Snapshots of a Magical Week in Artsakh
On the second day that we were in Artsakh, I marked the second time in my life that I have climbed a mountain in Converse. Luckily, we had Pavel Sargsyan's trusty 1948 army Jeep (kept in completely perfect condition) to carry us up some of the way, but at the end of the road, there was still a two hour hike up the steep slope.
Pavel's son Artur led us up the winding path along the mountainside carpeted with vibrantly colored wildflowers, and caught me whenever my shoes slipped on the unstable stones.
Near the top, I climbed over a rock to find that I had stepped above the clouds. The cliffs in front of me seemed to rise out of an ocean of mist, and looking down, I couldn't see the path that had taken me there. At the top of the mountain, we reached Kataro, an ancient monastery and pilgrimage site shaped like a little stone house with grass growing out of the pointed roof. Saro told us how his father had come to sacrifice a lamb here to pray for a son just before he was born. We didn't have a lamb to sacrifice, but Artur brought a handful of candles, which we divided up and lit with prayers of peace and love.
A few days later, we found ourselves in a taxi with military officer Gegham Grigoryan, on our way to the Askeran military base. When we asked about interviewing soldiers, we expected to meet a few over lunch or something of that sort, but now we found ourselves on a full tour, visiting the training grounds, the base's church, and even the bedrooms where the soldiers sleep. We interviewed a classroom full of eighteen-year-old men who told us how they were learning cleanliness and discipline, and about their plans after their service to go to university, open restaurants, and a multitude of other things. We even had the opportunity to eat warm harissa, soup, and potatoes for lunch and talk to Armen, another officer, about his experience serving under Monte Melkonian, one of Armenia's most famous war heroes, during the Artsakh war.
One of our most amazing experiences, however, began with us walking up to the door of a Soviet-era apartment building at dusk. The Gasparyan family welcomed us warmly into their apartment, seating us at the table for a cup of Artsakh tea. Looking around their living room, the first things that caught my eye were the framed pictures of a young man with dark hair and blue eyes. With tears in their eyes, Liana and her daughter Inga told us about Sarkis, Liana's son who was killed in the 2016 April War. Setting cups of tea on the table, Liana explained to us that she has been coping with the grief by working on her project of creating a website where people can purchase clothes made in Armenia. Her idea is to stop the overwhelming trend of Armenians buying products from Turkey because even though Turkey is supporting terrorism and ethnic cleansing against Armenians, they have no problem selling them cheap products. Liana and her family have named the project after her son, and are working hard in his memory.
Now, sitting in my house in Chicago a few weeks later, I feel a longing for the mountains of Artsakh. I keep imagining hiking with Saro into Honut Canyon from his backyard, laughing with the Sargsyans over a dinner of Silva's spectacular cooking, eating ice cream with Saro, Gegham, and Armen as we walk down the avenues of the military base, and feeling awestruck by the strength and perseverance of the Gasparyan family. In the short year since we last visited, it seems that Artsakh has become an even more beautiful, hospitable, and inspiring place. Especially with the violence of the April War, the scars of conflict are everywhere, but I think the reason Artsakh prevails every time is because our boys know that they have a homeland worth fighting for.