Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Armenia: Home From Home

Armenians who swapped villages – and countries - with an Azerbaijani community still have fond memories of their homes 16 years later.
By Narine Avetyan

Perched close to Armenia’s border with Georgia lies the small village of Dzyunashogh. It’s a lonely place, whipped by bitter winds and often cut off for weeks and months at a time when the one road leading to the outside world is flooded by heavy rains.

This harsh life is made more difficult for people here by the knowledge that Dzyunashogh is not their original home. In fact, the entire community used to live in Azerbaijan, in a village called Kerkenj in northwestern Azerbaijan.

At the end of the Eighties, as the conflict over Nagorny Karabakh began to unfold and relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan did a nosedive, these Armenian villagers began to realise they were going to have to get out of Azerbaijan, or be forced out.

At the time, large numbers of people of the “wrong” ethnicity were joining a two-way exodus from Azerbaijan and Armenia.

But instead of fleeing and getting dispersed along the way, the people Kerkenj sent a mission in early 1989 a mission to scout out a village in Armenia whose Azerbaijani inhabitants were in a similar predicament. They came to terms and hatched a fairly unique plan to swap villages. At the time, the village now called Dzyunashogh bore the Azerbaijani name Kzylshafak.

“They looked at our village of Kerkenj, and then I went with them to look at Kzylshafak. I had a look round and decided that it was suitable,” said Rafik Martirosyan, who said, at the time of his visit, the village looked like a good bet with numerous cattle and good land.

The deal was struck, but things looked rather less rosy than Martirosyan remembered when they arrived in their new home.

The Armenians of Kerkenj – a village of 220 homes to the conflict – say they were able to bring very little with them, while the Azerbaijanis of Kzylshafak took everything when they left. “Not a single head of cattle was left behind,” said Martirosyan.

Life has continued to be difficult to this day. Many of the Armenians remember the orchards and fields of their former home as a paradise on earth and complain of the harsh climate in Dzyunashogh. The name means “snow shine”, which the refugees say is fitting.

Most work as farmers, producing milk, meat, wool and eggs and doing a brisk trade across the Georgian border, exchanging their potatoes for fruit and nuts. Weather, however, takes its toll on the crops they produce, with 50-60 per cent sometimes falling victim to either drought or heavy rain.

There is only one telephone in the village, at the post office, though in the last couple of years villagers have been using a more accessible and reliable Georgian mobile telephone service to communicate.

Thirteen-year-old Aram told IWPR his school had not been repaired since Soviet days. He said the floors of the classrooms had missing boards, the holes covered by desks to avoid accidents. Oil heaters warm the classrooms, and teachers of Armenian language and literature, chemistry and biology are in short supply.

Though they came to this inhospitable climate so as to stay together as a community, lack of opportunities in the village means that anyone goes on to higher education seldom returns to Dzyunashogh.

An attempt by the villagers to instil a sense of community and preserve their lost heritage by giving Dzyunashogh the name of their native Kerkenj was unsuccessful. The authorities turned down the proposal because of the non-Armenian origin of the name.

In recent years, the village has had some new settlers, natives of Armenia such as Alvard, who came here from the neighbouring village of Metsavan.

“In Metsavan it would be impossible to have as many animals as here. There’s much more pastureland here,” he said.

There are barriers between the Armenians who were born here and those who came from Azerbaijan. They have different foods, customs and dialects of Armenian. People originally from Kerkenj prefer their sons to marry their old neighbours’ daughters rather than local Armenian girls.

Martirosyan says the Azerbaijanis now living in Kerkenj tell him they too are not entirely accepted. He’s heard that locals call them “Yeraz”, after an unreliable car that used to be made in Soviet Armenia, but now a pejorative shortening of “Yerevan Azerbaijanis”.

There has been contact between the two villages since they changed places, and the Azerbaijanis who once lived in Dzyunashogh/Kzylshafak have even been back to visit.

“It’s easy for them. They cross into Irganchai [in Georgia], and from there we escort them to the village, taking them over the border [into Armenia],” said villager Sashik Vardanyan. “They come to their village, have a look around, quench their nostalgia and go back again.”

However, none of the Armenians has yet been back to Azerbaijan. Martirosyan, now 79, has many close friends there who’ve offered to take him home again, but he has so far refused.

“Many people there know me, and what if something unpleasant happens?” he said, adding he does not want to endanger his Azerbaijani friends.

Instead, the villagers of Dzyunashogh maintain ties with their former home with the help of the Azerbaijanis living in the Georgian border village of Irganchai who pass on messages and requests.

“Last year, at our request, they took photographs of Kerkenj and our cemetery there, and sent them to us,” said Vardanyan, adding that in return they sent photos of Dzyunashogh.

Arsen Hakobyan, an expert on Armenian migrants from Azerbaijan, says many people seek to keep some contact with their place of origin. He said people often meet on neutral ground, such as in Russia, and exchange videos of their former homes. “They refresh their memories of their birthplace, and thus prevent the link with the places where they were born and lived from being broken,” he said.

Hakobyan’s research has shown that “compact relocations” like the one done by the villagers of Kerkenj happened in a few other cases. The residents of Chardahlu in Azerbaijan swapped with Zorakan in Armenia, for example. Armenians from Madrasa in Azerbaijan made plans for an exchange with Shidlu in the Armenia’s Ararat district, but these were foiled by the 1988 earthquake. The Madrasa residents eventually got together and founded a new village called Dprevan in the Aragots region.

“The exchange was usually decided at community level, and the role [played by officialdom] only ever went as high as district government heads,” said Hakobyan.

When they exchanged their land, Kerkenj and Kzylshafak signed an agreement promising to look after the graves they were forced to leave behind.

Though 16 years have now passed, that promise has been kept by both sides, and in Dzyunashogh, the Muslim cemetery is as well cared for as the nearby Armenian Christian burial ground.

In the Azerbaijani graveyard, tombstones covered in Arabic script sit alongside later Soviet-era ones with Cyrillic inscriptions and a picture of the deceased.

“Last year, several stones from the outer wall of the cemetery were dislodged,” 74-year-old villager Nazik Arutyunyan told IWPR. “The whole village got together and built the wall up again. And a portrait on one of the gravestones had fallen off, so the [village] chairman himself mixed the cement and stuck it back on again.

“If we don’t look after their graves, they’re not going to look after ours.”

Though returning home is a distant dream, Martirosyan knows where his first stop will be if he ever find his way back to Kerkenj, “The first thing I would do is to visit the graves of my family, and then I would go and look at the memorial that I put up with my own hands to the people of Kerkenj who died in the Second World War.”

Narine Avetyan is a journalist with the newspaper 168 Hours in Yerevan.

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