How many times have you heard, “I love Yerevan. The people are warm. The city is very European, but if you want to experience all of Armenia, go to the villages.” When you connect with any of the hundreds of villages scattered through Armenia proper and Artsakh, we are reminded of both Armenia’s past, present and most importantly, its future. This is particularly true for a large segment of those villages—the ones that line the international borders with neighboring nations. As we have been reminded in the last few weeks, most of those borders are with nations hostile to Armenia. The most significant area that has improved in recent decades has been the former eastern border of Armenia with Azerbaijan. That border area was liberated (Kashatagh and Shahumyan) as the result of the Azeri war in the early 1990s, and these historic Armenian lands have become a part of the Republic of Artsakh. The “new” eastern border for Armenians is the so-called Line of Contact in the eastern provinces of Martakert, Martuni and Hadrut in Artsakh. This is “ground zero” for the Artsakh defense forces who resist Azeri ceasefire violations almost daily. The liberation of Artsakh has also expanded the common border with Iran in addition to the Syunik region. Fortunately, this continues to be a stable area where important commerce exists.
Over the last few weeks, the northeast section of Armenia in the Tavush region has been a conflict zone as Azeris continue to violate international law with unilateral attacks on Armenia’s sovereign border. The northern border of Armenia with Georgia remained peaceful as relations have improved. The western border of Armenia with Turkey (western Armenia) remains closed and guarded by Russian border guards under an earlier CIS agreement. Similar to how Armenians viewed Kashatagh and Shahumyan prior to 1991, it is frustrating for Armenians today to look across the Arax and Akhuryan Rivers to observe the Turkish occupation in progress. The southern border which includes the Ararat, Vayots Dzor and Syunik provinces with Nakhichevan (Azerbaijan) does not receive the visibility of other regions but has been a volatile region for decades. As a result of the Azeri war in the early 90s, there were some territorial changes as each side positioned for strategic heights. Sniper fire from the Azeris was a problem until the Armenian military took up positions and patrols in the hills bordering Nakhichevan. There have been reports of Turkish military support in this region as Nakhichevan shares a small border with Turkey in the Ararat mountain region wedged around Iranian territory. Both Turkey and Azerbaijan have announced war exercises in recent days in this region.
These borders are secured by two factors, both of which are essential to Armenia and Artsakh’s survival. They are the Armenian military which has developed into a professional force with significant capability and the civilian population inhabiting the border villages who are the heroes to whom we are all indebted. We have all observed the value of a strong Armenian military. In a region where Armenia has few true friends and is surrounded by the descendants of the authors of genocide, maintaining the ability to defend ourselves is essential to survival. It is a simple reality. Our hearts break every time a young man is lost, but we are comforted by the value of their sacrifice for those who continue. When you visit Armenia, it is quite evident that the citizens take pride in their military defenders and remember those who have sacrificed. These losses deepen the commitment of the civilian communities and the greater nation.
To illustrate the importance of the border communities, sometimes it is helpful to imagine life in their absence. The Azeris have a stated policy to intimidate and harass the border population of Tavush, Artsakh and the southern provinces where there is a common border. The intent is to destroy lives and livelihoods by forcing those who remain to leave and vacate the border regions. If this was to occur, the vacuum created would pose a major national security risk for Armenia. If the villages were to be abandoned, the result would be a military zone and an Azeri advantage. Their objective is to destroy life in Armenia. The first step would be the depopulation of sovereign territory, thus creating a de-facto shrinking of Armenia. The next step would be an increase in military incursions to increase their territorial advances. It would reverse the need for a “buffer” zone on Azeri territory to safeguard Armenian land. The “buffer” would be a zone in Tavush, Ararat, Vayots Dzor and Syunik. The population of Yerevan proper would increase as the border villages collapse. Armenia could become a virtual urban nation. It could alter Armenia to its very soul.
Fortunately, these two essential factors (military strength and border villages) are effective, but we must increase our involvement and continue to invest. During the last decade, I have been fortunate to have visited several of these border villages in the various geographies of Armenia and Artsakh. The Isahakyan village lies on the Turkish border across the Akhuryan River from the Kars region of occupied western Armenia. It is situated about halfway between Gyumri and the ruins of Ani. From the heights of this modest community they gaze every day on the stolen Armenian territory of Kars. The Armenian Educational Foundation (AEF) from Los Angeles has done incredible work to refurbish the primary and secondary school. In the northeast of Artsakh, our family visited several villages in the Martakert area. This region has been on the front lines of the conflict and has made important archeological discoveries (Tigranakerd). A few years ago we met with the humble patriots of Chambarak and the dynamic Father Aram of Berd. Chambarak has taken fire from the Azeris over the years and has worked diligently to build new schools and a hospital. North of there in the Berd villages is where the late Jack Medzorian and his wife Eva have conducted humanitarian and philanthropic work for decades. They are the role models for what Armenians from the diaspora can do. Their work has educated many on what is necessary and possible. It was our awareness of their work on site that inspired us to begin work with a village in the southern Nakhichevan border area. The resiliency of the people of Paruyr Sevak in the face of economic challenges and border tensions is remarkable. In this village, we have found many new friends who have enriched our lives.
These experiences have given me a heightened perspective on the importance of our border regions. We may all possess an intellectual understanding of their value but when you put faces to the names of the villages and witness their courage and commitment, it can change your life. Let’s be practical about this challenge. It is easy for us here in the comfort of the diaspora to encourage the local Armenians to stay in the villages with the security and economic problems. These folks are no different than any of us in that they want good schools for their children and a chance to live a decent quality of life. After decades of neglect during the Soviet days and the first decades of independence, we must continue to collectively invest in these villages to encourage sustainability. It suggests that we need to give to the Paros Foundation, COAF, Tufenkian Foundation and others who are committed to border village development. It also enables us to get directly involved in the educational and economic development of these regions.
When I am in Paruyr Sevak, I feel like I have a window into the soul of Armenia. As Diaspora Armenians, we have a rare opportunity to give something of value and receive something we will always cherish in return. There are hundreds of villages in need; education, employment and medical care are the top three challenges. We can contribute to any one of the foundations, but we can also visit and establish relationships with these wonderful people…to listen and find ways to make a difference. In return, we receive the eternal joy of knowing that lives have been changed including our own.
In the absence of all the conveniences that can cloud our behavior over time, I see a resiliency, value system and tenacity that inspires me. The first time I went to Armenia, I was influenced by some of the thinking in the diaspora that this is “eastern” Armenia, that the dialect is difficult, the food is different and well, it will be hard to connect. The reality was the exact opposite. When I went to the villages, I saw heroes, I saw humble courage, I saw warmth and I saw my grandparents. It cemented my identity to Armenia. From the personal experiences to the implications on national security, the border villages offer Armenians from the diaspora incredible options. It remains our responsibility to choose one that is a match. Your involvement will go beyond helping an impoverished area or even building new friendships. It will make a difference in the future for a secure Armenia. How many times can we say that we can experience the soul of Armenia?