Curious about the life in disputed areas, I headed to Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan, where post-Soviet conflicts still remain today.
Nagorno-Karabakh, what a complicated name. “Nagorno” is mountainous in Russian, “Kara” is black in Turkish and “bakh” is garden in Persian. This explains the complexity of this region. It is a self-declared republic not internationally recognized between Armenia and Azerbaijan where conflicts continue. The latest clashes were merely 2 months ago. Now it is in Azerbaijan territory but under Armenian control.
The region is mountainous and people are incredibly friendly. Being an exotic face here, kids came to me to say “What is your name?” and some people waved at me from their window. And the city looks very Soviet to me.
It was a late afternoon when I arrived at Amaras Monastery, and I was well-received by the church keeper and his friends. One of them introduced me to a family who lived in a village called Sos, where I would be hosted for a night.
My luck led me to the only English teacher, Arevik Sargsyan, in a small village called Sos. She generously welcomed me to her family and let me stay a night.
Twenty-two years have passed since the last war with Azerbaijan, the war still leaves a scar for everyone in this village. The only bar in the village was destroyed in 1994 and remains ruins until today. The village remained largely war-torn, with roofs being blown off some of the houses. Arevik pointed at an abandoned, torn house and told me it used to be the disco in town. A woman told me her husband died in the war.
Arevik gave me a warm welcome, showed me the village and introduced me to her grandmother-in-law, who is 88 years old. They showed me how to live a self-sufficient life in the 21st century by raising goats, making cheese, baking bread in an old stone stove and knitting socks from wool collected from their sheep. After a brief encounter, the family gave me a pair of socks they knitted. For the first time during my travels, I cried as I was so touched by the kindness of these random strangers. After all, I was still a stranger to them 20 minutes ago.
Arevik had a lovely home, except it was unfinished. She hesitates to renovate her house due to fear of a new war. “The conflicts are still ongoing. I’d love to get the room done. But if new conflicts break out, our efforts would be in vain,” she said.
I asked if she would like to move to somewhere else, she replied, “This is our land and my home. People died for it.”
Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh Republic, sought independence after the Soviet Union collapsed, but it remains unrecognized by the international community. It’s governed by Armenia for now, but lies in the disputed territory. Arevik never thought of leaving though. “This is our home. Our people defended it for us with blood,” she said.
“My door will always be open for you,” she said to me as she smiled. “Kindness is in our blood.”
Those were the words to a random stranger whom she met for just one night.