In 2019, my wife June and I took a vacation to Armenia. It was my first visit and June’s second. Why it took so long for me to go to Armenia is a story for another day.
I spent several months planning our trip, speaking to many people who had been to Armenia and creating a full itinerary. Our itinerary included many of the “go-to” sites that anyone visiting Armenia would enjoy. There was Garni Temple and Geghard Monastery. We ventured to Khor Virap and bravely descended into St. Gregory’s pit. We walked around Yerevan and attended a dance recital at the Opera House. It is easy to fall in love with the country, its culture and its people.
As we traveled, it seemed that Mount Ararat followed us wherever we went – a marvelous sight to behold. We filled our two weeks with the many wonders of Armenia but left time to squeeze in a trip to Artsakh. At the time, I was unaware of Artsakh’s history or importance. I knew there was a recent struggle but did not know much of the details. I wanted to go, because my wife and I had donated to the construction of the Armenian Relief Society’s (ARS) Soseh kindergarten in Stepanakert. Why not take a day to see Artsakh and, at the same time, visit the school?
The journey to Artsakh, while picturesque, is not for the faint of heart. The winding mountainous roads were like something out of a James Bond movie. At one point of the six-hour drive, there was no shoulder on the side of the road, and the only thing between us and a fall down the mountain was a few blades of grass. There was, however, one stretch of road that was bordered on one side by a 12-foot earthen berm. The berm was our only view for several miles. When I asked our driver why someone would block the beautiful view, he simply responded, “Snipers.”
We passed a checkpoint where our passports were reviewed. I think it helped that one of the border guards was also named Mangassarian. Once in Artsakh, remnants of its struggle were evident – destroyed army vehicles, bullet-riddled walls, walls lined with license plates from destroyed automobiles and memorials to fallen heroes.
Stepanakert was in a reconstruction phase. There were new buildings, parks and hotels. We ate at a beautiful modern restaurant. Weary from the journey, I declined the temptation to walk around town and explore everything that made it special. I don’t regret much in my life, but in light of what has happened to this piece of Armenia, I will always regret not spending every hour taking it all in. How is it possible that we would never be allowed to return?
After breakfast the next morning, we visited the kindergarten, an absolutely magical place in which we were so proud to have played a small part. We were in awe of everything from the color-coded lockers and beds to the pint-sized sinks and toilets. The children, a hundred or more strong, put on a hantes just for us – singing, dancing and reciting – that brought us to tears. We had to remind ourselves that they were just kindergarteners. After an hour of delightful performances, we excused ourselves with sincere thanks for their hospitality to make the long journey back to Yerevan.
On our way out, we passed through the entrance foyer. The major wall of the foyer was adorned with several “giving trees” including the names of all the donors. We saw names of friends from New Jersey, the Providence ARS, my uncle Ardash Aykanian, and, at the bottom of one of the trees, our mothers’ names: Elizabeth Mangassarian and Eugenia Megerdichian. We had forgotten that we made our donation in their names. It was priceless knowing that our mothers would forever be part of Artsakh, if not in body but in spirit. Tragically, this will no longer be the case. The school and its “giving trees” no doubt will share the fate of our churches and monuments in Artsakh at the hands of evil.
Who would have guessed that we will never be able to replay our one perfect day in this perfect place? I wish that we had stayed longer – much longer. We should have stayed until every dance was danced and every song was sung. We should have taken in everything and gathered more memories.
I have very few regrets in my life. Not staying in Artsakh for more than one day will always rank at the top.