Dzyunashogh: Broken Memories of Azerbaijan

Author: Nazik Armenakyan

The road to Dzyunashogh is long and rough. The aging memories of the inhabitants of this remote village, nestled in the mountains between Armenia and Georgia, are like these wrinkled roads -- they tell you that there is no easyway back.

Thirty years ago, Dzyunashogh was inhabited by ethnic Azerbaijanis, who called the hamlet Qizil Shafaq or “Red Dawn.” But in the late 1980s, with tensions building between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region of Nagorno Karabakh, the villagers opted to exchange their houses with those of ethnic Armenians living in the village of Kerkenj in Azerbaijan, about 540 kilometers away.  

The February 1988 massacre of ethnic Armenians in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgayit first sparked the idea of leaving Azerbaijan, says one former Kerkenj villager.

“One day when we were at work, one of the Azerbaijanis came and said that we should leave the village,” says 63-year-old Sashik Vardanyan. “We couldn’t believe it. Everything started after Sumgayit.”

Sashik Vardanyan, 63, used to be a mason in Kerkenj. Now, he’s a farmer in Dzyunashogh. Every morning and evening, he visits his barn to water and feed his cattle.

“The houses of this village were new. Some of them even had only walls covered with plaster,” remembers 56-year old Sofia Grigoryan, who moved to Dzyunashogh from Kerkenj in 1989. The village today contains many empty houses once inhabited by ethnic Armenians from Baku who could not adapt to village life and moved elsewhere, she says.

“We didn’t have much cattle in Kerkenj; maybe a cow per family just as a source for dairy products,” remembers Sonia Vardanyan. “We would grow grapes on our farms . . . we had huge vineyards.” She expressed concern about the vineyards’ condition today.

Grapes in this staircase and metalwork are reminiscent of the vineyards the villagers once had in Azerbaijan. “Our parents would work all year around and we would send the grapes to Moscow,” Sonia Vardanya says. “The village also had a wine factory and we would surpass the [state-mandated production] plan all the time as we produced too much wine.”

“The Azerbaijanis had built big houses here,” says Sonia Vardanyan. “They visited our village and liked it. It was a rich village. [When] [w]e came to this village, some of us liked it, others didn’t because of the cold climate."

In Kerkenj, after the 1988 Sumgayit attacks, “[t]he men of the village stood on the border of the village to keep watch on everything,” remembers Sashik Vardanyan. “And the women were waiting in the houses, ready to leave at any moment . . . this continued for several months.”

In this photo, Sashik Vardanyan’s grandfather, Yengibar, and his grandfather’s sister are shown around 1920. “There were five children in our family. We had happy lives. We would never think that one day we might have to leave our village,” Vardanyan says.

The goal was to keep the village together. An informal committee began to seek potential sites in Armenia for a new home. Hopes focused first on Armenia’s Ararat Valley, a rich agricultural plain lying beneath Mount Ararat, a cultural icon for Armenians. But displaced Armenians from Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, already had filled the villages there.

Qizil Shafaq (Dzyunashogh), about 52 kilometres north of Armenia’s third largest town, Vanadzor, was available, however. Its ethnic Azerbaijani residents had the same desire as the villagers from Kerkenj – to stay together and live in peace.

The committee proposed residences in the Armenian-based village for each of Kerkenj’s 250-some households according to family size, remembers Vardanyan’s wife, Sonia, 58. The individual families then came up with their own agreements, with many families driving to Qizil Shafaq for direct talks with the Azerbaijani villagers.  

For both sides, the priority was to make sure that the newcomers would protect their graveyards –  in both cultures, showing respect for the dead is a matter of deep importance and a question of honor.

The two villages pledged to preserve each other’s graveyards as a collective responsibility, taken on trust.

“Till this day, we’ve been taking care of the cemeteries and explaining to our children that they, too, should look after them,” says Sashik Vardanyan.

A cemetery for the Armenian villagers now lies next to the cemetery the ethnic Azerbaijani villagers left behind.

The exchange of the villages went ahead peacefully between May and August of 1989. Neither the government nor the then ruling Communist Party played any role in the exchange or expressed an interest, villagers say.

“The first time I came to Armenia was in 1972 to study various crafts in Agarak’s vocational school in the region of Meghri,” says Sashik Vardanyan. “I used to be a stonemason in Kerkenj. I would carve tombstones for Armenians and Azerbaijanis.”

An abandoned house in Dzyunashogh now provides storage for hay.

As a young girl, Sonia Vardanyan, shown here feeding her chickens, worked for a few years as a children’s seamstress in a Baku garment factory.

