On a recent visit to Artsakh, Armenian Revolutionary Federation Eastern Region (ARF-ER) Central Committee member and Artsakh Fund Charitable Foundation director Sebouh Hatsakordzian met with the ARF Artsakh Central Committee to learn more about the situation in Artsakh, the work of the ARF in the region, the opening of the Hai Tahd office in Artsakh, to follow the progress of Artsakh Fund projects and plan for future initiatives. Hatsakordzian was accompanied by ARF-ER members Dzovinar Hatsakordzian (ANC-Michigan chair) and Samuel Bedrossian.
On the morning of September 27, 2020, clashes began along the Nagorno-Karabakh Line of Contact, which had been established in the aftermath of the First Nagorno-Karabakh War (1988–1994). This was the start of the second war in Artsakh that lasted for a month and two weeks and ended with a ceasefire agreement on November 10, 2020. As if the casualties were not enough, this agreement came to impose territorial changes over Artsakh and its people by obliging Artsakh to cede back all liberated territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan by December 1, 2020. A few days later, a delegation of five ER Central Committee (CC) members, including Sebouh Hatsakordzian, visited Artsakh to evaluate the situation and plan for projects that are necessary to help the people of Artsakh recover from the war.
The Armenian Weekly recently spoke with Hatsakordzian about conditions in the recovering region and the work being done to support the resilient people of Artsakh.
Tsoler Aghjian: What are the changes that you have noticed in the Lachin corridor and Artsakh after the 2020 war?
Sebouh Hatsakordzian: Based on the treasonous agreement that was signed on November 10, 2020, the Armenian side has the right to use a five-kilometer-wide corridor that connects Armenia to Artsakh (NKAO) border. This corridor passes through the old checkpoint on the Aghavno river – close to Ariavan village – and Berdzor/Lachin city on the road. The major change is Berdzor city, where the Armenian population was ordered to leave by the Armenian government, and now looks like an abandoned city. Less than 100 people live there with the presence of the Russian peacekeepers. The five-kilometer-wide corridor means that we cannot go north from Aghavno to visit Dzidzernavank for example, which is approximately 15 kilometers north, nor can we go south to Sanasar which was handed over to the enemy.
T.A.: What are the major post-war challenges that the people of Artsakh and the ARF Artsakh Central Committee are facing in Artsakh?
S.H.: There are many post-war challenges, a few of which are worth mentioning. Due to the loss of agricultural land, Artsakh might be facing food shortages or a rise in import product prices. The region is also experiencing a loss of natural resources like water, in addition to electricity, since most of the hydropower plants were built on surrendered territories.
The Artsakh CC is facing challenges with its displaced population. People from Hadrut, Shushi, parts of Martakert and Karvajar, who lost their homes and all their belongings, came to Stepanakert and surrounding villages, where permanent housing in or around the capital has been difficult to find. Employment is another major challenge; some families are moving to different parts of Armenia to find better accommodations for their families and children. Our challenge is to provide everything that helps the people of Artsakh stay in Artsakh, to create and prosper. We want to give them hope and remind them that we are here to support them.
T.A.: Can you talk about the progress of ACAA Artsakh Fund projects in Artsakh? And how were these projects affected by the 2020 war?
S.H.: The Artsakh Fund was established and registered in Stepanakert as a non-profit charitable organization in 2017. Back then, the projects were focused in Arajamugh village in the Jrakan region. The last project in the village was building a children’s playground. Once all the work was completed, villagers and ACAA representatives were preparing for an opening in early October 2020. Then, the war started, and within a week or two, we lost the village.
Another project that was affected was helping second and third-degree disabled and wounded soldiers/volunteers who needed help making their homes more accessible. We had seven applicants, however four of the applications were from the Shushi and Hadrut region. After the end of the war, five ARF-ER Central Committee members traveled to Armenia and Artsakh and were on the ground from early December 2020 until January 2021. We visited different villages and regions with ARF Artsakh CC representatives and Artsakh Fund directors to prioritize what was important at that moment and plan for new projects. Three priorities were identified at that time: helping the families of the martyred and wounded, helping the displaced families from Hadrut, Shushi and Karvajar to settle in different cities and villages, and helping renovate the school and the clinic of Ariavan village. These projects were all completed in the first half of the year. We supported 30 families of martyred soldiers and volunteers, 21 families of the wounded and 60 displaced families (totaling 273 people) with a monthly stipend. We also renovated the Ariavan school and clinic.
