09.01.2024Repats for Artsakh
Embrace Every Stone: The Artsakh Diary of Jenya Yengibaryan
Stories written by travel and new frontiers abound, but those that open the door to a whole new life are not common.
Having set a convenient price point on an online air ticket sales site, Zhenya Yengibaryan, as it would later turn out, made a choice not just another travel destination, but perhaps a subconscious choice into a completely new, unfamiliar, but homeland world of Armenianness.
"I was born in Moscow and grew up outside the Armenian community. My father passed away very early when I was very young, my grandfather died long before I was born, and my mother was not Armenian, she was from a family of Polish descendants. The first time I traveled to Armenia was in adulthood when my son was a student. It happened in 2014, I came for a few days as a tourist. I was interested in seeing the homeland of my ancestors, but no more - I had no other thoughts at that time. At the end of my vacation, I returned to Moscow, to my usual life. But gradually, I started to feel drawn to Armenia. Very soon I realized that this trip had turned everything in me upside down.... In 2015, I came to Armenia again, to the Lori region. It was of paramount importance for me to understand where my roots came from. But there was no one to ask - everyone had died long ago. I remember my mother once told me that my grandfather came from somewhere in the distant mountains. I knew that before he left for Moscow, he lived in the village of Gargar, I went to this village, found an old woman who remembered about him and confidently stated that he was an immigrant," Zhenya says.
"So my roots aren't from Lori? Then where are they from?" - After asking herself this question, Zhenya said goodbye to another Armenian vacation and returned to Russia.
Finding my place: traveling to my homeland
This time the farewell to Armenia was painful, she left in tears and worked hard to be able to return every chance she got. Then there were four sleepless nights during the April 2016 war, Artsakh, where she would first arrive only three months later.
In nine months, Zhenya came to Armenia four times and realized that when her son would graduate and become a professional in his field, she would move forever. But how to live these years with unbearable sadness...? And then her son said: "Mom, I'm an adult, I can handle everything myself, go, I want you to be happy!".
So, in August 2016, Zhenya got on a plane and with one backpack went on the most amazing, keeping in itself so much important and dear, a trip of a lifetime, without a return ticket.
"I came Home, although I had no relatives, no friends, and no accommodation here. I rented rooms and apartments, I found a job quite quickly - I was offered to write about Armenia in the local Russian-language press, I worked as an editor and proofreader, and eventually I made friends. I often traveled to Artsakh. I remember my first trip to Stepanakert: I sat down on "Pyatachok" for five minutes and ended up sitting for about an hour. It was as if the earth was pulling magnetically. I was supposed to leave after three days, but I couldn't, I left after six," says Zhenya.
In the following years, whenever possible, she came to Artsakh, wrote articles about the sights of the region and its people, and helped as a volunteer in charitable initiatives. In August 2020, as soon as it became possible to enter Artsakh with a negative coronavirus test, Zhenya went for two or three weeks. By then, she had already made it clear to herself that her roots led to the Shushi region.
She recalls: "I stayed in Shushi, at a friend's apartment, and collected materials for several articles - on domestic tourism, on a village development project, and on the importance of inclusive education. I was supposed to return to Yerevan in twenty days, and again I had this feeling that I couldn't, something was holding me back. I delayed my departure until the last minute.
The bus ticket to Yerevan was bought for September 28, but on September 27 the war started. That night Zhenya fell asleep in the morning and woke up an hour and a half later to strange, monstrously loud sounds. The phone rang and everything became clear: "War? - Yes..."
"I packed my bag, and went from Shushi to Stepanakert. I got a journalist accreditation at the Foreign Ministry - they said that journalists would be taken to the front to report on the war, but later it didn't happen. At first, I spent the night with a friend in a bomb shelter, then I came to the family of my new friends and they said to stay with us. So I spent almost the whole war with them, we became a family.
I was often offered to evacuate to Yerevan, but I was not going to do it. One day they told me: "Look how heavy the shelling is. Go away. We are here defending our homes, but why should you take unnecessary risks?" I took offense then. If I don't have a home in the literal sense, it doesn't mean that the land of my roots, where my ancestors' graves are, is not my home," Zhenya feels as if she is reliving those moments.
