It is always a white Christmas in my part of Armenia. Last year there was a meter of snow on the ground for the Apostolic celebration of Christ’s birth on January 6, and the first flakes fell back in October. This year though the weather was gloriously warm and bright for the two weeks from December 25 to what I now call Christmas. My family and friends are worried of course. Without snow, will there be enough water to grow fruit and vegetables this spring and summer? I know this is a serious concern but I was glad to enjoy the beautiful weather we had for the New Year holiday.
Water supply is an enduring problem in this part of the world. My 16 year old friend Nane and her mother are bandbox beautiful, always immaculate and well groomed. Their village on the Nagorno-Karabakh border has no paved roads and mud tracks are enlivened by dung from horses and cows, often several inches deep. The village has no running water and so someone, usually Nane, has to brave the piles of ordure at least once a day to fill plastic containers with water from the spring. She lugs these home so the family can wash themselves, their dishes and clothes. There is always water heating in a pan. There is not much talk of drinking 2 liters of liquid a day. What you may see as a chore would be a luxury here.
Nane’s mom, a physics teacher in the local school, is very house-proud, as is everyone else who has hosted me in Armenia. Her New Year spread of fresh-killed pork, baked fish, roast chicken, salads, fruit (dried and fresh), nuts, bread, lavash and every variety of pastry was served on exquisite pink and white china. The table cloth was without spot or stain and the glasses– different sizes for juice, homemade wine and Armenian cognac– shone. I cannot imagine what work it takes to keep everything so lovely and clean.
On the next day we enjoyed another spread, equally lavish, equally beautiful, in a second village on the N-K border. Kornidzor suffered more casualties than any other Armenian town during the war in the early 1990s. Today, you can still see garage doors pock marked by shrapnel and bullet holes. My volunteer friend has been warned not to go hiking because of land mines. We stood in the graveyard and looked out over the buffer zone to the beautiful mountains of Artsakh, the local name for Karabakh. Soldiers — from both sides–die on this border every week.
Nina came with me to the first village. Knatsakh is where she was born and Nane’s family are relatives of hers. The turn of the year is a good time to reminisce and Nina told stories of her early life as we enjoyed fresh mint tea and walnuts wrapped in apricot resin– the original fruit roll-up. Nina clamped her lip and blinked fiercely a couple of times when she talked of an Azerbaijani doctor who had treated her father when he had heart trouble. ” He was a great friend to us. The whole family were” she said. “I would like to see those people again”. She looked at her hands curled helpless in her lap for she knows she will not have her wish. Azeri Muslims and Armenian Christians lived happily together in these border places until about 25 years ago. Ethnic war broke out as the Soviet Union collapsed. In addition to deaths and casualties on both sides many thousands of people were forced to flee the homes they loved. There are no Azeris in Armenia any more. And no Armenians jn Azerbaijan.
Ara remembers going to Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, when he was a little boy 30 years ago. ” it is not good that my children cannot travel there” he said. ” They meet no one different from themselves. Our country is too small” he shrugged.
A generation separates Nina and Ara but they once lived in the same house–a teachers’ house paid for by the Soviet government. Ara’s parents and Nina were teachers at the same village school. “Education was a priority in Soviet days” said Nina ” and teachers were well looked after. We could afford to eat. We could go on trips”. Ara tells the same story ” Now my mother works for $4 a day” he says ruefully. Take note Scotland and Catalonia: independence comes at a price.
Many Armenians Ara’s age and up still miss the Soviets, and that can be hard for Americans raised in the Cold War years to understand. Our walk around Kornidzor took us to a church built overlooking a gorge. The church is abandoned now and hasn’t been used as a place of worship for many years. In the time when Soviets forbade religious expression they commandeered all the churches. 30 years ago, in a stinging act of disrespect, the building was used to store grain. Now the Soviets are gone and the Azeris are gone. One of Armenia’s other borders (with Turkey) is closed–orders of President Erdogan. There is unrest to the South in Iran. In this lonely, lovely part of the Southern Caucasus the few Armenians who still live here must wonder what their future holds.