The Hidden Place of Artsakh

Srbuhi Vanyan in her living room in Stepanakert with her working sketches and some completed works

“Your whole life, you set goals, work hard, create, and then there’s a war and now the blockade, which create monumental challenges that require doing the near-impossible to overcome them,” explains radio host-turned aspiring guesthouse manager Srbuhi Vanyan in her living room in Stepanakert. “It’s like trying to wring wood from a stone,” she repeats a folk saying in Artsakh.

Vanyan, 43, is a trained journalist who had been working in local radio for many years until she and her husband decided to launch Min Taqun Tegh (A Hidden Place), hoping to turn their old house into a guest house for rental income. The Vanyans’ vision was to create an authentic experience for Artsakh visitors, a cozy place where visitors can discover for themselves the beauty of Artsakh and gems hidden from most of the world. It would also be a place where visitors experience the Vanyans’ artwork.

Srbuhi Vanyan at her unfinished guest house in Stepanakert

But the war of 2020 left the guest house unfinished.

Vanyan compares the beauty of Artsakh with a panoramic picture. After the war, Vanyan took up painting and created handmade and applied art in the form of eco bags, tablecloths and decorative pillows that feature the local dialect and folklore motifs, in an effort to preserve elements of national identity. “I like to paint everything that is related to Artsakh,” she says. Since tourists can’t visit Artsakh now, she wants her buyers, who may never have the chance to visit, to have a piece of hidden Artsakh with them, in their homes.

However, the ongoing six-month blockade of Artsakh has hindered the growth of her small business. Due to the closure of the only road connecting Artsakh to Armenia and to the rest of the world, she cannot bring raw materials from Armenia, and the items sold online cannot be delivered to the buyers.

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The endless queues are challenging for Vanyan as for almost everyone, but not only for getting necessary products. “We seem to have found ourselves at the lowest level of human needs. My customers are mostly women, who have higher needs such as being in the proximity of art, but today they have to think mainly about satisfying those basic needs,’’ says Vanyan.

The blockade has also been a personal challenge for Vanyan, because her family has been divided. Her husband is left without a job in Yerevan. Her elder daughter, who is studying in Yerevan, can’t return home either. 

Vanyan tries to take care of the family on both sides of the road. She is not afraid of these difficulties or the deprivation, because since the first war, they have survived many hardships.

“On the one hand, war hinders the opportunity to develop. On the other hand, it inspires creativity and resourcefulness,” she bitterly notes. “When I was a child, I cut my mother’s wedding dress and sewed a suit for myself. I sewed my brother’s torn shoes from an old school bag.”

After the war, Vanyan didn’t hesitate to return to Artsakh, a risky decision she admits may have been irrational: “Maybe we love this land too much.” But she also says that her dream and the collective desire of local Armenians is not something unusual—to continue one’s way of life, to simply exist. “I just want to have the opportunity to live together with my family, to create and move freely, but also to preserve our identity in our homeland, in our hidden place.” She wishes that this was not as seemingly impossible a task as wringing wood from a stone.

The blockade has had enormous consequences for Artsakh’s economy, which has not yet recovered from the 2020 war, putting it on the brink of a new crisis. 

In particular, the activity of the mining sector and large-scale agricultural activities have been completely suspended. The construction of roads, tens of kilometers of water lines, irrigation systems for thousands of hectares of land and housing for displaced people from the occupied territories have all come to a halt.

During the blockade, foreign trade turnover was disrupted as well. Only humanitarian cargo had been imported through the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Russian peacekeeping force, mainly food and medicine, which is only eight-percent of the volume of goods imported into Artsakh before the blockade. An average of more than 200 tons of commodities used to be exported from Artsakh per day (mainly mining, food and textile industry products, alcoholic beverages). Now, exports have completely halted and humanitarian aid is blocked in both directions.

According to the economic forecast, if the current situation remains unchanged, in 2023 the gross domestic product of Artsakh will decrease by more than 45-percent compared to the previous year.

As a result of all this, workers in all affected sectors face the threat of unemployment and many others have already lost their jobs. About 11,000 people have become unemployed, more than half of the employees in the private sector of the economy.

Siranush Sargsyan

Siranush Sargsyan

Siranush Sargsyan is a freelance journalist based in Stepanakert.

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