- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
February 20, 2004

Starting Over: Expelled Armenians seek to re-create what they lost in Karabakh

Anichka (left) and Knarik and their granddaughter's granddaughter

Before emptying his glass of vodka, Yeghish Markosyan lifts his eyes to the sky and declares: “Hail to that white-beard! I can't see Him but He can see me and He has saved us to the seventh generation.”

Together with his clan of 22 people, 66-year-old Yeghish Markosyan, a refugee from Getashen, is one of the first immigrants of Karvatchar.

Karvatchar is the renamed former Azerbaijani town of Kelbajar located between Karabakh and Armenia . Conquered by Armenian military formations in April 1993, it is the region to the north of Kashatagh (Lachin) that separates the two Armenian states from each other.

In 1999, this territory of 2000 square kilometers was organized into the sixth region of Karabakh and has been repopulated with Armenians to link the two states. Renamed Shahumyan, the region now is home to refugees from Getashen and Shahumyan regions on the Plain of Karabakh, which is controlled by Azerbaijan .

“We left Getashen over there. When the wind blows we can smell it,” says Markosyan's middle son Chalo, 42, pointing in the direction of the snow-crowned Mrav Mountain . Shahumyan region and Getashen village lie behind the mountain.

In 1988, Getashen subregion with its neighboring villages declared itself part of Nagorno-Karabakh. After repelling several Azeri attacks in the spring of 1991, Armenians were forced out of Getashen by Russian tanks.

In those days Markosyan was a well-known local soldier and cattle-thief. Together with his sons, he stole hundreds of heads of cattle from Azeris, distributing some of the meat to soldiers and flying the rest to Yerevan by helicopter. He bought weapons with the money he earned from selling the meat.

People say Markosyan can see better at night than in the day time. He helped 230 people to escape the encirclement of Getashen at night, then, together with his three sons, continued to fight on the battlefield.

When he abandoned Getashen, he left 600 sheep and 60 cows. He set up a new home close to Lake Sevan in Aghberk, but the cold climate and warm memories of Getashen made him search for a milder location.

“I lived there for eight years but I felt there like an exile,” he says. So in 1999 the Markosyans became one of the first to settle in Karvatchar with 35 other families from Getashen and Shahumyan.

The most important advantage was that in Karvatchar they felt closer to Getashen. Says Chalo: “No matter how good my life is here, I miss Getashen. If I didn't miss it, would I come here from Aghberk and leave my farm and house?”

His father adds: “Our goal is to wait until the Turks (Azeris) make another mistake and then we will hit them from here and take our Getashen back.”

Markosyan's younger son Vanes, 37, tries to “revive” Getashen in Karvatchar by planting raspberry bushes. Raspberries were the main source of income in Getashen and former residents wistfully recall how they used to harvest tons of fruit twice a year and take them to Yerevan , Tbilisi and Baku .

During raspberry season, the poorest villager would earn so much money that he could buy a car. This year, Vanes will harvest 20-30 buckets of raspberry and next year more, but whatever he does he will never harvest as much as he did before.

Yeghish Markosyan and his wife Silva

Markosyan's one-year-old grandchild Malina is the youngest member of the family, the eldest his 84-year-old mother Anichka and 87-year-old mother-in-law Knarik. Anichka says: “It will never be as good here as in Getashen. Getashen is richer with its forests and gardens. And what is here? Only people who have cows can exist here.”

Markosyan's family has approximately 300 animals that they brought with them from Aghberk. Unlike Aghberk, here animals can graze in pastures all year round. Chalo says: “There we used to harvest 100 tons of grass to make hay for our animals in winter, here we harvest only five tons and even that remains untouched. We have nature and woods so you can live and enjoy the life.”

Not everybody in Karvatchar is so fortunate. Other migrants came here with no means and can hardly earn their bread. Chalo says: “There are people, who came here hoping to get land credit. They were starving while waiting for that credit and when they finally got it the only thing they could do was to cover their debts.

“We are the first residents here, we gave milk and sheep to newcomers so that they could live and exist.”

Karvatchar's former population was 42,000. Today, the ruins of the town contain approximately 500 people. The mayor, Zhora Grigoryan, recalls how he spent his first nights in a sleeping bag with his shoes placed under his head until he built himself a small shelter. In the entire region 14 settlements have been built.

“In the beginning there was no electricity and water. People were building only houses on these wrecks . Then a water pipeline was installed and a generator brought to provide electricity for three to four hours every day,” recalls Grigoryan.

He says there are 600 applications from people wishing to settle in Shahumyan region, but annually only 40 houses are built and it is impossible now to provide everyone with accommodation.

The new head of the regional administration Vasil Nalbandyan also has no house and lives in Markosyan's home. He is also from Getashen and commanded its defense during the conflict. After the war, he worked at Yerevan airport but grabbed the opportunity when he was offered this new post six months ago.

Nalbandyan paid a Moscow agency to record images of Getashen on a video tape so that he could see his old home. He says: “My parents are buried there. I really miss Getashen. I watch the tape to heal my sorrow but I feel sad. All the graves are vandalized.”

Residents say that Nalbandyan has been responsible for many improvements in Karvatchar. Six months ago people were sitting by the light of candles but the town and other settlements now have electricity. Cattle credit and other financial assistance is paid on time and new weekly bus routes connecting Karvatchar to Stepanakert and Vardenis have started functioning. A sports and culture center is under construction and a football club is being created.

However, there is still no telephone communication in the region and TV signals cannot be picked up.

“It's good that we cannot watch TV programs and that we don't know what's happening in the world. We know only one thing. We must protect this land,” says Vanes.

Ten schools and one village of the Shahumyn region were constructed with the help of donations from Armenian benefactors in the Diaspora. But nobody wants to risk investments in Shahumyan and Kashatagh (Lachin) regions because businessmen are not sure that they will remain part of Karabakh.

Nalbandyan has requested assistance from different sources, starting from school desks to equipment for milk and fruit processing. He says: “In spring it will become clear who will help us and to what extent they will help. If our rich people one time won't go to the casino then six production facilities could be launched here.”


(click on images for enlarged view)

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