Special to the Armenian Weekly
An Interview with Members of the ACAA Artsakh Fund
WATERTOWN, Mass. (A.W.)—Arajamugh village in southern Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabagh) is located about 25 miles south of Hadrut, in territories liberated by Artsakh Defense Forces. In 2004, some 11 years after the liberation of the area, the Tufenkian Foundation initiated the establishment of the village, working in conjunction with the Department of Refugees and Resettlement of the Artsakh Republic.
Four years ago, in 2013, the Armenian Cultural Association of America (ACAA) Artsakh Fund assumed responsibility for expanding the village.
The expansion’s first phase concluded earlier this year, on April 4, when hundreds of jubilant villagers, government officials, and guests gathered for the official village-expansion ribbon-cutting ceremony.
During these festive celebrations, the keys to six newly constructed homes were handed over to six families that had recently resettled in Arajamugh, and organizers announced their pledge to cover the expenses of the village’s school expansion and the building of a medical clinic.
Armenian Weekly Editor Rupen Janbazian had an opportunity to sit down with Artsakh Fund committee members Raffi Killian, Antranig Kasbarian, and Sebouh Hamakorzian to learn more about the project’s progress and to discuss the importance of building a village on the border.
Below is the interview in its entirety.
Rupen Janbazian: Hundreds gathered in early April to take part in the opening ceremony of the Arajamugh Village Expansion, during which the keys of six newly constructed homes were handed to six families. What can you tell us about the process of the resettlement of those six families and some of the associated challenges?
Raffi Killian: The process for resettler selection is very involved, to say the least, and it should be. There are several stakeholders involved, and their perspectives need to be taken into account. Stakeholders have included the Artsakh Fund, the Tufenkian Charitable Foundation, the Artsakh government (specifically the Department of Refugees and Resettlement (both nationally and locally), the current villagers, and of course the prospective resettlers.
Each stakeholder has a slightly different opinion and perspective, but ultimately we all share and strive toward the same goal: to select families that contribute to the welfare of the village by bringing certain trades and skills (teachers, farmers, mechanics, etc.), while prioritizing young and growing families so that the village continues to expand organically and its population has the desire to plant roots in Arajamugh for the long-term.
The challenges in selection are wide-ranging. First and foremost, it is not easy to find candidate families that fit the characteristics listed above, and, thankfully, Arajamugh is not the only housing development project in Artsakh, so we face “competitive” projects in a sense. Another challenge is coordinating and communicating effectively with the stakeholders throughout the process, particularly as we are dispersed across the globe.
R.J.: Why do border regions, such as Arajamugh, carry such strategic importance in terms of resettlement? Are there any risks associated with such larger-scale resettlement projects at a time when Azerbaijani troops continue to intensify the violence on the border?
Antranig Kasbarian: As we know, today’s Artsakh Republic includes Artsakh’s old Soviet borders—carved out by Joseph Stalin in 1923—as well as additional, liberated territories extending out in various directions. These liberated territories are strategically crucial as security zones: They maintain Azerbaijan’s distance from Artsakh’s main population centers; they secure Artsakh’s southern border with Iran; and they create an integral, territorial bond between Artsakh and Armenia. At the same time, many of these territories have a historically Armenian pedigree. This is not emphasized often enough: If you visit areas radiating out from the Lachin corridor, for example, you will find many cultural artifacts—ancient cemeteries, monasteries, villages—scattered or sedimented among the battle ruins, attesting to an indigenous, centuries-old presence of Armenians.
I would list at least three arguments to keeping the liberated territories. From a security standpoint, it gives the rest of Karabagh some room to breathe and some distance from Azerbaijan’s armed forces. Second, much of this territory is historically Armenian. Third, even according to Soviet norms, the 1988 NKAO [Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast] boundaries contain gray areas that are debatable. Other arguments are possible as well.
