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Rebirth Armenia: This is our 'vrezh'

November 01, 2018

Stories

By Araxie Cass

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Rebirth Armenia: This is our 'vrezh'

In remembering, learning about, and visiting our ancient homeland of Western Armenia, Armenians are often struck with grief and a desire for revenge. Two diasporans from the U.S. began the quest for this revenge with a project, raising awareness of pressing issues and areas under threat in Armenia. They soon found themselves joining forces in a strong non-violent resistance movement, and have been traveling the regions of Tavush and Artsakh for three years, telling stories of strength and determination.  

In my lifetime of reading books, seeing movies, and hearing family stories, I thought I had felt all the sadness and anger that there was to feel about the Armenian Genocide. But it was nothing compared to seeing my family’s hometown of Kharberd.

“Old Harput,” as it is now called, is a small resort town outside the modern city of Elazig. It is an ironic destiny for the center of the “slaughterhouse province,” where Turkish soldiers marched Armenians from all over Turkey to burn them in churches and kill them in other horrific ways. The place was a dystopian amusement park where tourists walked on corpses, chatting and buying “Turkish” souvenir carpets and hats. I was sick with horror at how utterly destroyed our homeland was. The mountains were strip-mined, the rivers were sluggish and dirty, the towns were marred with military checkpoints and distorted historical placards.

I felt robbed. I wanted revenge, I wanted to fight back. In my frustration, my thoughts turned to modern Armenia. Now that I knew my original homeland was gone, could I truly find a new home there?

After a family vacation in 2015, my mom Anahit and I set out on a long journey to answer that question. With the seeds of an idea, we followed our instinct back to Armenia to see what stories it had to offer. Out of this journey came “Rebirth Armenia,” a writing and photography-based website, where we told the stories of Armenians like Aziz Tamoyan, the president of the worldwide Yazidi community; Manvel, the caretaker who has restored much of Khor Virap monastery with his own hands; and Helena Melkonyan, a trained filmmaker and passionate member of the “Ayo!” crowdfunding platform.

Helena told us that Ayo! had recently built a blast wall around the school in Aygepar village. Seeing our shocked faces, she opened her desk drawer and pulled out empty shells that she had found in the village, explaining that gunfire was a daily reality for villagers on Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan, part of a 25-year long terror campaign by the Azeri government. With a fire in her eyes, she told us how invested the villagers were in the project, and how kids even donated lunch money to the fund.

“Come see for yourselves,” she said. “Are you free the day after tomorrow? I can show you around.” The next thing we knew, we were on the dirt road to Aygepar. The mayor came out to greet us when we arrived. “You just missed the concert,” he said pointing up at the sky. I was confused until, with a sinking feeling, I realized that he was talking about the sound of gunfire.

Seeing the village of Aygepar and talking to people there, we came to understand that the violence of the Genocide had never really ended. Ethnic cleansing continued in Turkey and Azeri-controlled regions of Armenia throughout the twentieth century, eventually erupting into the violence of the Artsakh war. The war ended too, but violence continues today with the civilians shot on the border in Armenia, the soldiers killed on the border in Artsakh, the April War, and the constant threat of war in Artsakh. As long as this continues, we have no guarantee that a much larger war will not erupt and engulf us in a larger scale of destruction than we have seen before.

Sensing this urgency, our project shifted direction, and for the next three years, we traveled around Artsakh and the border region of Tavush. Initially, our goal was to raise awareness of the dire situation, but as we worked, we noticed a resistance movement rising from the rubble.

 

The resistance 

What was so stunning about spending time in these conflict zones was the wealth of positivity. There were heart-wrenching scenes of destruction: mothers who had lost husbands or sons, children with PTSD, and the hopelessness of families forced to leave because the shooting had rendered their fields unworkable.

What was shocking was to hear people in Tavush say, “We don’t hate the Azeri villagers on the other side. We know their government makes it hard for them, too.”

In Movses village, in sight of the Azeri border, we met the school’s assistant principal. She showed us the school bomb shelter, where they recently took cover from a plane. She then showed us the classroom where children receive military training so that they are ready to protect their families, in the event of an invasion.

As we entered the assembly hall, still set up for the end of school celebration, we asked her how the violence on the border affected the children.

“The gunfire makes it hard for them to concentrate. But after a day of shooting, they come back to school and work even harder to show Azerbaijan that they can never have an impact.”

 

 'Resistance' - Two students from Movses put on an impromptu performance of patriotic songs. (Photo: Kristine Anahit Cass)


I was awed. It’s a new phenomenon that people are actually responding to our project, and in the times when I wonder if anyone is reading my blog posts, it’s these kinds of things that keep me going. When someone tells you that gunfire can’t stop them in their work, it puts most other excuses to shame.

The positivity of people in these conflict zones extends beyond their words, but displays itself clearly in their passion, creativity, and hospitality. In Artsakh, we visited Togh Village, an up-and-coming cultural center and home to the Artsakh Wine Festival. We met Artur, a student at the local art school, where he learned various crafts, including playing the dhol, dancing, and acting. He decided to pursue acting seriously, earning a full scholarship to a prestigious, UNESCO-recognized theater school in Yerevan. He introduced us to his teacher, an actor in Stepanakert and the local cultural director responsible for organizing festivals and other events in the village, and his mother, who is now working at the village’s cultural center. He showed us around the art school, a beautiful, state-of-the-art facility, filled with even more beautiful art. The school was built with the efforts of Armenian diasporans and stands as a testament to the difference that Armenian hard work and collaboration can make.

 

Planting roots

The work that Artur, his family, and colleagues are doing is amazing, but what is even more so to me is the way I came to learn about it. Last year, in Artsakh, we took a “break” (if you do creative work, you know there are no breaks) to see some remote sites in the mountains. The friend whose guesthouse we were staying at set us up with Artur’s family, who have a pristine 1945 Jeep and an extra bedroom. We went hiking, his mom made us a fantastic dinner, and we stayed the night.

Over the next year, Artur and I became close friends, messaging back and forth, taxing my poor Armenian skills, and meeting up a few times when I was in Yerevan. Even before he introduced us to his art world this year, we had planned to visit him and his family. He will be conscripted into the army in January, and I know that I will listen anxiously for news from the border, and that he will be in my thoughts any time that I think the task ahead of me is too great.
'Roots' - Smiling with Artur and three generations of his family after our first visit. (Photo: Kristine Anahit Cass)


At the end of the day, even if/when we finish our work in Tavush and Artsakh, the friendships that we made will draw us back, year after year. And out of those friends will come more friends and more experiences; whenever I leave, I will leave a part of my life out in those mountains. Our journey may have started with a project, but our place in Armenia does not end with our work. I may never live in Armenia, but I will never leave forever. Even when I’m not physically there, I can open up my Facebook to see someone’s potato harvest, or squint at a message in Armenian until the squiggles turn into words.

And we aren’t the only people who’ve done this. During our travels, we met Armenians from Lebanon, Yerevan, Georgia, and Canada. Some were in Armenia to stay, and others were there just for a year or two, but all of us had taken a role in our communities, made lasting friendships, and established roots that would not be easily broken.

In Western Armenia, I came to see this resistance as a way of preventing the destruction that annihilated our ancestors from taking us again. It was an answer to the multitude of family members who were buried somewhere under the cafés in Kharberd. We have retaken our place in the nation that the Young Turks tried to obliterate. This is our vrezh (revenge).

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