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.”
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.
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.
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.
This material may contain terms, which are not favored by all the parties of the dispute/conflict. Terms used in a material belong to the author and not to Chai Khana.