But arguments are not enough. If we truly intend to keep these lands, then we must bring them back to life. This means resettlement. This means economic development. This means integrating these border regions into Artsakh’s economic and administrative life. Such facts-on-the-ground can ensure that these lands are never negotiated away, at any price.
Are there risks associated with resettlement of these lands? Sure there are. Villages like Arajamugh are essentially outposts, found at the southern edge of Artsakh’s civilian presence and not very far from the line of contact (LoC). And yet, there are dozens of families waiting in line to live there. The same goes for areas in the northeast, near Talish, where the most severe fighting took place last year. Many Artsakhtsis remain unfazed, and they are prepared to live near potential combat zones. This speaks volumes, not only about their tenacity but also about their sense of rootedness in these lands.
R.J.: Artsakh’s high-level authorities—including the president and prime minister—as well as several activists, journalists, and Diasporan Armenian celebrities, including Serj Tankian, Atom Egoyan, Arsinee Khanjian, and Eric Nazarian ,were present at the opening ceremony. What was the local reaction to their presence, and how does their association with such projects help in your ongoing efforts?
R.K.: Let me answer the opposite question first: What was the reaction of the Diasporan Armenians to the opening ceremonies? Simply said, it was amazing. Those that came in official capacities (such as myself) or those who came as guests were genuinely awed by the local support and the extensive and wonderful hospitality that the villagers extended to their guests—children reciting poems and singing nationalistic songs, traditional Dhol-Zurna band, and a khorovadz picnic close to the Arax River bed.
I truly believed that guests took a cue from the locals, which, in turn, made for a very special day. In a sense, we each elevated each other. With that being said, it meant a tremendous amount that the likes of Serj Tankian, Atom Egoyan, Arsinee Khanjian, Eric Nazarian, as well as the high-ranking local authorities were in attendance. Arajamugh is a border town removed from the spotlight, and to have that level of attendance both in terms of numbers and stature certainly did not go unnoticed. In fact, it goes a long way in reassuring the community that they are top of mind and an important part of our collective initiative
R.J.: Antranig, last year, you said in an interview with the Armenian Weekly that the results of the first phase of the Arajamugh Village Expansion would be evaluated and that future directions of activity would be decided accordingly. Currently, the village features 24 houses and associated infrastructure, a school and town hall, a nearby pomegranate orchard, as well as nearly 115 inhabitants. How successful was the first phase, and what are some plans for the immediate future?
A.K.: The first phase was to build a new neighborhood in the village—essentially six new houses, plus associated infrastructure. From start to finish, the process took a year-and-a-half. Frankly, that was longer than expected, but in the end it was well worth the wait.
I view Phase One as a success from multiple standpoints: First and most obviously, we constructed six houses— sturdy, spacious, high-quality houses—thereby attracting many interested families, of which we chose six. Second, we learned a lot during this process: For instance, we learned about local construction practices, and how to navigate between local contractors, villagers, bureaucrats, and resettlement officials. Third, we selected a healthy mix of resettlers, including specialists who will improve the village’s functioning, young families from nearby areas, and even a former refugee family from Baku.
Moving forward, we have embarked on Phase Two, consisting of school expansion and the building of a new medical clinic. The school expansion has already begun, and per the authorities’ request we are aiming to complete our work by Sept. 1, when the school year begins. The clinic will be built during the fall/winter.
Up until this year, we have enjoyed the collaboration of the Tufenkian Foundation, which has worked in Arajamugh since its inception. Now, with experience under our belts, Artsakh Fund will hire a dedicated project manager to supervise our projects going forward. Our aim is several-fold. First, to build out the village until it eventually reaches 50 households. Second, to assist the village to become self-sustaining, through cultural, recreational, health-care, and other facilities, and also through economic development activities. Third, we would like to work more closely with the villagers themselves, instilling in them pride, creativity, and a drive to care for their surroundings. At the end of the day, we do not want repeatedly to inject life into this village; our greatest joy will be to see it take off, and for the inhabitants themselves gradually to assume responsibility for the village’s development.
