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

Armenia: Perils of Frontline Farmers

Armenians have grown used to working their fields with assault rifles aimed over their heads.
By Gegham Vardanian
Arshaluis Arsenian is up and working at daybreak, opening the valve to send the water into the fields out beyond the front line. Armenian soldiers watch her from an observation post, although much of the water ends up nearer to the Azerbaijani troops whose front line is at the other end of the field.

“Ninety per cent of the village fields are situated beyond our posts. When the villagers go down to cultivate land, we send soldiers with them, because the enemy’s positions are so close that they could descend and capture a peasant working,” said the commander of the military detachment stationed in the village, Vachik Kroian.

Arsenian’s village of Khachik is situated on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border just a few kilometres from the Azerbaijani villages of Lower Yaychi and Upper Yaychi. The nearest Armenian villages are almost 30 km away.

Khachik residents have grown used to working with assault rifles aimed over their heads since the war over the province of Nagorny-Karabakh ended 13 years ago. After the fighting, the region was left in the hands of local ethnic Armenians, but no final resolution has been agreed.

Despite the two countries signing a truce in 1994, no peace deal has been forthcoming and sporadic shooting over the frontier is frequent. Tensions are permanently high, though there have been no casualties in this village since the end of the war.

The village’s fields mark the border between the two countries. Local residents walk across a small hill on the outskirts of the village and find themselves in an open field with the Azerbaijani province of Nakhichevan at the other end.

There was fighting and bombing here during the Karabakh war. Houses were destroyed in the village and there were deaths too.

“During the war, the Azerbaijanis somehow managed to reach our rear and one of them died in the fighting. It was haymaking time and our soldiers returned the corpse to them under the condition that they would not shoot for a week, enabling us to harvest the crops,” said Vachagan Poghosian, head of the village administration.

Shooting regularly mars the truce along the whole border, with both sides accusing each other of breaking the ceasefire.

“Violations of the ceasefire are not constant. The Azerbaijani side often disseminates misinformation. However, there are, of course, incidents. An Azerbaijani sniper killed two civilians in 2007,” said defence ministry spokesperson Seyran Shahsuvarian.

Khachik itself is lucky, however, no one has been killed or wounded since the truce was signed and villagers working in the fields said shooting was rare from either side.

“Nevertheless, we work in fear. Fear is inevitable. You never know what a stupid man will do. They could start shooting. You must not underestimate the enemy,” said Rafik Petrosian, as he worked in the fields.

“The soldiers are in the field with us, but what could they do if the Turks (this is how the Armenians traditionally call Azerbaijanis) attacked? They will just kill us and that is it,” he said.

And the villagers do not take any chances. They stay at home on days considered important by either side, not wanting to inflame emotions.

“When they have a holiday - Bayram or something like that - we do not go to the fields. No one works in the fields on days that are memorable for us - Independence Day or Genocide Day - either. Even if there is someone who would like to, the military will not allow them,” said one elderly peasant.

Khachik is cut off from other Armenian settlements. The closest village is 29 km away.

“If we do not cultivate our land, our peasants will find it very difficult to survive here. We live off agriculture and cattle-breeding. Not many people used to leave the village to earn money elsewhere before 2000. However, everyone that can is leaving the village now,” said village head Poghosian, echoing a common lament from local residents.

“The village is isolated and we cannot sell our products. You have to spend 4,000-5,000 drams (10-15 US dollars) to reach the closest village of Eghegnadzor. This is quite a sum and our income is very low as a result,” said Arsenian.

In summer months, young people like Volodya Mkrtchian, 25, work at a nearby quarry.

“The work is very hard and dangerous, but what is worse is that it’s part-time; it’s only four or five months a year,” he said.

He spends his free time with his friends watching television. He barely remembers the war, but he knows for sure that the people on the other side of the field are his enemies.

“We want peace to be able to cultivate our land. However, this does not mean that we are ready to establish relations with the Azerbaijanis. Tensions will be there until the scars disappear,” he said.

But Volodya’s mother, Seda, remembers how friendly they were with the neighbouring villages in Soviet times.

“They came here and brought their goods, stayed in our homes. We too went to them. We were on friendly terms. Therefore, if people ‘up there’ come to understand each other, ordinary people will get on with each other well too,” she said.

Gegham Vardanian is journalist and editor of Internews. He is also member of IWPR’s EU-funded Cross-Caucasus Journalism Network project.

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