The Armenian priests singing their prayer song in the chapel of Dadivank wear camouflage clothing over their habit. The singing that rises briefly breaks the tense atmosphere. An enormous Russian tank is parked in front of the medieval monastery, deep in the already partly snowy mountains of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Without that tank, this November day might pass as normal. Just a day when Armenian men and women in the chapel light their yellow candles and say their prayers, then marvel at the frescoes and the chachkars – artfully carved religious ornaments in sandstone.
But the Russian presence is not to be missed. Heavily armed soldiers guard the access road to the monastery. Two Russian flags are hoisted as a sign that Moscow holds sway here.
Thirty-something Marina Stepanian arrived today with her mother from the Karabakh capital Stepanakert to Dadivank. “We are here to see the monastery for the last time,” she says at the entrance. “They say that after today the road will be closed by Kelbajar.”
After a bloody six-week war that killed at least thousands of soldiers and several hundred civilians, the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan, led by Russian President Putin, signed a peace deal on 9 November. According to the plan, the buffer zones around the small capital Stepanakert will fall to arch enemy Azerbaijan. The Armenians keep part of their territory, but lose the most important of the two access roads connecting Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh.
Unclear peace plan
Dadivank is located in Kelbajar, one of the regions that the Armenians have to give up. However, the monastery remains in Armenian hands. Two thousand Russian peacekeepers have to guard the file. While the Azerbaijanis burned in joy, ethnic Armenians were left bewildered. They focused their anger on Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pasjinian, who was just able to avoid a government crisis.
Marina and her mother spent the weeks of war in the Armenian capital Yerevan. Because of the truce, they, like some 25,000 other refugees, dared to return home. But the nine-point peace plan is barely worked out, and the future uncertain. “Nobody knows what’s coming. We hope the Russians will protect us. ”
Avetis Ninasian came to Davidank today with his family. From the village of Martuni, Armenia, “to have a memory,” he says with a little boy on his arm. They take as many pictures as they can, so that the children can admire the holy places too. “Here is the cross, here we can pray, but now Dadivank is becoming a place where you can no longer just come,” says Ninasian. “It is our duty as Christians to help our children understand what happened and who the enemy is. This day is our goodbye. ” There is a void in the clock tower behind him. Two weeks ago, the priests took the bells and other relics to safety as a precaution.
Hundreds of Armenian shrines will soon be located on Azerbaijani territory. And while Azerbaijani and Russian presidents Aliyev and Putin assured that Armenian cultural treasures will be preserved, several churches have already been hit or destroyed by Azerbaijani troops, such as in the historic city of Shushi (Azerbaijani: Shusha). In turn, Azerbaijanis complain of grave robbery and vandalism by departing Armenians. Major damage has already been done to religious and archaeological sites in the region, according to international observers.
Despite the monastery’s uncertain future, Priest Movses – in his forties with a pitch-black ring beard and a large cross over his habit and army vest – has no intention of leaving. “People think it’s last here, but we hope not,” he says in fluent English. “The brotherhood of the priests is here. It will continue to hold its services so that Armenians can come here to pray, to get married and to be baptized. With the help of the Russians, Dadivank will remain under Armenian control. ”
The Russian peacekeepers feel at ease in Karabakh. They have instructions from Moscow to behave properly and one soldier has already been baptized, says the unit commander. He does not want his name in the newspaper, because he is actually not allowed to talk to journalists. But he doesn’t know what the night will bring either, he says, pointing to a map. “According to the agreement, the Kelbajar region will be transferred to Azerbaijani hands tomorrow, but we advise not to use this road after 6 pm today. Certainly not Armenians – you know what I mean. ”
Despite the presence of the Russians, past experiences mean that Armenians are not reassured that the Azerbaijani soldiers will respect the agreements. Along the steep mountain roads of Kelbajar, that fear is almost palpable. Day and night, Armenians are busy setting fire to houses and sheds to prevent their belongings from falling into Azerbaijani hands. Workshops and electricity pylons are being dismantled and trees are cut down. At least there is material and firewood to build a new life elsewhere.
Around an abandoned primary school in the hamlet of Nor Getasjen, a mixture of smoke, smoldering plastic, burning Christmas decorations and furniture takes your breath away. The broken windows of the low, white building show how the flames spread around them. “Once upon a time there was a little squirrel that lived in the forest and was not concerned about anything,” begins a Russian dictation by a seventh grader lying on the doorstep at the entrance. The errors are marked with red. Then the ceiling gives way and the hall of the school is buried with falling debris.
A few kilometers away, smoke curls over Karvatsjar. A group of men rummage through the abandoned and sometimes still burning houses of the village. They are too busy to talk. Between the many shoes, household goods and preserved food, they are looking for useful material to take with them. Passport copies and documents are carried by the wind around the town hall.
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In the cemetery on the outskirts of the village, pits between the grave fences are gawking. Residents who could not stomach their loved ones falling into Azerbaijani hands dug up their dead here at the last minute. Next to one of the tombs is a wooden burial cover with light purple lace trim. Its good condition suggests that the deceased who was brought up here went into the ground not so long ago.
On the opposite mountain slope there are ruins that give the scene a surreal appearance. They are the homes of Azerbaijanis that were displaced here by Armenians three decades ago. As Armenians clear their graves, social media shows overjoyed Azerbaijans partying to celebrate their imminent return to Kelbajar.
I cannot guarantee that you will not be shot
Hovig Asmarian (50) expects little good from the shuffling of population groups on the geopolitical chessboard that is the region. The Armenian Syrian came to Karabakh with his family from Aleppo after the outbreak of the war in Syria. He brought several tens of thousands of young fruit trees and planted them in the warm south of Karabakh, to give his family a new future. “Lemon, mandarin and orange trees, olive trees, pistachio trees and kiwis,” says Asmarian late at night from behind a plate of noodles in a restaurant in Stepanakert. During the war, he and his wife provided the Armenian soldiers and international journalists in the city with free food. Now the case is closed.
Asmarian came up with big plans in 2012. He wanted to show people that there is more than the limited choices that the isolated region offers and showed them how to grow fruit trees. But olive trees take a long time to grow, and the war caught up with him. “Just as residents started to become interested in cultivating olives and Armenian organizations wanted to invest, the Turkish sultan Erdogan is putting an end to our work,” he growls cynically in his beard. While he himself was active as a volunteer soldier in Stepanakert, he lost his land with 25,000 trees in the south to Azerbaijan.
Asmarian is agitated about the lack of involvement of the international community. He says that the small Armenian population had to compete with the much more numerous and stronger Azerbaijani troops. “We did everything we could. But we are only 1.5 million, while Azerbaijan has unlimited oil supplies and money, and is backed by Turkey, militarily the second NATO force, and Pakistan. No country came to our aid, not even our Russian or French allies. ” Now Asmarian also has to wait and see what will come. “There is no government or army anymore, the people are alone and nobody cares. It’s chaos. ”
An hour and a half drive to the east, two blue-faced Russian peacekeepers stand in the icy cold at a checkpoint on the road to Aghdam, a city once conquered by the Armenians from the Azeri and recently back in Azerbaijani hands. On the other side of the checkpoint, five hundred meters away, a group of Azerbaijani soldiers can be seen in the twilight. But there is no direct contact and the soldiers seem to have little idea of the plans on the other side. When asked if the border can be safely approached, one of the two says: “I will guide you to the center, but I cannot guarantee that you will not be shot at.”
Correction November 28: The insert to this article stated that Nagorno-Karabakh has 1.5 million inhabitants. This must be: 150,000.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad of 28 November 2020
A version of this article also appeared in nrc.next on November 28, 2020