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

Slow Demise of Karabakh Greeks

Can a tiny community survive to celebrate its third centenary?

Mehmana is a small village hidden in the wooden hills of the northern part of Nagorny Karabakh. There is an abundance of fruit orchards and the villagers store up dried fruits for the winter.

There are other villages like this, but Mehmana is remarkable for another reason – uniquely, in this overwhelmingly Armenian territory, it is still home to a small community of Greeks, who founded the village almost 300 hundred years ago.

However, this beautifully situated village is going through hard times, and many wonder whether it can survive.

At the moment, just 14 families live in the village, of mixed Armenian and Greek ethnicity. Almost all the inhabitants are elderly, and the young people can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Yelena Lavasidis, 86, is one of the last surviving Greeks. A war veteran with a number of Soviet-era medals, she was keen to demonstrate that she is in good health and that she can “thread a needle without spectacles”.

“My parents moved to Mehmana from Turkey at the beginning of the last century,” she said. “Then there were 25 families living in the village, mostly mixed Armenian and Greek.”

As a child, Yelena studied in Greek in the first three classes of primary school, then went to the next-door village of Kusapat to study in Armenian.

“We kept closely to our national customs,” she said. “We kept the religious traditions very carefully. My father Nikolaos Lavasidis was a priest and a very educated man. At home we followed a strict regime – everything had its place, you should never ever contradict an older person, or talk while eating.”

The village still has a big stone oven called a “katamaya” where housewives used to bake bread that stayed fresh for ten days.

Yelena’s husband, Avanes Arzumanian, an ethnic Armenian, is a well-known journalist in Karabakh. “The Greeks are welcoming, hospitable people,” he said. “They will always slaughter a calf or a bull for a guest. Armenians and Greeks have a lot of traditions, customs and holidays in common. One of them is an obligation to help the poor. On holidays, people who are better off send the poor bags of food or invite them to dine at their houses.”

One reason the Greeks were drawn to Mehmana in the 19th century was the precious metals in the hills around it. The mining of metals such as silver predated their arrival. In Soviet times, lead was extracted here – which contaminated the water supply and led to a high incidence of disease.

Another group of Greeks arrived in the village following the massacres of Armenians and Pontic Greeks in Anatolia in 1915-18.

Tragedy struck the people of Mehmana again during the Karabakh war of 1991-94 when the Mardakert region where the village is located suffered heavily from the fighting.

Mehmana passed from one side to the other and was virtually levelled to the ground. Most of the residents were forced to flee for their lives, and many landmines were left in the ground. Many ethnic Greeks left for Greece.

“Today there are 21 Armenian-Greek families registered as living in Nagorny Karabakh, although there are actually more Greeks than that in the republic” said Sofi Ivanidis, a representative of the Centre for Armenian-Greek Friendship.

Ivanidis said celebrations were planned to mark the forthcoming 300th anniversary of the founding of the village, and they hoped to invite guests from abroad.

The Greeks of Mehmana used to maintain contacts with Greece and receive aid consignments from there. Now that has practically come to a halt.

A small humanitarian aid shipment from Greece provided the village with its only tractor several years ago, but it was blown up on a mine and now the villagers are forced to work their fields by hand. Two years ago an Australian Greek, Nick Dallas, a manager in the book trade, visited Mehmana and promised to organise charitable donations to the village. But locals say they are getting virtually no aid.

The Karabakh government has offered modest help. Just six houses have been built here since the end of the war. Telephone, radio and television connections are poor, there are problems with the water supply and the road is in poor condition. Residents say that in winter it is practically impossible for them to leave the village.

One non-government organisation in Stepanakert, the Society for Cultural Links with Foreign Countries, is trying to organise help for the beleaguered village. Its co-chairman Irina Agajanian is arranging cultural events such as concerts and wants to collect money for Mehmana.

“We are trying to unite around the idea of getting help from Greeks and Armenians from different countries in the world,” she said.

Time is running out for this quiet isolated village where so few young people are left, and there is a danger that this unique Greek community will cease to exist.

Ashot Beglarian is a freelance journalist and regular IWPR contributor in Nagorny Karabakh.

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