Hope and Heroes - Armenia's Frontline Villages
Mayor Andranik Aydinyan of Aygepar keeps a flower planted in an empty shell on his desk. The shell is one of the many that the Azerbaijani army has fired on his village. In his drawer, he keeps a collection of used bullets that the village kindergarteners have found in their schoolyard.
“I promise them an ice cream if they bring me any bullets,” he said, “Otherwise they’ll play with them and the bullets will explode in their hands.”
Mayor Aydinyan makes sure to look out for the children of his village, because they are often the targets of the gunfire. The soldiers shoot at the kindergarten during school hours, so much so that the Red Cross had to build a blast wall around the building to protect the children inside. Even so, the children stay home from school every Thursday, because the intense firing makes it dangerous for them to walk to the school from their houses.
Mayor Aydinyan remembers when he was in middle school and the firing started. When he was twelve years old, the Soviet Union broke up, and the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic’s War for Independence began. Azerbaijan decided to complement its military offensive on the people of the NKR with a campaign of terror on the Armenian border. Although the war has been over for more than twenty years and the NKR is a separate country from Armenia, Mayor Aydinyan still hears bullets when he puts his children to bed.
“Every night, we watch the village across the border,” he said, “And when the lights go out, we know they will start shooting. Seven or eight drones fly above our houses, and they fire until morning.”
The village across the border is Alibeli, only 200m away from Aygepar, and a common base for the soldiers to launch their attacks.
“We don’t hate the other villagers, though,” Mayor Aydinyan said, “We know they don’t want this war either.”
In fact, many of the residents of both villages still remember the days when Armenians and Azeris alike worked in the factories of Aygepar. During the Soviet era, Azeris frequently came to work in the wine factory, food processing plant, tobacco factory, and airport. In the war, however, the Azeri army destroyed the food processing plant, and the factories and the airport were abandoned with the collapse of the Soviet economic system.
“We have lots of plans to restart the factories here,” Mayor Aydinyan said, “But when investors come and hear the shooting, they say no.”
The people of Aygepar have been disappointed by many of the visits they get from foreigners. Last year, the OSCE came to monitor the situation in the village, but they notified the Azeri authorities beforehand, and reported that there was no shooting on the village. The day after the OSCE members left, a sixteen-year-old girl was shot in her house.
“If you ask any villager here, they could tell you stories for hours,” Mayor Aydinyan said, “But there is no one to listen, no one to hear us.”
Despite the dire obstacles they face, the people of Aygepar try to stay positive and keep a sense of humor. Mayor Aydinyan told us the story of one of the Azeri terror campaigns in which they shot at Aygepar’s chimneys during the winter. Eventually, the chimneys stopped smoking, and Azeri officials posted on the internet, boasting that the smokeless chimneys were evidence that everyone had left the village. But Mayor Aydinyan would not see his home ridiculed like this.
“You don’t see smoke because this is a developed village,” he commented, “We heat our houses with natural gas.”
This unrelenting hope is a major part of what gives the villagers the courage to live their everyday lives under fire to protect the borders.
“The homeland starts from the borders,” Mayor Aydinyan said. “We don’t flee because we love our land, and we are optimistic that one day there will be peace.’
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