Living on the edge: 20 years of ceasefire bring no real ceasefire for residents of some borderline villages

Mariam carefully draws the dark curtain of the bedroom on the second floor of her village house, and the sunrays, taking advantage of that opportunity, crawl inside and cover the teenage girl’s eyes. Bullets being released from the highest Azerbaijani post reflected in her eyes have violated the village peace for years and reminded of the unresolved conflict and the ceasefire existing for the community perhaps only on paper.

“I’m leaving school this year, I must apply to a university, so sometimes I stay up till very late to study, so we hung this dark curtain so that the light in the room doesn’t turn it into a target for the enemies, but bullets don’t know light and curtains, if it has to hit it will hit, we just assure ourselves that this way we are safer,” says Nerkin Karmiraghbyur village resident Mariam Israyelyan with a grin, as she closes the ‘shield-curtain’ and continues talking. “Maybe the houses on the other side of the border also turn to such self-defense, I know that it’s not easy for them either, but we can also see that if our side doesn’t show due counterblow, they don’t stop shooting.”

Mariam’s mother, 39-year-old Ruzanna, interrupts the conversation feeling sorry that her daughter has to study under the sound of bullets.

“I left school in 1992 while the toughest fights were on. We lived in the mountains, I couldn’t participate in the final exams, then I got married, but we had a child much later and were happy about that fact, thinking that we couldn’t raise a child under those bullets, but the war goes on,” says the mother of two and changes the subject with wet eyes. She talks about their daily life, shows her daughter’s prom dress. “I never had a prom, during those heated fights there was no room for a prom, and now I can’t imagine how and what to prepare, but above all I wish there is no shooting.”

Mariam’s class of 11 is the first to hold a graduation ceremony in the village’s newly built cultural center. The cultural center was completely destroyed during the war and in its place new construction was initiated in 2012 and finished in 2014 January, the official opening ceremony was held on April 5, with President Serzh Sargsyan attending.

According to the villagers, the 124.8 million-dram-worth (nearly $300,000) building in the heart of the village, which has already been ‘decorated’ by traces of Azerbaijani bullets, gives new appeal and hope to the village.

“For so many years this building is the brightest thing in our village,” elderly villagers remember. “You can’t imagine how beautiful the old building was, there was a cinema which showed movies that hadn’t been on in the city yet, but this one is also good, we just need peace, all the rest can be done.”

But the elderly villagers also say that they would also like to see factories with available jobs, due to which villagers would have regular income, and would stay and live together with their families, wouldn’t leave miles away for migrant labor.

The situation in the Nerkin Karmiraghbyur, Aygepar, Chinari and Movses villages of Armenia’s Tavush province, where even 20 years after signing the ceasefire agreement the enemy regularly reminds of itself, is almost the same. Struggling to win their daily bread under enemy fire, they essentially guard the most vulnerable section of Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan.

Although for two years already the government provides state support in the form of exemption from land taxes for the agricultural land situated within reach of Azeri snipers in the borderline villages and 50 percent discount for irrigation water, but the villagers’ burden doesn’t decrease with this.

Doing agriculture is like suicide in these villages. On January 18, 2008 during agricultural works an Azeri sniper’s bullet killed Chinari village residents Levon Petrosyan, 21, and Rafik Saghoyan, 50. On July 1, 2012 Nerkin Karmragyugh village resident Vachik Melkumyan, 52, was injured while woking in his grape field, and on February 20, 2013 a resident of Aygepar village resident Davit Gabrielyan, 45, on October 12 a resident of Navur village Hayk Kosakyan, 30 were injured.

Mariam’s father, 49-year-old Hakob Israyelyan, just like his co-villagers gave up on his 2,500 meters of grape fields located in the target of the enemy which used to provide 4-500 thousand AMD (nearly $1,000-1,250) yearly income for his family.

“The first years after signing the ceasefire everything was very good, there were almost no shootings, we could peacefully work in the fields, but during the last two years we cannot approach the fields, all the fields are under snipers’ targets,” says Israyelyan whose fields are located about 7-800 meters away from the Armenian-Azerbaijani border.

According to Israyelyan, 17 acres of land belonging to 25-30 families is left uncultivated.

“Years ago harvesting grape was a holiday, we could collect for the whole year, relatives from Yerevan would come, and there we had a big gathering, but we have to sneak there these last couple of years. It could still bring some income. But till when can we work hiding? Last autumn on the way to the field a Turkish sniper shot and I luckily survivied,” says Israyelyan, who last year had to give away his store in the village center which had about 100-150 thousand AMD (nearly $240-$360) monthly circulation.

According to Israyelyan, the reason he gave away the store was constant pressure from the tax system. “Every time a report came from Ijevan they demanded to show growth, but the circulation in my store wasn’t normal, I didn’t have that much trade, it went from bad to worse each year, how could I show growth? I bought a cash register for 70,000 AMD (about $170), I gave a receipt for goods bought on credit (couldn’t find the right word), at times they wouldn’t return the money for years, but I paid same taxes as supermarkets in Yerevan,” says Israyelyan hiding his anger under a smile. At present, he is enaged in animal breeding and beekeeping.

Israyelyan’s day full of endeless work peacefully starts with the buzz of the four beehives located right opposite Azeri posts and under the enemy’s constant watch and, if there is no shooting, ends with the same ease, full of hope for peace and expectation.

“We were in the front when we were told about signing of the ceasefire agreement, it was something like a miracle, and we thought everything was over, who could imagine that it was just the beginning. The shootings make our life very difficult, we try to cope, work with pleasure, but all hopes are broken with more shootings. I’ve always been an optimist and thought that things will get better, all this will end, but it’s been 25 years already… What shall we do? Where shall we go if we abandon our house?”