R.J.: I understand you have recently undertaken a working visit to Artsakh. What issues did you tackle during your visit?
Sebouh Hamakorzian.: The main purpose of the visit was to create a local Artsakh Fund entity, registered as a charitable foundation in the Artsakh State Registry. This is the first step to gain local incorporation, which will enable us to transition from the Tufenkian Foundation to our own operation.
We met with the Artsakh Department of Refugees and Resettlement, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) Central Committee of Artsakh, as well as Tufenkian Foundation representatives. We visited the State Registrar a few times, began the processing of paperwork, and interviewed candidates for our director/project manager position. We also visited the village and met with the mayor, discussed our plans moving forward, and listened to their problems and suggestions. The most encouraging point worth mentioning was that the mayor and the villagers wanted workplaces to be created. While there, we also had the chance to monitor the progress of the school and clinic construction, toured the school and the classrooms, and joined the AYF interns who had come to help the village..
R.J.: What can you tell our readers about working with Artsakh’s authorities on a project such as this one? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of the public-private partnerships that emerge through this type of project?
A.K.: Overall, our working experience has been a positive one. At the macro-level, Artsakh’s authorities are keenly aware of their predicament—small, vulnerable, besieged, unrecognized—and thus tend to be welcoming and accommodating of outsiders who wish to support them. To be sure, there are bureaucratic hurdles to cross and cultural divides to bridge, but these problems tend to be more attenuated than, say, in Armenia or elsewhere in the former Soviet sphere.
Having said as much, our model is to work at arm’s length: i.e., to show respect for the authorities at all levels, but without becoming their “buddies” or playing Santa Claus, which can breed all sorts of bad habits. By playing things straight and remaining autonomous in our operations, we earn greater respect in the long run, as our local colleagues learn that we are serious about our work. Whether it is with Arajamugh’s village mayor, the Hadrut district administration, or the Department of Refugees and Resettlement, we are friendly but businesslike, and I believe this approach earns their appreciation in most cases.
Artsakh’s top officials—led by the President and Prime Minister—have in recent years been very supportive of the liberated territories in general, and of Arajamugh in particular. Whenever we have had a complaint or request—thankfully few so far—they have listened attentively, sought practical solutions, or referred us to the appropriate persons who can help. And when we performed our ribbon-cutting ceremonies last April—handing house keys to six new resettler families—the authorities gave us a rousing welcoming celebration. True, the presence of celebrities like Serj Tankian may have had something to do with it, but in any case the ceremony was an uplifting occasion, bringing together people from all walks of life.
R.J.: What are some ways the Diasporan Armenian community could get involved in the Arajamugh Village Expansion project?
S.H.: The Arajamugh project is mostly publicized among Eastern U.S. Armenian communities; however, any interest or involvement from elsewhere is highly appreciated. In my opinion, here are some ways that we can get involved:
The most common way is via monetary donations. We still need to build 25 houses to complete the village master plan and bring the project to completion.
Another way is through volunteer opportunities. Earlier this summer, the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) Eastern U.S. interns visited and cleaned the school’s front yard and backyard, watered the fruit trees, and played with the village kids. This type of involvement not only helps the school’s appearance but also increases the villagers’ morale; they feel appreciated and, most importantly, realize that they are not alone. In the future, there may also be opportunities to establish summer camps, similar to Camp Javakhk. Such camps could host kids from neighboring villages as well.
It’s important to team up with various Armenian organizations to help ensure a better future for Arajamugh. For example, teaming up with Hamazkayin to help the school’s library, or Homenetmen to organize a sports camp, or AYF to organize a summer camp.
We are also open to business proposals. There is a need to establish more orchards consisting of apricots, grapes, or other produce. The villagers can either sell the fruits to local companies that produce wine, dry fruits, jam, and juice, or establish factories to produce it themselves. This approach can provide employment to the villagers, either in the fields or in the factories.