Have you ever been to Artsakh? If yes, you probably remember the first village of small, cozy houses with red rooftops. That’s the border village of Aghavno, connecting Artsakh with Armenia. It’s one of the cradles of hope and revival located in the Lachin corridor (the tiny pass controlled by Russian peacekeepers to help Armenians living in Artsakh freely and safely travel to and from Armenia) where several hundred people defended their right to live and didn’t flee the village even when it was deprived of electricity, water and other utilities. To this day, there is no gas in Aghavno; residents use electricity and wood-fired ovens to heat their homes.
The village recently celebrated Palm Sunday (Tsaghkazard in Armenian). The celebration was organized by locals and members of an initiative known as Mshakutamet (literally translates to “close to the culture”). There was so much happiness and joy in this small village that I couldn’t resist sharing my experiences from the day.
Mshakutamet is an educational, cultural initiative founded in 2020 during the Artsakh War. Its goal is to spread Armenian culture, traditions and rich heritage especially in the border villages of Armenia and Artsakh. There are about 50 teachers, young and talented professionals who, by the way, are all volunteers. They started their initiative in Tavush and hosted classes in Eraskh. Now, they are at the “Gate of Artsakh’’—Aghavno. Young people from all over Armenia are giving classes on embroidery, reading, guitar, national songs and dances, piano, theater and the history of art to help raise a generation of patriots who know their history, culture and traditions and are able to stand strong on their motherland knowing the value of every inch of it.
During an inspiring conversation with the co-founders of Mshakutamet, we were introduced to three volunteers who moved to Aghavno to reveal the best in Aghavno’s school children and organize the event. Arusyak Mkrtchyan teaches piano, history of art and theatrical art. Naira Ter-Asatryan is a guitar coach who teaches national songs and dance. Shushan Babayan leads reading and embroidery classes.
“We are delighted to have this opportunity to teach the young generation as the village itself is amazing, and village children as always are very talented and very smart,” commented Mkrtchyan. “There was no fear before coming to Aghavno despite the fact that we are surrounded by the Azerbaijani army, and there is only a small corridor which connects Artsakh to Armenia.”
Ahead of the Lenten season, organizers celebrated Paregentan in the border village of Aygedzor in Tavush. “I think that we have taken a step away from our traditional values and traditional holidays,” said Mkrtchyan. “This is why it’s so important to bring them back to life and show our people how amazing they are.”
Mkrtchyan said a Palm Sunday celebration in Aghavno was a dream of a community member. “Tsaghkazard is children’s blessing day, and we wished to have a pastor and bless all the children living in Aghavno as there is a church, but there is no working pastor. Another main reason to celebrate Tsaghkazard in Aghavno was to keep an eye on the borderline villages and to make people living here feel that we care, that we are here for them. There were obviously difficulties while organizing this event, but the whole village and the mayor and even a young child supported us to make Tsaghkazard happen.”
Mkrtchyan is hoping more young people will join the mission Mshakutamet to spread Armenian culture throughout the homeland. “The Mshakutamet initiative has helped school children of Aghavno discover their inner talents, and they are really happy for this opportunity. We are planning to have classes in all borderline villages of Artsakh in future.”
Another outstanding participant and organizer of the celebration is Nina Shahverdyan from Stepanakert. She is an English language teacher working in Aghavno. She graduated from the American University of Armenia and moved to Aghavno to teach and inspire children with her own experience and bright personality.
‘’Villagers are happy to see this joy and all the people coming to Aghavno to celebrate Tsaghkazard here,” said Shahverdyan. “Mshakutamet is doing a great job here and bringing new colors to Aghavno’s everyday life. Children are happy to have them and spend quality time with them. They explore themselves from different angles, and in general every kind of activity in Aghavno is always welcomed by the mayor and the fearless habitants.”
There were many guests from Yerevan and other parts of Armenia and Artsakh, including Alison Tahmizian Meuse, a journalist who moved to Armenia from the US a year ago and believes in the protection of Armenian statehood. She commented, “Being here in Aghavno, I feel a great sense of purpose, determination and optimism, especially while seeing the activism and smiles of not only the kids, but young people and adults living in this community. It was wonderful to see many people come from Yerevan and Stepanakert and join them. I emphasize that every Armenian anywhere in the world should stand and speak loudly in support of the Republic of Artsakh.”
Children were seen playing Armenian games, dancing the Tamzara and Kochari and helping themselves to delicious food, including traditional Zhengyalov hats (bread with herbs) and homemade halva.
Hope and a firm claim to this land are keeping these brave people here despite all the obstacles that have occurred after the November 9 trilateral agreement between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia. Villagers in Aghavno exemplify once again that it’s the people living on the soil who decide their own fate, and only with their unconditional determination does a territory for someone else become a homeland for them.
Tsaghkazard in Aghavno was a declaration of people that they are here, and they continue to live and create. The whole world should recognize their natural right to live and their right to self-determination.