BY MARIA TITIZIAN
The 1994 ceasefire brought a tenuous end to the Karabakh War. Negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan have been ongoing for the past twenty years under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chaired by the United States, France and Russia. Periodic monitoring of the Line of Contact between Nagorno Karabakh and Azerbaijan are conducted by the OSCE Minsk Group. There have been countless violations of the ceasefire agreement on the Line of Contact and similarly, countless skirmishes and sniper fire on the state borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan, particularly in the northeastern marz of Tavush. In recent months, there has been an upsurge in Azerbaijani aggression. Azerbaijani military posts have been shooting at peaceful civilians in the frontier villages of Nerkin Karmiraghpyur, Aygepar, Movses, Chinari, Voskepar, Baghanis, etc. Several times, certain stretches of the highway in Tavush have been closed by the military to ensure the safety and protection of civilian vehicles which have come under Azerbaijani sniper fire. Within the larger picture of the current elevated tensions, there are human stories of misery and suffering but also of hope and determination. Here is the story of Tamar Tatik of Aygepar.
Her large, weathered hands grip the wire as she stretches her neck to talk to me. She is standing on the other side of a crudely made chicken coop; it appears to have been constructed as an afterthought, billowing out of her house through a side door and woven together out of wire and branches. As we speak, her chickens and roosters mill around her feet and drink cloudy water from a tin bowl that has been set down by the aging doorframe.
Her white hair is bundled up and covered by a purple headscarf, her fair skin which was once probably smooth and blemish free, now resembles the rough, mountainous landscape of her village, each line, each indentation representing some period from her life….and yet, she is stunningly beautiful at 84 years of age. There is an aura of warmth and love around her and she has eyes that change into crescent moons when she smiles. Her fingers are wrapped around the coop as we speak and she looks deeply into my eyes. “Who are you, sirelis,” she wants to know. I tell her I am a journalist, I have come to Aygepar to try and understand how they live, how they manage to navigate their lives under constant Azerbaijani sniper fire. She sighs heavily and says, “How do you think we live? Every day we live in fear.”
A few days earlier a 16 year-old girl from the village of Aygepar was shot and injured by an Azerbaijani attack as she sat in her room reading her Armenian literature textbook. She continues to be hospitalized in the city of Berd.
Tamar Tatik’s life story tumbles out. She tells me she came to Aygepar 57 years ago from the neighboring village of Movses. I ask her if she has children and grandchildren. “Ah,” she says, “I have so many grandchildren, I’ve lost count.” I ask her if they still live in the village. She tells me that all her children and grandchildren have left. I ask her where they are. She looks off into the distance and the radiant smile momentarily disappears. “They have left for that country, the name of which I do not want to say,” she says. I ask her timidly, “Russia?” She nods her head and for the first time I see a flash of sadness streak across her eyes.
She quickly changes the subject, and insists that I come in from the bone-chilling cold outside. I tell her I can’t, we have to work but she is adamant, she tells me she will light a fire and give us some bread to eat. “I don’t have much,” she says, “but we are a small nation, we take care of each other.” I want to go and sit by her hearth, and hold her hand, and ask her to tell me her life story, I want to take care of this woman who is a complete stranger to me and who probably wouldn’t accept my help. I feel my knees yielding to my uselessness and the weight of gravity pulling me down to the earth laden with the blood of generations of men and women who have fallen victim to its recurrent cruelty.
Aygepar has about 650 residents. There used to be several factories in the village and even an airport that served domestic travelers during the Soviet era. After Armenian independence, those factories were dismantled and the airport no longer operates. They are empty buildings, in ruins, no windows or doors or equipment that might have dried tobacco leaves or made red wine. It is industrial devastation at its absolute worst.
The village lies about 300 meters from the border with Azerbaijan. Adjacent to Aygepar is the Azerbaijani village of Alibeily. Armenian and Azerbaijani military posts are within a few dozen meters of each other. Because of the Azerbaijani’s geographically advantageous positions high up on the mountain, the Armenian village of Aygepar is literally in the palm of their snipers. They can shoot when they want and they do. Armenian soldiers fire back but homes and lives are at the whim of Azerbaijani armed forces. The villagers of Aygepar must confront the daily barrage of small and large caliber machine gun fire as they try and till their fields or attend to their cattle or as children walk to school.
I ask Tamar Tatik again about the daily gunfire from Azerbaijanis. She lives across from their military post on the mountain directly in front of her house. She tells me that during the war, her house was ruined by a grad missile but they rebuilt it. That was then, when it was wartime, but now during “peacetime” the incessant gunfire aimed at the villagers has been physically and psychologically crushing. The war in Aygepar and in many other frontier villages continues twenty years on.
We must go and meet with other villagers and the mayor, see the damage incurred by this continued Azerbaijani aggression but I don’t want to leave her side. I reluctantly bid her goodbye, promising to come back to see her again. I stretch my hands through the wires and branches of her chicken coop to hold her hand, which is rough with age and hard work, I am almost inclined to kiss her hand and tell her thank you for being, thank you for staying, thank you for allowing me into your grace. As I walk away, I wonder if Tamar Tatik will still be here with her radiant smile and kindness, waiting to greet me with her sparkling eyes…
We leave Aygepar behind with mixed feelings. We had spent only a few short hours there. We had walked along the unpaved streets, we had seen the dilapidated homes, we had walked into empty factories ripped apart by idleness, we had seen buildings damaged by gunfire, and we had stood in plain view of Azerbaijani military posts. And even though the villagers spoke of fear and uncertainty, of wanting peace, they also displayed a fiery determination to stay in their place of birth and protect their existence and their survival. They understood, better than any of us living in Yerevan or elsewhere that the safety and security and survival of border villages is critical for the safety and security of Armenia proper.
About 15 minutes into our drive back to Yerevan, the mayor of Aygepar called us to say that the Azerbaijanis had started firing again.