Sonia Vardanyan says she makes cheese “like I would in Kerkenj” – with the use of a lot of cream. “We would also make cabbage dolma with quince and dried apricots. Here, they don’t do it that way.

The earth around Dzyunashogh -- more suited for grazing -- differs strongly from that of Kerkenj, which Sashik Vardanyan remembers as highly fertile. Unable to plant their traditional vineyards here, Armenian migrants at first found it difficult to adapt to herding cattle and growing potatoes and barley.

With cars in short supply, trading the villages was no small task. Often ethnic Azerbaijani villagers would drive to Kerkenj in the same borrowed car that had brought the Kerkenj villagers to Armenia, some villagers say.

In the case of Sonia Vardanyan’s family, a young man from Kerkenj who already had moved to Armenia drove back into Azerbaijan, “and, at 2 am, we left the village,” she says.

The time was chosen for security reasons. Similarly, rather than crossing Azerbaijan’s administrative border with Armenia, the migrants traveled north to Georgia from the western Azerbaijani region of Qazakh and then south to their new village.

“We were the last ones to leave that village [Kerkenj] and things were a lot worse already,” Vardanyan says. “We could hardly find a car and our luggage was already here.”

When the villagers moved to Qizil Shafaq, they had wanted to rename the village after their village in Azerbaijan. The reasons why Dzyunashogh was chosen are unclear.

Opinions were divided about the move. The climate in the mountains of northern Armenia were much colder than in Kerkenj, and cattle, potatoes and grain, rather than the vineyards that the villagers had lovingly cultivated in Azerbaijan, were the source of income.

Sonia Vardanyan remembers that the village already had fields planted with potatoes, barley and wheat when the Kerkenj villagers arrived from Azerbaijan.

“People would work here, and whoever could milk a cow, would do that. I would work in the barns in winter and in summer I would herd the cattle up into the mountains.”

Today, the 27 families who still live here mostly sell milk to earn money. Only eight of these families are natives of Kerkenj.

Seven-year-old Slavik (left) knows everything about Dzyunashogh and its history from his grandmother, Sofia Grigoryan.

“We didn’t have Azerbaijani [language] lessons at school. We had Armenian, Russian and French language classes... and a good library. You could find any book you wanted,” says Sashik Vardanyan, turning the pages of the only book he brought with him from Kerkenj, the 1894 edition of an Armenian-language book about Armenian churches in Azerbaijan.

“Every September, we would harvest grapes and cotton. All the schoolchildren from the 5th grade to the 10th grade were taken out to help their parents,” says Sonia Vardanyan.

“There are memories… our childhood, youth, happy moments. [My] marriage happened there. I don’t have bad memories from Kerkenj,” says Sofia Grigoryan. In this photo, taken by a village photographer whose name she has forgotten, Grigoryan is shown picnicking with classmates.

“The story started with cemeteries,” Sashik Vardanyan says. “We had cemeteries there, the Azerbaijanis had cemeteries here. We thought about how to preserve them.”

Today, only eight families from Kerkenj still live in Dzyunashogh. The village also contains two families originally from Baku.

Time in Dzyunashogh appears to have stood still in the years since the exchange. Most of the houses are ruined or abandoned.

The ethnic Armenian migrants from Baku “couldn’t do anything -- they were former city-dwellers,” Sonia Vardanyan says. “So, people started leaving the village one by one. Everyone went to Russia.”

Staying put means hardship. No public transportation, gas supply or store exists.

“There was a bus, but it disappeared,” says Sonia Vardanyan. “There was a shop with products, and we would buy bread. All that went away. Things got privatized and split up.”

The Kerkenj natives now look on Dzyunashogh as their home, but still harbor nostalgia for the village they left behind.

Apart from journalists who visit both sites, they have no way of getting direct news from Kerkenj, they say.

“We lived side by side for so many years!" exclaims Sonia Vardanyan, thinking of her former Azerbaijani co-workers and neighbors.

She remembers 'real' Armenian weddings that brought together people from throughout the area at Kerkenj’s wedding hall each weekend. “The singer and drummer were from our village, the accordionist and clarinetist from a neighboring [ethnic Armenian] village. They became friends and were playing in our village every week. We were getting together with our neighbors and having fun.”

Sashik Vardanyan remembers the earth. “Kerkenj means ‘harder than stone’ in the dialect of Armenian which the villagers, whose ancestors mostly came from the Iranian city of Khoy, speak," he says. “But you couldn’t find a stone there. All around you could find black earth and vineyards. We would collect water from the springs. . .”

The villagers appear to harbor some bit of hope that someday, somehow, they will see where they lived in Azerbaijan again. For now, memories are the only living link they have left.


Follow the link to read the story about Kerkenj


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