What I Learned in Artsakh
By U. Ara Sarajian
As I found out that my summer trip to Western Armenia was cancelled (due to circumstances overseas), I was disappointed and frustrated. My good friend Stephen and I were planning on visiting a land we had never seen before, a land that belonged to our ancestors. After being informed that we could not receive a full refund on our flight, I started to suggest that we change our plans and visit some place that neither of us had been. Egypt, Lebanon, Israel. I wanted to feed my inner traveler cravings; I wanted to go somewhere I had never been to before. Stephen had a different idea. “Let’s go to Artsakh,” he said, suggesting that we spend some time in Yerevan and then visit Artsakh (Karabagh). My brother Garo had just wrapped up his time with Camp Javakhk, and the three of us decided to do just that.
I hate to admit it, but I wasn’t thrilled with this plan. Artsakh didn’t excite me. I knew the history and why it was important. But if we are being honest, I would have rather gone elsewhere. We drafted a rough itinerary that revolved around a stay in the capital, Stepanakert. The main goal was for us to meet with some local Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) and Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) members to discuss how things were in Artsakh and to create a more formal relation between our AYF region and theirs. Like most adventures I’ve had, we had Point A and Point B established but left out a few details (like making initial contact with the folks in Artsakh to let them know we were coming, or setting up any appointments).
Our drive to Artsakh was beautiful. I really enjoyed watching the sand-covered hills and mountains of Armenia turn to a lush, green-filled sight as we approached the border. We got in late that evening and had dinner at a local spot. To our surprise, the folks we encountered that evening mainly spoke Russian. We roamed the streets for another hour or so, looking to find some locals or night life. Instead, we ended up spending the evening sweating in the summer heat, wondering what we had gotten ourselves into.
The next day we headed to the local ARF office, hoping to meet up with some local ungers. We were able to locate the office with some ease, though nobody was there. Frustrated, we walked out and encountered someone that was heading in. We told him our story and after a quick phone call, were told to come back in one hour. We left and returned to meet our new friend, U. Vahagn, who gave us a wonderful tour of the office and courtyard (which he mentioned was renovated with the help of the Sosse and Allen Foundation). We then sat down and spoke for about 45 minutes, discussing our Eastern Region initiatives and what sort of relations their office had with others. After a very fruitful conversation, I knew that we now had an opportunity to strengthen ties between the two regions and looked forward to the opportunity. On our way out, U. Vahagn introduced us to some other AYFers—one who was even supposed to join us on our Western Armenia trip. We were then invited to a special event, a gathering with local AYF members.
That evening we met with U. Vahagn and headed to the gathering, where we were shocked and surprised to see that 20 or so AYFers were having a fireside chat with U. Karnig Sarkissian. The conversation ranged from life in America to the current problems that the AYF members were encountering worldwide. I was impressed to see how much they knew and that we all were dealing with similar issues. The program ended with the entire group singing a few of U. Karnig’s songs with him. Following the program, we ate dinner with U. Vahagn, while he arranged for a local AYF member to take us around town the next day.
The following day we met with U. Harut. We visited several sites, including Tikranagerd, Ganzsasar, and the home of Nikol Duman. U. Harut was 16 years old but far more mature than his age. We spoke about his chapter and ours, and explained to him that we were extremely excited to see Karnig perform at our AYF Olympics in a few weeks. The day ended with us discussing some of the April 24 activities that occurred, and we gave U. Harut one of our region’s #TURKEYFAILED T-shirts, then parted ways.
This portion of my trip was truly unforgettable. The land of Artsakh is a beautiful one, and for that alone I would encourage you to visit. However, it’s the people that draw you in. It hasn’t turned into a tourist spot like Yerevan, just yet. The people had a direct connection to the land—their land—and you feel it. Everywhere you go, you sense a level of pride. More importantly, they are willing to connect and share with you. What astonished me the most was how we, three random Armenian-Americans, showed up at the doors of their office, met an unger, who brought us in and pointed us in the right direction, introducing us to a 16-year-old boy who spent a precious summer day showing us around and swapping stories. I was embarrassed at the thought of how I would have reacted, had an out-of-towner asked me for directions in Brooklyn. I know I would have been helpful, but I can’t say at the level that these individuals were.
After leaving Artsakh, all three of us were in agreement that we must return. I hope that Stepanakert continues to grow and develop into a more modern city. And that the diaspora and tourists alike are able to see and experience what I did. Additionally, I now see and understand the responsibility that our region has.
Often times we would be driving on a smooth road or by a new building, and I would ask my cab drivers or guides, “How is it possible that these roads are so new or buildings so modern?” They would all respond with the same answer: “The telephone [Telethons] helped build this.” They were all very aware and grateful that we help and care for this republic. We must continue to give back to Artsakh and find ways that we can aid with its development. After all, Artsakh is Armenia, and we mustn’t forget that.