Life after the war: interview with young head of Armenian border village
As a result of the second Karabakh war, near the village of Shikahogh in the south of Armenia, which earlier was not a border town, now shares about 30 kilometers of border with Azerbaijan.
“In some places the border is not very far, in some places it is close to each other, in some places one hill is ours, and the neighboring one is theirs. The border is messy. I could not imagine such a situation even in the worst case – that we could lose part of the territories of Artsakh [the name of self-proclaimed of Nagorno-Karabakh], also the territories of Armenian villages, our own administrative borders,” says the mayor of Shikahogh village, 30-year-old Nare Ghazaryan.
The young official was elected by the villagers four years ago, she received 90 percent of the votes. The people of Shikahogh entrusted the young woman with the most responsible job, and Nara herself did not even imagine what difficulties awaited her in the performance of these duties.
The issue of security of the border villages of Armenia became acute in the fall of 2020 after the second Karabakh war. As a result, territories on the border with Armenia were passed to Azerbaijan.
Now a new border is being defined here on the basis of the administrative division of the Soviet era – using GPS systems. In the opinion of the Ombudsman of Armenia, this is a mechanical approach, unacceptable in determining interstate borders.
The head of Shikaokha speaks about the new border, the uncertain economic future of the village and ensuring the safety of residents.
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In the days of the war
“I felt responsible for every life, for the whole community. I was ready to join the detachment of the defenders of our village wherever they went, including the front line. The detachment of our villagers consisted of 35 people.
Our guys defended the positions of Shikahogh, since the neighboring territories in Karabakh were already occupied by Azerbaijanis. We didn’t know what to expect, they could move in our direction,” says the village head.
Shikahogh is located in the Syunik region of Armenia, 323 kilometers from Yerevan and 14 kilometers from the regional center – the city of Kapan. The village has 56 households, 160 inhabitants. 16 out of 37 Kapan villages became borderlands as a result of the war. Shikaoh is one of them.
To get to Kapan from Shikahogh, you need to drive along international highway M-17 (Yerevan-Kapan-Meghri-Iran). A four-kilometer stretch of road from the city of Kapan to the village of Chakaten passed to Azerbaijan. Chakaten is right next to Shikahogh.
“You can still go to Kapan during the day, but when it gets dark, we try not to go alone. If they [Azerbaijanis] suddenly decide to take this entire territory, we will not have an alternative road to Kapan. The only road will be the continuation of the M-17 highway, which leads to Meghri. That is, to get to Kapan, you will need to drive 130 kilometers instead of 23 kilometers.
Now, thanks to the Russian peacekeepers, we are calmly driving along this road, the Russians inspire great hope. If suddenly they are not there, we will not risk driving along this road at all, because there can be any provocations,” Nare explains.
Arable land and pastures
The plans for economic development of Shikahogh after the war turned out to be unrealizable.
“The arable lands of the community are under the gun of Azerbaijan. There is not even a meter of distance, there is no neutral zone at all. Now we have a serious problem, we sowed the fields in the fall, even before the war, harvest time is coming soon, and we do not know how to harvest it.
Firstly, it will be difficult to find a machine operator who will dare to enter this area, and secondly, it is not known what to expect from the enemy, ”says Nare Ghazaryan.
The total area of the village’s land is 53 hectares, 16 of them are pastures, the rest is arable land. 13 hectares are planted with wheat. Haymaking and the wheat crop were under threat.
“The cattle have lost their pastures. We have pastures near the village, but they are also not entirely safe. Therefore, we try to keep livestock on the territory of the village. Now people are thinking how to get rid of animals. I support them in this, because I do not see other possibilities, ”says the headman.
End of tourism development plans
Tourism has been actively developing in Shikahogh in recent years.
Nare Ghazaryan says that she received grant funding for several of her ideas. Thanks to the German Development Bank, for example, solar heaters and plastic windows have been installed in the village. All such programs were carried out in order to make the village attractive to tourists.
Every year, on average, 2,000 tourists come to Shikahogh to visit the local nature reserve, admire the wildlife, river crossings and ancient monuments, and observe animals listed in the Red Book of Armenia – for example, bezoar goats. Some residents converted their houses into guest houses and received tourists from Germany, Italy, France, Russia and other countries.
“They wrote to us from Germany that they were worried about us, regretted that we were in such a situation. We had a lot of plans, we even thought about a zipline. We have untouched forests, we were going to build houses for tourists on hiking trails.
Locals sold fruits and vegetables to tourists. Everything turned upside down, and now we are thinking how to live on. I don’t think tourists will come here when even the locals are not sure of the future, ”says Nare.
The Shikahogh school has 14 children. Every morning six teachers come to the village from Kapan, after classes they go back.
“That is, they pass this road twice a day. On the road there are Azerbaijani soldiers, in some areas – Russians, there are no Armenians. Somehow restless, unsafe. Life has changed dramatically, but we are doing everything we can to keep the school going. Life goes on. You can’t give up, ”says the headman.
Safety is a must
Nare Ghazaryan says that people do not think to leave the village yet. But security issues need to be addressed so that the villagers feel confident in the future and can sleep peacefully at night.
“From September to November 2020, during the war, we experienced unimaginable days, did not know if we would survive. But even then we did not take a step out of the village. Airplanes and drones constantly flew over the villages of the region. There was the same front, ”says the leader of Shikahogh.
She is worried that there are no legally approved borders of the village:
“So far, everything is calm, but if an order comes tomorrow, I don’t know what will happen, how much the Azerbaijani side can move forward. Four months have already passed since November 10, the day the hostilities ended. And the border has not yet been clarified. “
At the same time, the head of the community insists that after clarifying the borders, the parts must create a neutral zone. And the border should be guarded, in her opinion, by border troops, and not by volunteers.
“I respect these guys and bow to them, but there should be a regular army here. These issues need to be resolved. The Azerbaijanis pushed us aside from our previous positions. And when they saw that we obediently withdrew, they still try to move forward.
Imagine, this is how they can slowly enter our village. We need to end this uncertainty, to make the villagers’ tomorrow safer, ”Nare said.