Report by “168 hours” news correspondent Narine Avetyan and photographer German Avagyan from the Dzyunashogh village of the Lori Marz in the 318th edition found on the Caucasian web site weekly of the Institute of War and Peace).
Armenians who have been forced to exchange their homes with Azeri communities due to certain circumstances still have good memories of the former residencies and neighbors after 16 years.
The small village of Dzyunashogh of the Lori Marz is located on the border of Armenia and Georgia. This is an isolated area, which is cut off from the rest of the world for weeks and months and the only road that ties the village is always flooded with rain. Life for the villagers gets harder due to the climate conditions and hardships; after all they are not used to living in the Dzyunashogh village. Almost all of the residents of the village used to live in the village of Kerkenj located in north-west Azerbaijan at the time. In the end of the 1980s, when the Karabagh conflict began and relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan turned from good to bad, these Armenian villagers realized that they either had to leave Azerbaijan or they would be deported.
It was then when many people of different nationalities got mixed up in the flow of emigrants going from Azerbaijan to Armenia and vice versa. But instead of escaping and mixing with others on the road, the population of Kerkenj sent a delegation to Armenia in 1989 in order to find a village where the Azeri lived. As a result of an agreement, they gave something in exchange for villages thanks to the initiative. At the time, the present day Dzyunashogh village was the Azeri village of Kzlshafak: “They saw our village of Kerkenj and I went to see their Kzlshafak village. I saw that it was suitable,” says Raffik Martirosyan. In his words, when he saw the village it was in good conditions; there were many animals and land. The agreement was made, but when they came to the village, it turned out that the village did not correspond to what Razmik had seen. Until the beginning of the conflict, there were 220 homes in Kerkenj. The villagers claim that they could not move many items to the new settlement; meanwhile the Azeri of Kzlshafak brought everything with them. “They did not leave one animal behind,” says Martirosyan.
The hardships continue to this day. Many of the Armenians remember their gardens and fields of the old village as a heavenly place and complain about the climatic conditions of Dzyunashogh village. The name of the village in Armenian means “snow sparkle” and, according to the villagers, it really is like that. The majority of villagers occupy themselves with cattle-raising; villagers produce meat, wool and eggs and do trade on the border of Georgia with the means of exchange. However, they don’t get 50-60% of their production due to the climate or the dryness, or floods. There is only one phone in the village-at the post office; although, during the past couple of years the villagers are using the more useful Georgian cellular phones.
Thirteen year old Arman told IWPR that the school’s village had not been remodeled ever since the Soviet era. According to him, there is not enough wood on the classroom floors and they close the holes with cardboard so that they can evade accidents. The classrooms are heated with oil heaters. There is a shortage of chemistry, biology, Armenian language and literature teachers. Despite the fact that the villagers changed their location due to the bad conditions in order to keep the community, people that have left the village to get a higher education don’t have any outlooks rarely come back to Dzyunashogh. The villagers were not able to change the name of Dzyunashogh to Kerkenj in order to maintain the lost inheritance. The authorities refused to change the name due to the non-Armenian origin.
Some people have settled in the village during the past couple of years. For example, Alvard, who was born in Armenia, moved to Dzyunashogh from the neighboring Metsavan. “It is impossible to keep as much cattle in Metsavan as here. There are more fields here,” he says.
There is a gap between the Armenians that were born in Armenia and the Armenians that have moved to Azerbaijan. They have different lifestyles, different customs, and talk in different dialects. People born in Kerkenj prefer their sons to get married to girls of old neighbors rather than the local girls.
Martirosyan says that at the present, the Azeri living in Kerkenj told him that they really don’t have any intimate contact with the Armenians. He has heard some local Azeri call the Armenian emigrants as “Yeraz”, the useless cars that were driven during the Soviet Armenia. Currently, that name is the nickname used by Azeri to describe the “Azeri from Yerevan”.
After the exchange, ties between two villages have remained and the former Azeri residents of Dzyunashogh and Kzlshafak even visit each other. “It is easy for them-they enter Irganchay (Georgia), and then we guide them to the village and help them pass the Armenian border,” says one of the villagers. “They come to their village, look around, remember the good old days and return.”
However, not one of the Armenians has visited Azerbaijan yet. 79-year old R. Martirosyan has many close friends who have proposed to help him cross the border, but he has always rejected the offers. “Many people know me there. What if something happens to me?” he says and states that he doesn’t want to endanger the lives of his Azeri friends. Instead, the Dzyunashogh villagers keep ties with their friends via the Georgian border village of Irganchay from where they send letters and wishes. “Last year, upon our request, they took photos of Kerkenj, the cemetery that we have here and sent it to us,” says E. Vartanyan who adds that they have sent the pictures of Dzyunashogh in their turn.