Life in a country that needs to be defended
This is how she spent almost the whole war in Artsakh. After November 9, the exodus became obvious to her, and in December she went to Artsakh to say goodbye. By that time, Artsakh residents, having believed Russia's promises and relying on Russian peacekeepers as guarantors of their security, began to return to their homes. Many of those who had lost their homes in Hadrut, Shushi and other settlements also returned, starting to build their lives from scratch, settling in and getting used to the new reality. She decided then that she needed to be in Artsakh until the end, whatever that end might be. "This land should be held with feet. Let there be plus two Armenian feet in Artsakh," Zhenya once wrote on Facebook.
After receiving an offer to publish in Artsakh Review, a new magazine designed for an external audience, Zhenya began to write about life in post-war Artsakh and the attachment of its residents to their land. "Of all the materials I wrote, the article about the village of Mkhitarashen and the large family of Ohanjanyans is the most dear to me. Mkhitarashen is located opposite Shushi, across the gorge. After the war the village was shelled very often, almost nobody came there, even ambulance refused to go there, but this family, among 80 Mkhitarashen residents, lived there, kept a strong farm, vegetable garden, cattle, poultry, repaired their shelled house, in summer they collected tut (mulberries), made vodka, brewed doshab. Despite the fact that the article, in general, was about Artsakh Tut, I wrote about people, about the history of Mkhitarashen: how people lived, why the neighboring village of Unot was deserted, how Azerbaijanis threw stones from Shushi on Armenians, how two children died because of this in the 1930s, about the white genocide against Armenians during the Soviet era, about the falsification of history, about Armenianophobia, about the bullying of the local population after the 44-day war - in short, why Artsakh cannot be part of Azerbaijan," Zhenya says in the present tense.
In her opinion, the thesis circulating recently that the conflict started in the late 1980s, and earlier Armenians and Azerbaijanis allegedly lived peacefully, soul to soul, is a distortion of the essence and an inadmissible lie. "Even if we do not delve into history and remember how Armenians lived in the NKAO in the relatively peaceful recent Soviet times, we understand that the entire policy of the Azerbaijani SSR was focused on the de-armamentization of Nagorno-Karabakh. Baku used administrative levers for this purpose, squeezed Armenians out of the region in every possible way, deliberately changed the composition of the population, actively settling Azerbaijanis in Stepanakert and other Armenian settlements. When you look at school photos of adult Artsakh residents, there is not a single Azerbaijani in the first grade, and in the last grade there are already several. For example, a large Azerbaijani family settled in Krkzhan, where the man did not work at all and admitted that the state paid them money just to live there. There was a policy of intentional worsening of the economic situation of Armenian peasant farms. By orders from Baku, lands were made unsuitable for farming, mulberry orchards were destroyed, silk mills were closed in order to deprive Armenians of their traditional occupations and earnings. For instance, in Berdadzor subdistrict of Shushi district, which was my grandfather's village, known since the 15th century, the peasants were ordered from above to change their occupation from cattle breeding to crop farming, which was a failed idea in the conditions of that area. So Yengibar village was deserted in the middle of the twentieth century together with neighboring villages. Although my grandfather, Gevorg Yengibaryan, and his brothers were forced to leave their home during the Shushi massacre. At that time, according to official data, up to 30 thousand people were killed in the region. And during the years of Soviet power Azerbaijan implemented anti-Armenian plans, which led to the extinction of his native village and a sharp decline in the indigenous Armenian population of the Shushi district. The policy of white genocide was carried out all over Nagorno-Karabakh, and this was the reason for repeated but unsuccessful appeals of Karabakh Armenians in search of justice to Moscow, and later, after the complete de-armenization of Nakhchivan, - the reason for the beginning of the Karabakh movement," Zhenya says.
Episodes of the past, filled with anger and pain, were replaced by a pleasant memory of how she tried to close the white spots in the history about her ancestors. The Supreme Powers (as Zhenya puts it) decided to arrange an unexpected meeting with a relative.
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