The Song Survives: Shmavon and his memories of life in Zrchi

He sings in a low voice, almost whispering, a song about Yaghluja mount. Tears fall from his 93-year old eyes and wash away the present and take Shmavon Sahakyan back to Zrchi, the foothill village of his distant youth.

Shmavon stops singing, and collects his thoughts, to tell his story without confusion.

“I cannot forget our house, our yard, our orchards. I am thinking of them day and night. It may happen that I see them again one day, but I don’t think I will. I wish at least my son Samvel could go there to see it, I don’t know, the whole world is making efforts today for these lands to be returned,” he says.

Samvel is Shmavon’s youngest son. He spreads on the table the map of Zrchi drawn by Shmavon and says: “Everything is drawn in detail. Here was our ancestral house, here was the watermill of the village that again belonged to them. I think that one day I will certainly visit the village to see my father’s birthplace.”.

Zrchi was one of the 859 villages of the Kars province (according to data from 1913). It was situated between the cities of Kars and Kaghzvan and home to about 1,500.

Shmavon, the grandson of Mkrtich and Maro, says with pride that theirs was one of the richest families in the village. He remembers his father, Sahak, and mother, Noyem.

“My mother was very beautiful. They say that when my father brought my mother to the village as a bride on horseback, his fellow-villagers said: ‘Hey, man, what a marvelous woman you have brought!’ To preserve her beauty they even bathed her in milk,” says grandfather Shmavon and continues: “We had a van, carts, many hectares of grain and barley fields.”

Color turns to black and white when the old man’s memory turns to “the stampede”.

The Kars province of Western Armenia was near Eastern Armenia. Its location made it more secure, or so it was supposed. The few such as Shmavon, left to tell of villages like Zrchi, know terribly well that no Armenian territory was safe against Ottoman Turk aggression.

“The massacres had begun long before 1918. News about brutalities was reaching us. Like others my grandfather decided to take his family towards Alexandrapol (today’s Gyumri), which was 50-60 kilometers away from where we lived,” he remembers.

They emigrated in April 1918, when Shmavon was six. There were four brothers, including Shmavon – Hayko, Vagharshak, Vorontsov. They had one sister, Varsik. In conditions of famine and poverty in Armenia the grandfather, grandmother, uncle died.

The “rich” family had lost everything by the time they settled down in Armenia, in the village of Aramus (then later to a village, the name of which Shmavon has forgotten, on the bank of the Akhuryan River).

Poverty became so severe that the father decided to take the family back to Zrchi. There, they found only ruins.

“They plundered everything. We didn’t have anything for our living. I remember how we took the logs of our house, hewed them and put on our backs. This is 1919 year. We were taking them to the mountain, to the Kurds who had their yaylas (tents) and exchanging them for firewood and tan (the popular Armenian drink made of yoghurt, water and salt) to have something to drink. We were so hungry that we ate grass,” he remembers.

Shmavon’s father saw the only salvation for his children in an orphanage.

“I feel as if it was yesterday. My father took us in turn on his back to the other bank of the river Akhuryan. We also brought with us the sewing-machine of our mother to sell it so that we could live for a few days,” says Shmavon.

In the autumn of 1919, they were already in Gyumri’s orphanage with four children, as he himself says in “polygons”district. His eldest brother Hayko died still in “that country” (Western Armenia). He had gone to Kaghzvan to bring flour for his starving family. There he contracted cholera and died.

For 10 years, Shmavon lived in the Gyumri orphanage.

In 1935, Shmavon married Anechka Sahakyan, from the village of Azatan, near Gymri.

Six years later, like thousands of other Armenians, Shmavon went to war. After fighting for 5 years, he returned to Gyumri, where he and his wife Anechka raised 4 children. His wife died in 1996. Today Shmavon has 10 grandchildren and 14 great grandchildren.

With such a vital connection to the present, Shmavon lives more by the past. His memories never betray him: “All of us in the orphanage had the same fate. All of us had pain in our hearts. Many had lost all of their family. We became more courageous as we gave hope to each other.”

The hand-drawn map is Shmavon’s inseparable companion. With shaking hands he shows the school, the steep bank, the church, their house.

“My brightest memory is connected with my grandmother. Every morning she got up, stoked the tonir and prepared a tan soup. Then, she baked lavash. We ate and ran up the Yaghluja hill to play there.”

And again the sounds of a song are on his lips: “Yaghluja is high… Yaghluja was our mountain.”