Chapar Village – Full Moon over Karabagh

Chapar Villagers Note: I traveled to Armenia in 1998 for two reasons: to visit friends, and to continue my journey through the land of Armenia. With roots in Dinuba, California, a small town near Fresno, I grew up under the influence of my Moushetsi and Sebastatsi relatives — the Minasians of Moush, the Saroyans of Bitlis, and the Chapoutians and Sahagians of Sebastia. In 1996, while visiting the birthplace of my ancestors, I was drawn to the towns, the villages, and the people of old Armenia.

Through friends in Oregon, I met Garen, who had been their schoolmate while growing up in Yerevan. He immediately told me about his family’s village, located in the Mardakert district of Karabagh.

“Let’s go to Chapar, my father’s village. My Uncle Jora will go with us. We’ll go by Lake Sevan, through Kelbajar.”

Instead of the familiar road to Lake Sevan and its seventh century monastery, we turned towards Vardenis and Kelbajar. I looked over the blue waters of Sevan and saw the distant monastery. Later, close to the shore, the massive Hayravank came into view.

Soon, we were winding our way through the mountains of Kelbajar. The view of the tall, heavily-treed mountains was breathtaking. It was difficult to think of this area in terms of the war and its “strategic position.”

“We don’t call this Kelbajar anymore. It isn’t an Armenian word. Down that road is the town of Kelbajar. Its old name is Karavajar. Armenians live there now.” Garen then related, “My cousin was killed near here. He lived in Chapar.”

Descending from the Vardenis peak is the Tartar River, one of the four main rivers in Karabagh. “The water is safe to drink,” Garen said, “It comes from springs.”

Soon, there was barely room for the road. Next to the road, massive walls of rock loomed high in the air. At one point, while standing alongside the river, I noticed an opening high in the rocky cliff. Garen explained, “It’s a house. A kind of refuge. In the time of Davit Beg, and before, people stayed there when times were dangerous. From that spot, one man could fight an entire army.”

Darkness was falling. “We’re close to Dadivank, but it’s too dark,” Garen said. “We’ll see it when we return.” Now in Mardakert district, we approached Chapar village.

Turning off the main road, we drove the rocky path to Chapar. Stopping in front of a large gate, Garen proclaimed, “We’re here. This is my father, Grisha. Welcome to Chapar!”

Garen drove his Niva through the yard and parked next to his father’s house. On the porch, I noticed a huge pile of walnuts. “These are for the winter,” Grisha said. He gave us bread, cheese, grapes, and madzoon. “The madzoon is made from oxen’s milk. I hope you like it.”

I heard a car stop outside. Garen said, “These are my cousins, Davit and Garik. It was Garik’s brother who was killed during the war in Kelbajar.” We were each poured a glass of moshi oghi, vodka made from a kind of blackberry. We talked about our trip that day, and happenings in the village. Next to the house, a small gate opened. It was Grisha’s sister. “This is Andranik,” Garen said. “He’ll be staying with us.”

I woke up early the next morning. Grisha was scattering feed for the chickens; a pig and several turkeys were finding their way in the early morning light. “Sit down,” Grisha said, “Garen will wake up soon. We’ll eat breakfast.” Jora, Garen’s uncle, was already slicing tomatoes and cucumbers. I cracked several walnuts, while enjoying the sounds of the early morning. A small flock of sheep was followed by a woman, urging them along the village road. A few minutes later, three huge oxen lumbered by. I hurried to take their picture. As one looked my way, uttering a less-than-friendly sound, I retreated to a safer place….

The War in Chapar
Chapar is located in a heavily-forested area, surrounded by tall mountains now turning the colors of autumn. Davit pointed to one of the mountains. “On the top of that mountain is a fortress, Hagaragapert. You can only reach it by foot. It takes four hours.” Then, pointing another direction, he continued: “The Azeris used GRAD missiles to destroy our village. The missiles came from that mountain.” I asked about a nearby house with only the walls remaining. Jora explained, “That’s where I was born. It was a large, two-story house with four bedrooms. Now, nothing is left.”

