Dadivank monastery under Russian's control on November 14, 2020. Armenians do not have access to the monastery today.

The Road to Revival

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By Lilit Shahverdyan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

YEREVAN — November 10, 2020. I woke up early as usual, when the hazy autumn sky still blended with the dark-blue hues of the night, and I barely realized that I was awake. This time, I did not do my usual dance in my head with the alarm clock’s song because my mother’s and grandmother’s conversation had replaced that melody. The vague word combinations I heard that morning in my half-asleep fog made me wonder whether I was still sleeping, or whether my life indeed had changed at that very moment.

“It was all useless, preplanned,” my grandmother said in a voice dripping with tears, sharing the mental state of my mother, who had accidentally spoken too loudly. “It’s unreal,” she said. “I can’t believe we handed Shushi to the Turks.”

Burning buildings in the Karvachar region of Nagorno-Karabakh on November 14, 2020. The region was handed to Azerbaijan afterwards.

These vague whispers became the first forewarning that I had entered a new chapter of life, where I’m forever deprived of the feeling of genuine happiness. However, I was really happy to hear that the war was over, and I could return to my house in Stepanakert, naively believing that my cat was slumbering in front of our enormous entrance door, expecting to finally hear my footsteps.

Throughout the war, I had poured my thoughts onto the pages of my diary, as it seemed to be the only thing that could bear the burden of my broken heart. On November 10, my body and mind got so listless that I was unable to do anything other than endlessly shed tears while scrolling through old photos on my phone, losing track of my thoughts.

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Statements like “Everything was sold” or “Putin decides our destiny” were circulating everywhere, especially inside the “cage” where my family didn’t stop chattering and crying, aggravating my condition.

Lilit Shahverdyan on her way to Stepanakert, November 14, 2020

I had made a clay model of our house long ago, which I had started embellishing, adding a magnolia tree made from a fresh leaf, the vibrant oleanders from an herbarium and the gates from painted matchsticks. The risk that my wonderful house could be utterly demolished by one rocket kept me in a state of agitation. I acknowledged during those days that no matter where I live, my soul is tied to Stepanakert through my memories; to lose it forever would horrify me.

The next day my father informed us about his upcoming visit to Yerevan, and I decided to return to Stepanakert with him.

I hadn’t seen my father since September 17, 2020, the day I had left Stepanakert for a trip to Yerevan. I remembered him as always being robust, and despite his 54 years, still sported a head of lustrous black hair, while his peers were gradually going grey and bald, as well as an authentically Armenian aquiline nose which I had inherited, a few wrinkles on his face and a beaming smile.

On November 12, when he arrived, I saw a different person, exhausted and drained, with white hair dotting his head, and the smile no longer there. He had come to buy toothpaste, slippers, and other necessary supplies that his hotel lacked due to the war. He didn’t intend to take us back; the city was not safe enough, he said.

“I recognize Artsakh” graffiti inside a destroyed building in Stepanakert. The building was burnt down by locals after the ceasefire agreement and is being renovated today. November 15, 2020.

My older sister, Nina, and I, however, insisted on going back home and were able to convince him after long arguments.

The following morning, November 14, we hit the road with my father, sister, and our driver.

Our gray Pajero car was large, so we didn’t sit too close together. We bounced around inside, driving through the bumpy and dusty roads so peculiar to Armenia. We always drove through Karvachar, a mountainous region in Karabakh, like it was a scene out of American movies. The ideally smooth asphalt pierced into the tremendous brown cliffs, cleaving them into two parts and paving the long way to Stepanakert. This was our last chance to experience the astonishing sceneries of Karvachar before it was handed to Azerbaijan, so we decided to go that way despite the unending traffic jam we knew awaited us there. Usually, the road takes five hours but this time it took a whole day, and I witnessed the consequences of the war from the closest possible angle: houses burning, rockets on the roads, exploded bridges and marauders in the streets.

A house in Stepanakert destroyed due to shelling, November 15, 2020

The first part of the road was quiet, as always, without any signs of war, but things changed as we got closer to the border with Karabakh. We stopped to see how far the chain of cars extended and couldn’t find its end: we appeared to be in a traffic jam we couldn’t get out of. I had no signal on my phone, and my battery was running down and I worried about losing contact with everyone.

At any rate, I had my family and the driver with me, whom I consider an older brother, so I wouldn’t get lost in the crowd.

Two hours later, we noticed the traffic moving little by little at twilight, when we could finally distinguish the two sides of this traffic by the headlights. Yet it didn’t make me any happier: I saw the actual length of the jam, expanding through the hills, and that reminded me of the horrifying imagery of the mass evacuation a few days before.

After many miles, there we were, in the middle of an interminable chain of cars that resembled a getaway from the war, when one Smerch rocket would be enough to destroy thousands of lives.

As we were moving sometimes, I could see the miserable displaced villagers, with sofas on their car roofs with a glimmer of hope for a return, or compelled to say their last goodbye to the burning walls of their houses. Driving through the narrow streets of the town of Karvachar, I saw the looters, most in worn out military uniforms or other cast-off clothing, moving things out of the houses so nervously that one could immediately spot that they were not there lawfully. Their slovenly faces were dark, mostly unshaven, and they kept grumpily gazing at us as we dared to intervene with their plans of theft.

We stopped near an exploded bridge because my dad wanted us to experience what it meant to live through the fear of my fellow people. Standing on the edge of the road, on wobbling pieces of concrete, I felt fear and trembling all over my body as I imagined myself falling down the gorge; just one more step and I would fall into the embrace of a deep hole where a rocket had crashed.

