Sotk Mine road once leading into Karvajar, now under Azerbaijani occupation (photo Raffi Elliott)

On Anniversary of Ceasefire, Apprehension, Resilience, and Defiance along the Armenian Border

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YEREVAN – With the ceasefire which ended the bloody Second Artsakh War marking its first anniversary on November 9, Armenians are adjusting to a new reality. The past twelve months have witnessed political turbulence, stemming from the fallout of Armenia’s military defeat against Azerbaijan, as well as the economic challenges triggered by the massive disruptions suffered by the global supply train in the wake of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Armenia has managed to weather the first of this three-pronged crisis, through an election which was lauded as “free and fair” by international observers. The country’s economy also appears to be recovering from the shock caused by both the pandemic and the war at an impressive rate. The Armenian economy is now expected to grow at a rate of 7 percent in 2021, a much more optimistic forecast than that which the World Bank had originally outlined last year. These figures come against the background of increased employment, a slew of high-profile foreign investments and a boost to the export market. A rise in remittances has also helped bolster the country’s economic performance.

But for many of the families still mourning the death of their sons, brothers, fathers (and in some cases, daughters), and for the hundreds of wounded veterans, adapting to the new post-bellum situation.

“My son had been exempted from the Army, but when the war started, he couldn’t stay home,” Anahit, a grieving mother, tells the Mirror-Spectator. “His commander told me that he saved his entire platoon when he covered their retreat near Hadrut with his heavy machine gun.”

She visits her son’s grave at the Yerablur Military Cemetery every day, where she has already struck a sort of friendship through grief with Lilit, another mother whose only son lies buried next to hers.

Along the newly established frontier with Azerbaijan – the result of a ceasefire condition to cede the 7 provinces surrounding the soviet-era borders of the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast to Baku – villagers now find themselves within eyesight of Azerbaijani border posts, an uncomfortable feeling for many.

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In Sotk, a small town once on the Vardenis-Martakert road which passes through the now-occupied Karvajar province, the local gold mine continues to operate, albeit at reduced capacity, in between Armenian and Azerbaijani lines. The mine, once Armenia’s largest singer taxpayer, lost almost 2/3rds of its area after the war. The mine security guards say they regularly witness gunfire from Azerbaijani positions up on the hills. “Last week, they [Azerbaijanis] got drunk, and started firing at each other,” one guard recounts. “When they noticed the Armenians watching, they started shooting in our direction too.”

Further south, in Syunik province, the townsfolk in Verishen, one of the closest villages to the contested Sev Lake, say that the constant gunfire they heard over the summer seems to have subsided.

“My son is serving in the army, and is currently posted on the lake,” one woman says. “That gives me comfort. Otherwise, I would sell my house and leave, but nobody would buy it.” The lake, the scene of a major flashpoint when Azerbaijani troops crossed almost two miles into Armenian territory around it last May, remains heavily militarized, with Armenian and Azerbaijani troops standing eyeball to eyeball across its shores. These soldiers have been sleeping in tents and other makeshift shelters throughout the summer, but with winter fast approaching, more permanent positions are increasingly needed.

The Army says it is already working on providing better living conditions for the soldiers positioned along the border. Container-shaped barracks, complete with heating units, showers, and bunk beds – courtesy of the Wounded Heroes Fund – are steadily being installed at key locations. These containers can be seen on flatbed trucks all along Armenia’s North-South highway being delivered to their destinations.

One section of that highway, stretching between Goris and the regional capital Kapan, has become a source of regional tension since the war’s end. An important stretch of this vital road connecting Armenia to ports in Iran now finds itself very close to the new Azerbaijani territory. A 2-mile section of the road near Vorotan even finds itself entirely within Azerbaijani-controlled territory – the result of careless Soviet-era map drawing, and difficult terrain for road building.

Azerbaijani security forces have wasted little time in taking advantage of this peculiar situation to post “border guards” at its entrance, and attempt to tax Iranian truck drivers for “using the Azerbaijani road network.”

This, despite the fact that the road was built by Armenian work crews, financed by Armenian tax dollars, and connects Armenia to Armenia with no connection to the Azerbaijani road network. This blatant attempt at intimidation has only hastened Armenia’s attempts at unleashing itself from Azerbaijan’s chokehold on its economic routes.

The Tatev-Kapan road, which totally bypasses the border, has been repaved in record time, and is expected to formally open to traffic this month. Iranian truckers, eager to escape what they consider to be “highway robbery,” are already taking this new road. “If we don’t use the new road, we’d be forced to pay $260 to the Azerbaijanis,” says Ali, a truck driver resting on the side of the road near the Meghri border crossing into Iran.

Iranian trucker posing with his vintage Mack rig near Meghri (photo Raffi Elliott)

For those who do choose the Vorotan road, even the promise of payment may not be enough to ensure safe passage. Two Iranian nationals who were apprehended by Azerbaijani border guards in September were not released until late October, after Iran began conducting war games on the Azerbaijani border, sending a clear message that it would not allow itself to be intimidated by Baku.

Just a few miles south of the incident, villagers of the now-divided town of Shurnukh must now contend with sharing their village with Azerbaijani border troops. About 10 homes were lost to the Azerbaijanis following the ceasefire since they were technically on the wrong side of the border, which is marked by the highway intersecting the town. Some of these houses now serve as barracks and guard posts for Azerbaijanis. Directly across from them, on the Armenian side, Russian border guards observe their every move. They man a joint post with the Armenian National Security Service. “Seeing Azerbaijani flags from our window is quite distressing,” says Lilit, a resident of the town, “but the presence of the Russians is quite reassuring.” She reports no incidents.

The Armenian government has already launched the construction of a new district in the town to house the 10 families that lost their homes last December. This development is part of a larger set of upgrades that the town of Shurnukh, as well as other villages near the frontier have been granted to compensate for any loss of productivity that the new situation has caused. Having been granted “border town status,” settlements all along the Armenian-Azerbaijan border, including those in Tavush and Gegharkunik, are exempt from paying property and income tax, receive subsidized utilities and are eligible for other forms of grants to spur entrepreneurial activity.

This vitality is apparent in the village of Chakaten, a small settlement about 5 miles south of Kapan, which is only accessible through a road which, once again, runs a gauntlet between Azerbaijani positions on its eastern edge, with Armenian and Russian posts on the western side. There, a small couple has recently opened a convenience store – the town’s only source for these products. They report Azerbaijani intimidation, but little in terms of actual threat to the local population. “The Azerbaijanis near the road are too scared to block traffic,” says Hasmik, the store owner. “Well, the only time they do try to stop cars is to ask for cigarettes” her husband interjects.

They report that the town has endured problems since the Azerbaijanis moved their positions nearby. The spring which once supplied the town is now on the Azerbaijani side, and water has been cut. They also went through several months of near-isolation as the communications tower on a hill now on the wrong side of the border had to be reinstalled elsewhere. Some of the farmland right on the border also lies uncultivated as farmers are wary about going there alone. At least four heads of cattle have also been stolen by them. “We know what the Azerbaijanis are doing, they’re trying to intimidate us,” says Karen, a music teacher from Kapan visiting the village. “But we’re not going to go anywhere.”

This phrase, “We’re not going anywhere,” is repeated multiple times throughout the border regions, from Meghri to Yeraskh.

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