Arsen Hakobyan, who is a specialist in studies for Armenians that have emigrated to Azerbaijan, says that many try to keep in touch with the place where they were born. In his words, people often meet in the neutral zone, for example, like Russia and exchange video tapes taped in the former residencies. “They keep their memories of their birthplace alive and don’t let there be any gap between the former birthplace and residence,” he says.
Hakobyan’s studies have shown that there have been some cases of “compact moves” by Kerkenj villagers. There have been some moves from the Chardakhlu village of Azerbaijan and the Zorakan village of Armenia. The Armenians living in the Madrasa village of Azerbaijan had foreseen exchanging with the Shidlu village of Armenia’s Ararat Marz, but the 1988 earthquake ruined everything. Finally, the Madrasa population got together and founded the Dprevan village in the Aragatsotni Marz. “Exchanges were done on the community level and the regional authorities could play roles in extreme cases,” says Arsen Hakobyan.
After exchanging villages, Kerkenj and Kzlshafak agreed to keep the cemeteries which had to stay. Despite the passing of 16 years, both sides have kept their promises to this day and the Mohammedan cemetery has been preserved with care just like the Armenian Christian cemetery.
The Soviet era graves with Russian scripts and pictures of the deceased are located next to the tombstone with Arabic writings in the Azeri cemetery. “Some rocks had cracked on the outer wall of the cemetery,” said 74-year old Nazik Harutyunyan to IWPR, “the entire village rebuilt the wall through their efforts. A picture had fallen from one of the tombstones. The village head put the picture back up.” “If we don’t take care of their cemeteries, they will not take care of ours,” they say. Although returning home is just a dream, R. Martirosyan knows where he will go first if he ever goes back to Kerkenj. “I will first visit the graves of my relatives and then the monument dedicated to the Kerkenj villagers who took part in World War II, which I installed myself.”
P.S. Sometimes it is easy to get to the village of Irganchay of Georgia from Dzyunashogh without being in the border guards’ attention. Nothing can be seen from the border at night. Here, in Irganchay, it gets dark soon in the winter. It is already really dark at 7:00 p.m. If you are unfamiliar with the place, you can easily get lost and find yourself in the neighboring country. That is what happened with our group when we were moving from Dzyunashogh and found ourselves in the Turk populated Irganchay. Not only were there any signs on the roads, we also did not know the names of some villages on the road. We were not able to find out where Dzyunashogh was after entering two Armenian villages and after long searches, we suddenly found ourselves in the territory of the neighboring country. According to the villagers of Irganchay who had welcomed us “trespassers”, this happens many times in their village. It turned out that the hospitable Turk teacher, Jamal Yedigarov, was a friend of the head of Dzyunashogh village Avag Vartanyan. The Irganchay villagers have close ties with the villagers of Dzyunashogh. “Our village residents owe money to the head of the Dzyunashogh village,” said Jamal Yedigarov as he commented on the relations of both countries. Head of the Dzyunashogh village Avag Vartanyan was found dead in his own cattle-farm on November 9. Although police consider the event as suicide, however, both the residents of Dzyunashogh and Irganchay do not look at this as suicide. “The local police always blamed Avag for having intimate ties with the Turks,” say the relatives. Residents of Irganchay also mourned the loss of Avag. According to residents of Dzyunashogh, thanks to the head of the village Avag Vartanyan, they were able to establish ties with the residents of Irganchay and get information regarding their birthplace Kerkenj. “Avag missed Kerkenj a lot,’ says Avag’s wife Aida, “he even called the head of the Kerkenj village last year on New Years’ and asking him who had homes, who didn’t. He was asking the head of the village where he was talking from, what appeared in front of him and then I heard his voice cracking and tears in his eyes…”
We were invited to Jamal Yedigarov’s house just before the constitutional amendments referendum. One of the television networks in Baku was showing scenes of Yerevan during the Soviet era. “They say that the people are against the constitutional amendments,” Jamal translated for us. The next report was about a man with the last name of Arutyun had killed a Turk spy in Saratov and was being persecuted. Jamal also translated this with cold heartedness and rolled his head: “What did they do with us? What did they do with us…? Some people get the money they want and we are the ones that suffer.” After finding out about the death of the village head of Dzyunashogh, Jamal forgot about all the dangers and participated in his friend’s funeral. According to him, 20 people had come from Azerbaijan to participate in Avag’s funeral.