The traffic jam in Karvachar region, November 14, 2020

Driving ahead, we stopped near a complex of burning cottages that resembled small, compact rooms. While my dad was talking to the owner, I did not want to hear how someone could find the strength to turn into ashes the fruit of his lifetime of labor. I slowly went through the buildings under the unending smoke of the fire which expanded and soon devoured everything around, leaving only broken pieces of roofs and walls. I barely distinguished the thin fragments of wallpapers that would soon turn into ashes, and the irregular frames the where windows once were.

Despite the enormous crush of cars on the roads, only a few strayed from the path and turned left to climb the hill where the holy monastery of Dadivank was standing. In my previous life, we stopped near Dadivank every time we went to or returned from Yerevan because my father couldn’t help admiring that glorious panorama again and again. This last visit was different, full of emotions that everyone kept inside because the least perceptible emotion would make all of us fall apart, for being unable to save the monastery.

The incredible vistas were invisible in the mélange of smoke and the black night, and the only distinguishable objects were the visitors with their flashlights, Russian military equipment, and the monastery.

The light brown walls were commanding: those were the last days these holy walls could hear the prayers of Christians.

We turned on our flashlights, entered the hall and went our separate ways, each of us with their private memories and thoughts. I lit my last candle in the mysterious darkness of the hall, near the embroidered portrait of the Virgin Mary, whose eyes were certainly in deep sorrow as she would soon be handed to strangers, vandals.

I wasn’t the only one who came to gaze at her one last time; there were many other melting candles near mine, and we probably shared the same last wish — to see the monastery liberated again.

I attempted to keep my emotions under check as I was looking for my dad. I knew he couldn’t endure the pain and would break down if he saw me cry. I found him in a small hall, standing in a profound silence. I quietly approached, trying not to make any noise to disturb him. All I could see and hear was my dad, meticulously touching everything on the walls and the alter, and weeping. I stayed petrified for a few minutes then went outside to digest everything. Seeing the Russian servicemen and their flags, I could only feel sorry for my dad — the person who organized the reconstruction of Dadivank and dedicated all his vigor to it, who knew each fresco, each icon, all the secret entrances and exits, and all the flowers and trees in the surroundings. Instead of reveling in the result of his dedication, now he had to bear the agony of seeing Russian tanks and flags, which would soon be replaced by the Azerbaijani ones. I looked at the time — it was 23:15 and we had to get home.

I couldn’t recognize Stepanakert: the Tatik-Papik monument that was always the first sight to welcome the visitors was not illuminated as the backlight was missing, and I hardly noticed that we were already in town. We arrived very late and were not surprised to see the complete darkness with no signs of life.

The roads were as gloomy as in the middle of the highway where no electricity stations functioned, and the same ghost-like atmosphere prevailed in the city. Our car was the only moving object despite the crowds behind and beyond us and it felt like we were the first returning to town.

We reached our narrow and short street, with a dozen of old and modern houses, adorned with plants in little lawns. We could not differentiate any colors; the houses were hidden in all the shades of a November night when even the moon decided to stay away and not reveal itself. I got out of the car, my eyes filled with tears that I could no longer keep inside. I opened the front door and turned on the lights. I appeared in the same corridor, between the same thick walls and looked into the black mirror on the center of the wall. I saw myself, my red swollen face, and my exhausted body. But the most genuine happiness pierced into my soul, and I started to cry. I walked through the first floor, examining all the rooms to make sure that everything was untouched. Then I went to the terrace to meet my cats who suspiciously didn’t welcome us in the entrance, and I heard no reaction to my “meow-meow” in the garden. They are gone, they definitely ran away, I thought, and a sudden feeling of emptiness and loss replaced the joy of being home. I went upstairs to see my room and finally stood on the scale to see how much weight I had gained under stress, but the numbers didn’t disappoint me. I was mourning for my cats because they disappeared in my dead hometown. I went downstairs, and we drove to a hotel for the night as our house was too cold. It was the first night of my new life.

The next morning, we saw all the ruined houses, the remnants of burned infrastructures, abandoned buildings, and starving animals, that hadn’t eaten for days. We returned to our house and lit the fireplace. Nina made pasta with parmesan and pepper flakes and roasted cauliflower, and we celebrated the first family dinner in the house. Later I noticed a cat on the terrace that I didn’t recognize. She looked like she’d been tortured and starving, and her gray hair that was standing like icicles because of the dirt. She was thin and small, unlike my chubby Slivka. Only later did I realize it was Slivka after all.

Soon, I started seeing people filling the empty streets, sometimes even my neighbors who never left town, and I was happy to see every passer-by. The voices of the cleaning ladies could be heard in the streets in early mornings, and I noticed how soon the dense piles of fallen leaves disappeared from the sidewalks.

Once I saw a school guard woefully sitting on a bench and I greeted him. He smiled and invited me to have coffee inside, but I refused; I couldn’t trust an unfamiliar old man when criminals prevailed in the town.

I remember standing in a queue near the municipality to get expired sell-by date sausages for my cat or asking for other dairy products from a neighboring shop. I managed to bring Slivka back to herself very soon after I returned. Still, the image of the innocent faces of stray dogs and cats left by their owners never leaves my mind. But we were all back, back to the place we belonged. We entered our new lives together where the most important values became our families, safe and sound, and our homeland to which we owed all.

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