“There was an Azeri village not far from here,” Davit said. “But now, nothing remains.” I asked what became of the villagers. “They all fled. If you go there, you can’t even tell there was a village.”

“When the missiles were falling, we stayed in the cellars. It was terrible. Finally, we have peace.” Garik then added, “But if the fighting starts again, we are ready. In one minute.”

Forest Near Chapar “We’ll go into the forest and have something to eat,” said Garen. I got into his Niva, looking forward to seeing the forest surrounding Chapar. “My father and uncle are going to stay and cut wood for the winter,” Garen said, “Garik and Davit will go with us.” We set out over roads which quickly became paths, until we were in the midst of a green, wooded area, close to a small stream. We drank icy water from a nearby spring. Only the sound of the stream broke the silence of the forest.

Old men began arriving, mostly on horseback. Women walked from the woods, carrying baskets of tomatoes, peppers, and bread. Several of the younger men of the village were standing close together. They seemed to be involved in a struggle. Soon I realized they were holding onto a sheep, which was doing its best to escape its fate.

After the animal had been butchered, crosses were made on the foreheads of two boys, using the blood of the sacrificed sheep. “They won’t wash the blood until tonight,” a villager explained.

A few men whittled branches to be used as skewers. A fire was started. The animal was expertly carved, both for khorovadz and for a stew with peppers and tomatoes. The women spread large table-cloths and blankets, and set out plates and bread for everyone.

We sat on the ground. The mayor of the village, a rugged, handsome man, offered a toast: “To the Armenians of the diaspora, and to our friend, Andranik, who has come from the distant shores of America.” I then proposed another toast, saying, “Your bravery and sacrifices have brought all Armenians together. Although living in foreign lands, our hearts are here, in Chapar village, in Mountainous Karabagh, joining your struggle. Minchev verchin haghtanagu” (until the final victory).

Visitors had arrived at Grisha’s home. Garen said, “This is Emma Gabrielian, my mother’s sister, and Senator Slavik Arooshanian. My aunt is the vice-president of the Karabagh parliament.” As we talked, another khorovadz was being prepared. Slavik and Jora went out into the forest to gather walnuts. Davit arrived with his wife and small children.

“Andranik. When you return next year, we’ll climb to Hagaragapert. Garik, Garen, and Jora will come with us. We can go hunting. I’ll show you how we surround an animal and start shouting, so it becomes frightened and we can shoot it.” As we walked, Davit continued, as if thinking out loud, “I don’t want the war to start again. I don’t want it, chem oozoom, chem oozoom…”

The full moon was bright over Chapar village. Underneath a neighbor’s house, in a dark stable, a woman was milking an ox. “This is for you, Andranik,” the woman said, “so you can have fresh madzoon in the morning.” I asked if we could stand closer to the huge animal. “It isn’t a good idea,” the woman said. “The ox doesn’t know you. It might get angry.”

Next to the stable, there was a long wooden box filled with water. Garen explained, “Here, they’re making oghi from grapes. This pile has already been cooked. It’s of no use now.” He continued, “The cold water is mixing with steam from the cooked grapes. Here is the new oghi. Try some.”

Armen Saghian School
We arrived early in the morning as classes were beginning. Children giggled as they ran to their classrooms. “They’re happy,” Garen said. “Their school was destroyed during the war. Now, they can come every day.”

I was introduced to the principal, a neatly-dressed woman in her thirties. She told me there were fifty-three students in the school, but that before the war there had been over one hundred. She continued, “The school is named after Armen Saghian. He was killed defending our village. He was a fine lad, only twenty-three years old.”

In each classroom, I gave the students tablets and other school supplies I had bought in Yerevan. Looking at their beautiful, young faces, I remembered Davit’s words the night before, “Chem oozoom, chem oozoom….”

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