There are two reasons why you would go to Artsakh:
#1 You have never been to Artsakh
#2 You have been to Artsakh
First, before coming to Armenia through Birthright, I thought that would already be the ultimate challenge to do. I came with the aim to learn Armenian, the language I never had the chance to learn. I planned to dive into Armenian culture as deep as possible. Why Artsakh? I felt like I was predestined to move to Artsakh (– not even to mention that my birthday and Artsakh’s independence day fall on the same day). I arrived in Armenia just 3 days before the scheduled excursion to Artsakh. I had never been to Artsakh before, but I immediately felt connected to the people’s fate of not knowing what tomorrow will be – as my family escaped from foreign rule in Sasun/modern Turkey. That is why I decided to move to Artsakh. It had been the first stage of my “Journey of self-discovery” as it can be read on the Birthright sweater – and it had to be the last.
Artsakh is one of the most sensitive issues affecting directly our people’s future. The people in Artsakh have known oppression and still do through the continuing uncertainty at the ceasefire line of contact with Azerbaijan. I got to know Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, this unrecognized lovely part of ancient Armenia. And I fell in love with it. With the people’s strong spirit and the green mountains. During my volunteership in Yerevan, a huge part of me was longing for that borderline experience outside of Yerevan. My mother always refers to me as “nomad”, as I keep moving from one place to another. So once again, I decided to follow the guiding light that was piercing through my mind and leading me back to Artsakh.
Once I arrived in Stepanakert, I didn’t need any time to get used to life over there. The Artsakhians/Karabakhtsis never give you the feeling that you are a stranger. On the contrary, that is something that I learned from the very start of my volunteership in Artsakh: As long as you engage for the Armenian people, you are one part of the whole. I felt home. I enjoyed so many conversations with the locals and I improved my Armenian.
I worked with The HALO Trust in Stepanakert and with Shogh Kentron in Shushi. I am grateful for this eye opening experience.
The HALO Trust is clearing Nagorno Karabakh from landmines and still has to raise awareness about the need to take action. As long as these hidden dangers are still spread all over the country, they will hamper agriculture – thus economic growth. The HALO Trust enabled me the closest insight into demining activities and I got the opportunity to visit some minefields. I got the chance to work with locals who introduced us with great joy to life in Artsakh and to their “Karabakhi Barbar” – their particular dialect. We drove out for case studies. This way I encountered various places in the different regions from Martakert to Martuni, Askeran and Hadrut. These road trips aroused my interest for Artsakhian history. The scars of the past are still marking the freedom fighters’ battlefields and taught me a lot about life and hope. Every family we talked to in the villages such as Medz Tagher, Gishi or Chldran could name us some casualties caused by landmines. These modest people can’t even let their children play outside without fearing dangers deriving from explosive ordnances. Even two and a half decades after the liberation of Artsakh. “Safe steps for the people of Karabakh”. That is something that everybody can contribute to by supporting the only organization, that is clearing the civilians’ lands from mines. “One Armenia” contacted me and asked me to guestwrite for them about my experience with HALO. I accepted and hope to do my share for sensibilising my comrades for this way too underestimated danger caused by uncleared minefields.
When I worked in HALO’s “classroom” – the presentation room that the other volunteer and I rearranged – a minefield-team-leader-training happened to take place for a few days. The team leaders proved to be as helpful and courteous as all the people I got to know in Artsakh.
Interaction with the people became one of my main hobbies during my stay. “Artsakh is the most peaceful place in the world”, a local said, “if only there was no war.”
Already during my first week, I witnessed two special happenings. First of all, the long-awaited referendum took place, which finally lead to the name change from “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic” to “Artsakh Republic”. The second incident was less cheering: A new conflict escalated at the line of contact. It wasn’t anything unexpected, but you could feel the tension. When I heard the news from my host dad, I was worried. Not for me, but for the people’s security and for their sons and husbands at the border. My host dad misinterpreted my concerns as personal fears and cheered me up with funny stories. “The people of Karabakh are crazy” he said with an amused smile. Then he told me about the April War last year and how he was travelling through the affected region during that time. “I went to a Café not too far from the line of contact and the men were gathered around a table and discussing an issue. I asked them ‘What can be so important right now?’. One of them explained me, he considers buying a tractor right now. Because last time in the nineties, when the Army regained some territories, he wasn’t prepared to cultivate new land as a farmer.” . Instead the prices for tractors increased. That’s Artsakhian mentality, that is Artsakh: “Mi anhangstatsir” they say. Don’t worry. No matter if you talk to a farmer in Tigranakert, a seller in Stepanakert or a child in Shushi – “Menk chenk vakhenum” they say. We are not afraid. They are in good spirit. Threat and death have become daily companions in that mountainous region.
Apart from my lifechanging experience with The HALO Trust, the Shogh Kentron (children’s center) allowed me to see life in Artsakh literally through the eyes of a child. I was supposed to teach eight to ten-year-old kids in English and French. The first day I arrived, my co-workers welcomed me warmly. My supervisor warned me not to expect too much from the children. “Tchar en”, she said. It was true that they were very wild and noisy, but I loved them from the start, because all of them had a story that rested on their young shoulders. In Shushi poverty is still a widespread problem. When two of my rebellious little friends started a fight, they had to interrupt it in regular intervals. Not because they needed to rest, but because their pants fell down: They didn’t fit. This may sound funny first, but that realization hit me hard. During the break I proposed them to draw them their favorite animals. This way I could distract them, as they were always keen on a rumble. I’ve seen so much maturity in them. Their lives are tough but there is no such thing as despair in their eyes. I finally found what I was looking for: I gained local experiences and I felt needed. More than that, I felt the urge to do more.
I leave Artsakh with my head and heart full of impressions. The people’s spirit and longing for peace is contagious. The news from abroad are so deceiving. I would never have thought to find peace in Artsakh. With peace in their mind the people are tormented by the war. That is something that you can only understand if you go to Artsakh. Living there makes you understand that nobody wants to fight. All they want is to defend their families from invasions. They want to live on their homeland, our homeland and to preserve our cultural heritage, originating from ancient times. I can only leave Artsakh with the promise to come back. This sea of green mountains, singing mountains hugging you from every side. With a humble and believing people that would never give in.
I owe a great debt of gratitude to Birthright Armenia, operating as a good advisor and giving Armenians all over the world the opportunity to discover Armenia. We are all carrying the seed of Armenia in our souls and thanks to Birthright we can make it grow. Thus, building an everlasting bridge to our homeland that will make us come home again and again.