On the road from Goris to Tegh, the cars slow down for a moment to see the unusual sight in detail: two flags—Armenian and Azerbaijani—right opposite each other. The position of the Armenian Armed Forces is on the road; five meters away is that of Azerbaijan’s. And the soldiers standing in small, green huts are looking straight at each other. This is where the border, which seems to never end, begins.
Part of Syunik region’s municipality of Tegh, the village of Khnatsakh didn’t consider itself a border village until very recently. In May 2021, in tandem with their incursion around Black Lake (Sev Lich), Azerbaijani troops also took up positions on the hills overlooking the village. Those hills used to lie in the Kashatagh region of the Republic of Artsakh, but were handed over to Azerbaijan as part of the November 10, 2020 ceasefire agreement. Along the 25 km-long border of the village, there are six Azerbaijani positions, some just 100-200 meters away from houses. Two of them look down on the village school.
“Every day, they check the children’s attendance,” says 22-year-old Galust bitterly. The men of the village—young and old—sitting on the bench in front of the colorful gate of the kindergarten, are all jobless. Their main pastime has become discussing geopolitics. “We and America are what’s important,” jokes one of the old men. “But we are more important. We are few, and the more time passes, the fewer we become.”
Just two years ago, each family in Khnatsakh would own 15-20 cows. Now, they only keep one for their own milk and yogurt. There is no industry in the village; the only means of livelihood was cattle breeding. Before the 2020 Artsakh War, the residents of this and neighboring villages would often lead their herds across the (invisible) border to make use of the pasture land in Kashatagh. Not only is that border now visible, since May 2021, Azerbaijanis have also occupied 22 hectares of the village itself, in the Republic of Armenia. The land plots close to the buffer zone cannot be used either; the Azerbaijanis are so close that they throw stones at people working in the fields.
“People are depressed. They hit us with stones, swear at us in their language. But what can you do? There have been cases where they have taken a horse tied to the entrance of a house. Now we are afraid to let our children go out after dark. As it is, they still get jumpy from loud sounds,” says Galust.
He is immediately interrupted by one of the elders of the village, “No one drinks vodka in the village anymore. We are afraid of getting lost [across the border].”
Last year, almost all the animals in the village were sold. There is not enough pasture. The cost of a bale of hay has shot up from 600 AMD to 2000 AMD.
“The beekeepers are the lucky ones,” says Galust. “There are no animals going to the pastures [anymore], so all the nectar goes to the bees.”
The furthest house in the village, only 150 meters away from the Azerbaijani positions, belongs to the village administrator. Seyran Mirzoyan was appointed to the position in January 2022, after municipal elections were held in the fall. Over the last two months, they have managed to take an inventory of the lands lost and the basic needs of the villagers. Municipal land is offered for rent to those who have lost their own land.
“The situation in the village is difficult, but we are trying to understand what we can do so that people do not leave their homes. The situation on the border now is such that we cannot move a single centimeter this way or that. The loss of Kashatagh is significant, not only in terms of pasture land, but also in terms of winter firewood. To solve this problem, this winter, the Red Cross gave each family 280,000 AMD [about $ 560], with which the villagers bought firewood for the winter and hay for the animals. But, nevertheless, this is still a problem. The village has no forest. It is not clear how the heating problem will be solved going forward,” shares Mirzoyan.
The village was not abandoned during the First Nagorno-Karabakh War in the 1990s. But people have now started to shift their gaze elsewhere. According to the 2011 census, there used to be 998 inhabitants in the village; today there are 550․ “There is no future,” sighs one of the old men. “The state must keep its eye on the village.”
Assistance Programs that Miss the Mark
Since 2014, the State has extended special programs for people living in border areas. According to Anush Khudoyan from the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Infrastructure, the purpose of these programs is to alleviate the daily worries of those living in border areas, and to improve their living conditions. Initially, it involved subsidies toward utility bills. It later was expanded to waive irrigation water, property tax and land tax payments. The latest addition was to waive school book fees.
Prior to 2021, there were 38 settlements within 16 municipalities receiving assistance. Today, that number is 81, within 23 municipalities. Among the recently added settlements, six are in the Gegharkunik region and 37 are in Syunik.
“The settlements that are included in this list qualifying for social assistance are determined by the Ministry of Defense, taking into account a number of security factors, such as the location of the Azerbaijani positions, the number of shots fired, etc. This year, the volume of social assistance provided by the state has almost doubled. In 2021, the Armenian state budget allocated more than 1.155 billion AMD [$2.31 million] to support border communities. The benefits extended to these communities are approved through January 1, 2024,” says Khudoyan.
On the one hand, this sum seems like significant support for the border settlements; on the other hand, however, in practice, the full amount is not actually spent. In past years, almost half of it was returned to the state budget.
