Aygepar - A Village Under Fire
On Tuesday we met Helena from the Ayo foundation, a group of young people that crowdfunds for projects in Armenia. One of their most successful was a wall in the village of Aygepar on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. The village sits in a valley with two Azerbaijani bases overlooking over it from the border. The Azerbaijani soldiers shoot across the border daily, and have been doing so for the last 20 years. Recently, however, they started targeting the kindergarten at the times when the children are at school. It got to the point where the children couldn't go to school anymore for fear of their lives.
In response, Ayo started raising money to build a wall around the school to deflect the bullets. The villagers were incredibly grateful and donated their every last dram to the cause. The children at the primary school even stopped buying their teacher flowers on the first day of school to put the money towards the wall.
After meeting Helena, we decided to see the wall for ourselves. We left at 7AM to start the 2 hour drive down rough, winding mountain roads to reach the village. First, however, we stopped in the small city of Berd to meet members of the Fund for Armenian Relief which is connected to Ayo. One of the members, Hexine Gharabaghtsyan, was kind enough to take us to Aygepar and show us the safest way to get there where we would not have any risk of Azerbaijani fire. She went around the village with us, and took some of the pictures that are in this blog post. Andranik Aydinyan, the mayor of Aygepar welcomed us with soorj (Armenian coffee), brandy, apricots, and chocolates, and told us about his village. He showed us the bullets and shells that the schoolchildren had collected and given to him. He told us that he promised the children ice cream if they brought him the shells, because he had heard about many children playing with shells that exploded and hurt them.
Mayor Aydinyan is 37, and has already been mayor of the village for 12 years. He had seen the OSCE and other organizations come and report that there is no shooting just hours after people's homes are hit with bullets. He has proposed so many projects to companies and organizations to bring jobs to his village, but they all say it's too dangerous.
"Anybody in this village could talk to you for hours," he said. "But there's no one to listen."
Though they are forgotten by many, the people of Aygepar are brave enough to live their daily lives under fire to protect Armenia's border and keep their homeland populated. One grandma took us into her house and showed us the upstairs, which had been under heavy fire from the Azerbaijanis. There were bullet holes in the walls, in the chairs, and even a bullet still stuck in the door. The floor was mostly empty because, instead of fleeing the destruction, the family had just decided to move downstairs.
We also visited the kindergarten, which had been walled in by the Red Cross to protect it from gun fire. There was still evidence of gun fire targeting the kindergarten, with bullet holes in the window, and even some holes from bullets that had made it into the school. We met the class of kindergarteners, who recited poetry and did a dance for us.
As we walked down the main road back to our car, Mayor Aydinyan showed us the Azerbaijani military base on the overlooking mountain, and we stopped to take photos.
"Take turns," he said, gesturing for us to move into the trees, "If they see a group of people together, they might shoot."
It really makes you think about what you have when you meet people who live their daily lives under fire, but still are optimistic.
"Everyone in this village is very good athlete," Mayor Aydinyan joked, "They can run faster than the bullets."
We laughed weakly, not sure whether to laugh or cry, but it brought to light how what we see as an indescribable hardship is a part of daily life for them. They still find happiness in things like the Christmas lights the children strung up behind the wall so that the Azerbaijanis can't see them. What they want most, however, is to live their lives without this danger.
"When you ask the children what they want for Christmas," said Lilit, the head of the kindergarten, "They say that they want Santa Claus to bring peace."
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