The ACAA Artsakh Fund also sponsored the Verelk program that was initiated by the ARF Bureau’s Youth Office and was held in Artsakh. All these projects total around 140,000 USD which was collected during and after the war from the Eastern Region, online, and with the participation of the AYF Western Region in the Ariavan school project.
During my last visit at the end of August, we spent a day in Ariavan whose mayor Andranik Chavushyan refused to leave after the 2020 war in Artsakh. Only nine families were living in the village in December of 2020. Now the village is housing 45 families, a total of 157 residents. With funds from the ACAA Artsakh Fund, the school and the medical clinic were renovated earlier this year. Now, the school has 55 students, 21 of whom are coming from Berdzor since Ariavan is home to the only school in the region. The medical clinic with a full-time doctor and a nurse is also very vital to the community, being the only functioning medical facility in the corridor. We saw firsthand how important the clinic was to the residents of Ariavan and neighboring villages when a young girl was brought from Berdzor needing medical assistance.
T.A.: How has the Verelk program influenced the lives of people living and working in Artsakh?
S.H.: The Verelk program was designed for aspiring young entrepreneurs and change-makers in Artsakh with a mission to accelerate the economic reconstruction at a local scale and ensure increased and sustainable living standards for the youth (18 – 35 year olds) in the aftermath of the war. Verelk is a capacity building, capital injection and capabilities monitoring hybrid business program created by the ARF Bureau Office of Youth Affairs to develop a set of complete skills and technical knowledge for entrepreneurs to start and scale their microbusiness to leverage the development of an entrepreneurial ecosystem in Artsakh. Some of the focused sectors of the program are mobile development; hospitality and tourism; sustainable and innovative agriculture; green energy; and food and beverage. The first two phases of the program were completed successfully. Graduates and grant recipients will be monitored and provided assistance for the next two years in phase 3. Due to the success of this program in Artsakh, the office decided to hold another one in the Syunik region of Armenia.
During this visit, we met with a small business owner, Tiruhi Gasparyan, who was one of the grant recipients of the Verelk ARF Youth Program. Gasparyan started her candle-making business with the help of the program. Now, she is making beautifully scented candles adorned with flowers from Artsakh that can be distributed as party favors for special occasions. Her hardship and personal loss during the 2020 Artsakh War did not hinder her will to create and move forward in her ancestral land.
T.A.: What kind of future projects do you think are needed to further revive Artsakh from the impacts of the war?
S.H.: After meeting with the Artsakh CC, we decided to extend help to the displaced families for another three months, restart the Wounded Soldiers project that was affected by the war and encourage new applicants for this year. There are a couple of other projects that are in the planning phase. These will total 85,000 USD. All these projects will be completed through the ACAA Artsakh Fund which is run by our staff in Stepanakert. Other future projects that we think are important for Artsakh are the sectors that were covered under the Verelk program. These sectors were handpicked and selected to reconnect Artsakh with the Diaspora as it was disrupted by the war and lack of tourism, as well as based on the needs and what we have left of Artsakh from an agricultural point of view. We in the Diaspora have to maintain and revive our connection to Artsakh. We have to visit as much as possible. It will help the economy and tourism, but the most important thing is the human interaction that will give hope and energize the people in Artsakh. Sectors like green energy or sustainable and innovative agriculture are very important, for example, as we have less land to cultivate. There are ideas to grow food in greenhouses vertically (vertical farming and hydroponic). Outsourcing or working with developers in Artsakh is another important sector that we began utilizing a year ago. We also visited the villages of Vank-Gantsasar, Dzaghgashad and Gaghardzi to meet local families and explore potential future ACAA Artsakh Fund projects.
T.A.: What would you conclude from your visit to post-war Artsakh?
S.H.: It was inspiring to see the work of ARF members from around the world who were in Artsakh, such as Zakar Keshishian, a Lebanese-Armenian, who for the first time in 29 years, was not able to go back to Shushi where he spent every summer teaching music to young children. But his determination and love for his students brought him to Stepanakert, where he found his students and revived his musical group “Varanta” which was ready to perform once again in Stepanakert earlier this month.
It was also inspiring to see the work of the ARF and sister organizations such as Hamazkayin. We met with Hamazkayin of Artsakh director Hermine Avagyan, who gave an overview of the Hamazkayin’s work in Artsakh after the war, specifically in the villages of Maghavuz, Gaghardzi, Ashan and Stepanakert, where Hamazkayin has established a variety of cultural and educational programs for the youth.
It is crucial to keep our ties to Artsakh and stand by our people during these uncertain times. Visiting Artsakh might be different than before, but we must make every effort to go and be with our brothers and sisters.