August 08, 2022
Far Flung
Home Sweet Devastated Home

Rebuilding villages crushed by a crossroads war

By Alexis Halejian

Thirteen years after the war, the land here in Nagorno-Karabakh is still torn. Buildings are still broken, people are still lost and streets feel unrecognizable. It’s a post-war world still in cease-fire mode.

This independent region of the southern Caucasus is officially part of Azerbaijan, but populated mostly by Armenians who fought to secede, and have managed to establish an autonomous if devastated enclave.

A strategically important area, this region has long been flashpoint for empires — the Ottoman sultans and Russian czars fought over it. It also has the misfortune of lying along an oil transit route. And since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Azerbaijan and Armenia have fought over who should rule it.

From 1991 to 1994, Armenian and Azeri neighbors turned their backs on one another and waged war. The regional capital city of Stepanakert, and other residential areas like Shushi, saw massive air and artillery bombardment. Over 150 villages and towns were destroyed, 60 percent of all homes were ruined and the entire health care and education system collapsed.

Nearly 20 years later, this region is still in limbo, lacking internationally-recognized status.

By Western standards, people here have nothing.

Yet their spirit of giving is boundless.

We met a man who said he’d waited 15 years for his son to return home from war; a woman who couldn’t wait to share pears from her fruit trees; and young students glad to finally be able to attend school again.

We drove to the remote Norashen village of Karabakh in an old minibus, a journey along war-ravaged roads that was not easy, or necessarily safe. Luckily for us, the HALO Trust of the United Kingdom had recently deactivated many of the land mines that had been left on the ground for a decade.

After mud puddles, bumps, off-road detours and several stops to allow herds of sheep to pass, we arrived.

People had scattered during the war. The Armenian General Benevolent Union, the largest international Armenian NGO, headquartered in New York City, had built a school and a hospital nearby, in hopes that such essential institutions in one area would bring Karabakh’s people back to this land.

To an American, the school and hospital seemed to belong to colonial times.

But to the people of Norashen, these buildings represented their dreams for a new life.

As university students, we had to wonder: did our peers here even know what the Internet was? Cell phones? iPods? Facebook? Text messaging?

We looked at these people as if they were museum exhibits, or movie characters. We took pictures, and asked questions of dirty-clothed children playing on the streets, and tired mothers who stared into the distance as they held their babies.

We tried to grasp the reality that the people of Norashen might not know anything about the luxuries of modern technology, but were still satisfied with the life essentials they had.

And as we walked further into the village and met more and more people, these feelings grew clearer. Looking into their tired eyes, we saw that the wounds of war remained.

Yet some expressed hope.

One man, still dressed in camouflage, had been waiting for 15 years for his son to come home from war. His eyes, his clothes, and his dirty, unshaven face showed he was tired, and rapidly aging. Yet, he spoke energetically about the impending arrival of his son.

Neighborhood men were pitching in to try to cobble together a home for their anxious friend, so his boy would have a roof over his head.

This roof, held down by rocks, was made with metal scraps leftover from wartime explosions. But it was a roof.

And that was an improvement. The man was eager to share not only his story with us, but also the fruit he had grown with friends on the trees in his backyard. After his wife pressed pomegranates, nuts, peaches and pears into our hands, we learned that maybe the simple things in life meant the most. The spirit of generosity, no matter how big or small, can always put a smile on someone’s face.

Karabakh’s president, Bako Sahakyan, says rebuilding postwar family life is a huge priority for his government.

Artak Herikian, a young man from Norashen who now lives in Armenia’s capital city of Yerevan, recently told the New Jersey-based Armenian Reporter:

“It’s not because living conditions are good in Norashen that people return. It’s because people love their village, their home, just like I love and miss my home back there. Love for home keeps them there.”

Alexis Halejian is a writer and publicist in New York City. She visited the Nagorno-Karabakh region after studying journalism at Syracuse University?s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.

7 comments about “Home Sweet Devastated Home”

  1. Graham Simmons says:

    Nice story!

  2. Yerevan Intern Program Alumna Writes About Her Karabakh Experience « AGBU Blog says:

    [...] Summer Intern Program (YSIP) intern alumna Alexis Halejian wrote a very interesting article “Home Sweet Devastated Home” (with photo essay) for the latest edition of BIGWORLD, an online travel [...]

  3. Arpi Khatcherian says:

    Great article Alexis, you brought back the memories.

  4. Aris Sevag says:

    I enjoyed reading your article, Alexis, and look forward to future submissions.

  5. Carol Halebian says:

    Alexis, your personal account is beautifully written and very moving.
    Excellent explanation of the situation and great photos.

  6. Helene says:

    Nice to read something about a most forgotten region. But what is the use of the references to facebook, ipods etc. ? It’s obvious that in this context, people don’t give a damn about it… It’s as shame to necessarily adapt to the the “modern” westernized reader, to make such references to keep the reader interested. I feel your article is written like that from an outsider-US perspective… which I don’t like. And about looking at people as if they were museums exhibit it’s actually very sad to look at them that way and even more to write it down… Come on! And quoting you “Luckily for us, the HALO Trust of the United Kingdom had recently deactivated many of the land mines”
    => maybe it’s also luckily for the people there, not only for you!!!!

  7. Marc Fitch says:

    Helene- Alexis is an outsider bringing this story to us from a US perspective. She has every right to write the way she did and her photos brought me there without even getting on a plane. I am certainly interested in learning more about this region after this post. Thanks!

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