think they’re the ones who would be leaving us with their lasting impressions.
So as I looked out the window of the airplane heading back to Boston, there were a few things running through my head. The first and most important was the new perspective I had gained. Since I was a little boy, I was taught about the Armenian Genocide and the atrocities that had occurred. I was told about the 1.5 million Armenians that were slaughtered and the vast amounts of land that were taken from us. I was taught the importance of being Armenian and keeping my culture, language, and history alive. Although it is difficult for me as a 25-year-old living in the diaspora to really grasp what it genuinely means to lose 1.5 million brothers and sisters, what I am capable of doing today because of my trip to Western Armenia is to truly appreciate how important it is for us to remain strong in our fight for recognition and reparations.
To have been able to make a tangible connection with the land—walking through the streets, swimming in the water, hiking up the mountains, and even breathing the air—really brought me to the realization that we had been robbed of our most prestigious and scenic real estate. I kept thinking over and over how each place we visited was more beautiful than the place before, and what Armenia would be like today had these lands still been in our grasp.
This is where the motivation for our future generations is going to come from. We as Armenians have to start making it a point to place more value on the Western part of Armenia. And just like it is an obligation for every Armenian outside of Armenia to visit the Motherland, the Western part of Armenia should be no exception. I am so thankful to the AYF-YOARF for giving me the opportunity to represent the Eastern Region as a member of the AYF and ARF. I remember taking pictures of Mount Ararat from the Turkish side during our trip and quietly hoping that one day we would have Armenians living on both sides of the mountain. Although this is a dream that could take another 50-100 years to come true, now I know what my ancestors died for and what we as the current generation of Armenians continue to fight for.