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Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Nagorno Karabakh, Armenian identity forever

    Suddenly, the world is following Nagorno Karabakh news again. This small land is only seen when soldiers and civilians die. And too many have died already. Too many young lives have been stolen defending their identity and existence. This time, it started with the killing and mutilation of two elderly villagers close to the Azeri borders. It comes after 22 years of ceasefire, and during a troubled period of history, while maps are loudly being revisited and reshaped at least in reports, where old dreams of annexation or independence sound feasible.

    I had the opportunity to visit Nagorno Karabakh and its capital Stepanakert, back in December 1996, as a reporter with MTV Lebanon news department, after the ceasefire with Azerbaijan. We were the first Arab TV and news team to set a foot there.

    I still remember the local visa we got in Yerevan, Capital of Armenia, to enter Nagorno Karabakh. A visa everybody smiled at, knowing it is only a formal procedure. And the long trip of over 14 hours in the Niva mini bus, with our translator, a Syrian-Armenian who moved to his motherland after the independence ; our guide a wonderful soul, history teacher with knowledge to fill an entire encyclopedia, and our lovely and funny driver.
    Fourteen hours trying to cross the only road that sometimes ends on cliffs, because it has been bombed. Several times we found ourselves waiting for the road to be rebuild bit by bit. A road leading to the mountain, up there, where clouds seem to stop and hold their breath. Majestic mountains, and small houses like a broken pearl necklace, small clothes hanging to dry outside, children running safely on deserted roads, giggling and curious to see what the car carries for them.

    Same Armenian local language and accent as Armenia, same tradition, same food, same hospitality as the one we got in Yerevan...with one little difference: here, you step back in time. You feel you're in the early 20th century. Everything takes you back in time: the houses, the streets, the cattle here and there, the colorless clothes like an old picture, the very small number of old Russian cars passing from time to time to break the persistent image of early century.

    Nagorno Karabakh declared president was Robert Kocharian, later to become the second Armenian president in 1998, considered our crew as his guests. We even had our breakfasts and dinners at the government's building. A surreal situation where one feels free to ask for more of the exquisite Armenian Cognac found everywhere on Armenian soil.

    The story of ongoing hurt in this land is due to a decision taken by Staline in 1921, with a pen and a map: he annexed Nagorno karabakh to Azerbaijan, with Armenia annexed to the U.S.S.R. little was the capacity to seek independence. That was until 1988 where massive demonstrations took place in Yerevan asking for recognition and regain of land. Clashes erupted, and lasted until an international ceasefire in 1994.
     Nagorno Karabakh was never an Azeri land. 94% of its residents are Armenian. Its culture, cuisine, history, purely Armenian. The churches, the rocks, the mountains, the cemeteries, all talk about their Armenian legacy.

    The war has left a big scar in the local culture. Thousands of young men and women have lost their lives, churches have been transformed into Azeri weapon arsenals in Chouchi for example, before they were regained again.
    The traditional Armenian Duduk became more melancholic, the Qamancha, or violin took another role on weekends: post-mortem concert in the cemetery for the young lost souls, by the only violin teacher at the local conservatory, as a life engagement and tribute.

    But these people are Armenians: they just dust away the rubles, pay tribute to their victims and martyrs, and rebuild their lives, homes and cult places, with a smile on their faces, and a stubborn will that no one can break. They rebuild Armenia or Karabakh over and over again if they must.

    Chouchi church is a loud example of Armenian spirit... A demolished church, and one old man. He left everything in Yerevan and decided to rebuild it with his bare hands. Soon his story became famous and many joined. I met him, and I know how the church was rebuild even better, and features today on most pictures of Nagorno Karabakh.

    This is Artsakh, Nagorno karabakh, the old DADIK, BABIK (grand-father and grand-mother) statue that sums it up : "We Are Our Mountains"...

 Here are some pictures of our unforgettable encounter with Nagorno Karabakh.

DADIK BABIK : "We are our mountains".

A man crying his son fallen in the battles of Nagorno Karabakh.
Rehabilitating Chouchi church in Nagorno Karabakh (1996).
The sad music of Qamancha (violin) in a silent walking concert at the local cemetery (Stepanakert).
That beautiful smile despite the constant threat (Mountains of Nagorno Karabakh)
Armenian child on the streets of Nagorno Karabakh.
Stepanakert-Nagorno Karabakh.

Among roses, rest young men and women fallen in battles.
Where time stops.
This Stepanakert conservatory teacher took a pledge, to visit the cemetery every Sunday, and play music for each martyr fallen in the battle.
Nagorno Karabakh.

Capturing faces of joy
Interviewing the president of self declared independent state of Nagorno Karabakh, Robert Kocharian
Our beautiful guide.

With Nagorno Karabakh president Robert Kocharian, later to become the second president of Armenia (1998)

Chouchi village. Where memory is only about war.

He left Yerevan, his home, his business, his need to rest at his age...and went to Nagorno Karabakh to rebuild Chouchi Church alone, but not for long. He have been joined by many.

Reporting from Chouchi church. Turned into an arsenal by Azeris. Rehabilitated in 1996 by Armenians.