The State covers 50% of residents’ natural gas bills, but many of the border villages are not actually connected to the natural gas distribution network. If a resident wants to be supplied with natural gas, they are responsible for the full cost of building out the pipes to the main supply, which is usually prohibitively expensive. In addition, land records in this area are usually in poor shape; a resident may not be able to produce a certificate of ownership in order to sign the necessary paperwork. Consequently, most dwellings rely on firewood to stay warm for the winter, which has now doubled in price. Electricity bills are also subsidized at 50%, but only up to a cap of 1440 kWh per year, making it too expensive to rely on for winter heating.
Only the agricultural land tax is fully reimbursed by the State, but that is no consolation for those who cannot cultivate their land due to security considerations.
After the 2020 Artsakh War, newly-elected MP Tigran Abrahamyan, from the Republican Party of Armenia, makes a point to visit the border settlements often.
“People often approach me about social assistance issues. They think that the support provided by the state, especially in the Syunik region, is not targeted. People complain that the state partially reimburses the cost of natural gas, but most of the residents are not gas customers. People have virtually lost their ability to make ends meet. Some of the pastures and arable land have come under the control of Azerbaijan. Even some that haven’t are too dangerous to cultivate,” says the MP, adding that, while social assistance is very very much needed, it does not alleviate residents’ security concerns. “People say they are very anxious, and they are afraid to leave their homes in the evening as almost all of the settlements are under the direct surveillance of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces.”
Abrahamyan is collecting his own inventory of issues voiced by the residents of border communities and has recently started discussions to prepare and present proposals that would make the social assistance provided to the border communities more effective and targeted.
Khoznavar’s Road of Life
A narrow, rocky road leads from Goris to Khoznavar. This is the only road connecting the village to the world. It is so narrow and in such hopeless condition that it is often closed due to snow and wind. Everyone in Khoznavar says that the road is vital for them. For about ten months now, Azerbaijani troops have been positioned near Black Lake, 2 km away, and keep an eye on them. The village is under siege on three sides.
Vahan Zakyan, the village head, says that they have already gone over the road twice, filling potholes with sand to level the surface. But the quick fix doesn’t last long; once the snow thaws, rain washes away the sand and once again leaves the local population vulnerable. According to Zakyan, every family in the village has lost some land. Three families have left. The newly-appointed village head says that he keeps in touch with them, so that he can invite them back when the situation improves. The unpaved road is a visible reminder that that day has not yet arrived.
“What are you filming?” asks 85-year-old Valya, as I am a stranger in the village. Everyone here is on pins and needles. Eventually opening up, Valya shares that life has become very complicated; they are always fearful. The men of the village patrol the streets at night. An Azerbaijani position directly faces their balcony; they try not to turn on the light at night, lest an Azerbaijani soldier tries to shoot at them. She has lived in Khoznavar all her life. She has six daughters and 14 grandchildren who care for her and her husband.
“What do I have to think about? We have lived well, we have lived happily. I have been a deputy—a proper one, not like the ones we have today. We have brought up and educated good girls. Look at the table; the walnuts, apples and pears are from our garden, cultivated and grown with our own hands. But today we sleep with our ears to the ground, because the Turk [Azerbaijani soldier] standing there at the top of the mountain is waiting for the village to be vacated,” says the old woman. She thinks about who will inherit their house, filled with the memories of her 66-year marriage.
Valya says that she has seen many difficult days in her life, but she does not remember a more difficult situation than this. “The country is leaderless. The only thing that gives us hope is that, even today, no one is leaving the village,” she says.
Another woman from Khoznavar, who wished to remain anonymous, shares her pessimism but also her determination, “Several months ago, the Azerbaijanis set fire to tires and rolled them down the mountain onto a flock of sheep. The shepherd barely managed to save the animals. Since then, no one is cultivating the land or taking animals to the pasture. We barely can make ends meet. Our hopes rest on God, and the intelligence of authorities, which is to say we are hopeless.” She warns, “This is the border of Armenia; if we leave Khoznavar, you will eventually have to leave Yerevan.”
On the road from Goris to Tegh, under the tricolored Armenian flag, a soldier glances from inside a small, green hut at a car slowing down for a moment, and seconds later assumes his usual position—looking directly at the enemy standing in front of him in a small green hut.
New on EVN Report
Sossi Tatikyan looks at the risks and opportunities for ensuring the security of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh in the post-war situation and in the current turbulent international context.Read more
Over a year after Russian troops were deployed to Artsakh, here’s what we know about the Russian presence there, with the historical background for Moscow’s drive for boots on the ground in Artsakh.Read more
Known as the mother of modern sculpture, Lilit Teryan left an indelible mark on Iran’s art scene. Although teaching sculpture was banned following the 1979 revolution, Teryan continued creating and eventually returned to instruct a new generation of Iranian artists.Read more