We Are Our Hills

Zori Balayan (right) in Nor Maragha We stopped at a tank memorial alongside the road. Our driver, Boris, told its story: “This tank suffered a direct hit; I knew the soldiers inside were dead. I pulled out two of the bodies, but I couldn’t retrieve the third — the Azeri sniper fire was too heavy.”

Colorful wreaths had been placed around the base of the tank, honoring the soldiers who had died. Zori Balayan stood defiantly in front of the tank, his fist raised in the air….

I first met Zori Balayan on my way to Karabagh with Varoojan and Sylvia Iskenderian, of Australia. I knew Zori was one of the founders of the Karabagh movement, and I had read about his hunger strike in Moscow, where he, astronomer Victor Hampartsumian, and others defied Soviet decisions concerning Karabagh. We were also fortunate to be in the company of Armenian Genocide scholar Vahakn Dadrian, who was on his first trip to Artsakh, and Swiss-Armenians Rupen Boyadjian and Keith Gunthhardt.

Shushi, Karintak
Our first stop was the ancient town of Shushi, once the capital of Karabagh and a great center of Armenian culture. The newly-renovated church of Ghazanchetsots stood resplendently, symbolizing the rebirth of Armenian Shushi, also known as “Eagle’s Nest.” Inside, deacons and acolytes were chanting the psalms of the Evening Service, their voices echoing in the acoustically-rich church.

Outside the church, we looked from the fortress town to Stepanakert, remembering the devastation it suffered until Armenians heroically liberated Shushi. I later learned from Zori about the hundreds of boxes found inside the church — boxes storing the Grad rockets that nearly destroyed Stepanakert.

Near Shushi, in a forest, we enjoyed a brief respite at a legendary spring and fountain, left untouched by the war.

As darkness approached, our driver Boris stopped on a hill overlooking Karintak, a village which had resisted many Azeri attacks during the war. Six years earlier, in 1992, Armenian soldiers had climbed the massive mountain of rock above Karintak, under the cover of darkness, and entered Shushi. Now, we wound our way down the road to Karintak, to visit the village and its heroic people.

A small group of men sat near the cobbled road, playing nardi. A boy rode a small donkey. Several men sat outside a small shop in the town square.

“The Azeris never entered Karintak,” one villager told us. “They rolled burning tires from the peaks, trying to torch our village.” Another continued, “We answered by blowing up the water supply pipe to Shushi, when they still occupied the town.”

A short walk took us to the memorial honoring those killed in the war. “Our veterans need work,” said an old, bearded man. “Some were wounded in the war and receive a small pension. Can you help us?” These words were echoed by many in Armenia and Karabagh, by people asking not for charity, but for work to support their families.

Mamig and Dadig
The following morning, Zori told us we would be driving to the town of Mardakert. Driving the now familiar road north of Stepanakert, we stopped at the monument, “We Are Our Hills,” created by Karabagh sculptor Sarkis Baghdasarian. It is nicknamed “Mamig and Dadig” (Granny and Granddad) by the Karabagh Armenians. Zori told us why Mamig and Dadig have no bodies: they are rooted in the earth, and will never leave their home, Karabagh. As we walked towards the van, Zori said he hoped Armenians would help Artsakh now, so the youth will stay, and not leave for Yerevan, Russia, or elsewhere.

Nor Maragha
On the road to Mardakert, we stopped in the small village of Maragha. We walked with Zori to another memorial; its words revealed only part of Maragha’s tragedy. A villager began his story: “The Azeris came to our village during the night. Many were killed. Burned alive. Others, including my wife, were taken away…. No one knows what happened to them.”

Zori told us he was there the following day when the burned, decapitated bodies were being discovered. Survivors are rebuilding the village, which they now call Nor Maragha.

Nearing the strategic town of Mardakert, scene of some of the fiercest battles of the war in Karabagh, we stopped alongside the road and picked up pieces of shrapnel. Fearing land mines, no one dared stray far from the road. Zori briefly disappeared, emerging from a small path with a long branch in his right hand. He continued toward the van, using the branch as a staff — as if he were leading us to victory, or to the future. He appeared ready to walk the entire distance of Karabagh….

The large, covered yard had a festive look; women were washing a mountain of dishes from a wedding the night before. As lunch was prepared, a local commander joined our group. “This wedding symbolizes a new beginning, not only for the husband and wife, but for the people of Mardakert and Karabagh.” He offered a toast to the Armenians of the Diaspora, and to the success of the Karabagh army, adding: “Never underestimate the strength of the Karabagh army.” Then, in an old, rustic style, the commander sang songs about the legendary fedayee, Kevork Chavoush. Here, in ancient Artsakh, I felt I was listening to the voice of our ancestors.

Before leaving, we were greeted by the new bride and groom, symbols of the rebirth of Karabagh….

Professor Vahakn Dadrian at Artsakh State University
On Monday, October 12, we accompanied Professor Dadrian to Artsakh State University, where he was to deliver a lecture on the occasion of his first visit to Karabagh. We were greeted by the rector, Pavel Gevorgian, who welcomed us to the university and to Karabagh.

The large auditorium was filled to capacity as several hundred students and faculty gathered to hear Professor Dadrian speak about the Armenian Genocide. For them, and for the Armenians of Karabagh, the presence of Vahakn Dadrian had special meaning: only recently, the Karabagh Armenians had faced the real possibility of genocide at the hands of the Azeri Turks.

During his lecture, Professor Dadrian covered the many aspects of the Genocide, placing emphasis on the deceit of the European powers both before and during the Genocide. Professor Dadrian concluded his lecture by exhorting the students to learn the English language, both to assist in the study and research of the Genocide, and to better understand the politics and economy of the world.

Following the lecture, we enjoyed a reception in the rector’s office.

Amaras Monastery
Near Amaras Later that afternoon, our group set out for the ancient fortified monastery of Amaras. After driving through several creekbeds and watching anxiously as our van slipped in the infamous mud of Martuni, we reached our destination.

Amaras Monastery is nestled in a picturesque, hilly area, and is surrounded by a grove of ancient mulberry trees. We walked through the arched opening and were welcomed by the caretaker. Before investigating the many church buildings, we went inside the church. Just inside, to the left, is the burial place of Grigoris, nephew of St. Grigor Lusavorich. Using candles to light the way, we walked down steep steps in front of the altar into a dark cavern-like room, from which secret passages once led outside the church.

We walked through the surrounding church buildings, which included a hall used exclusively for weddings. On the ceiling of the adjoining room was the handwriting of Mesrob Mashtots, inventor of the Armenian alphabet. Outside, we viewed the fortress walls, and the buildings once used as refuge for pilgrims and passing caravans.

Soon after leaving the beautiful setting of Amaras, with its mulberry trees and green meadows, we stopped in a nearby village, hoping to find some of the famous honey of Karabagh.

“Follow me,” a villager said. “We have honey and pekmez” (a syrup made from mulberries). We walked a cobbled road to a large house, anxious to taste the Karabagh honey. After sampling the honey, with its heavenly aroma, we were given a huge container, and another filled with pekmez, to take back home.

Near the van, several villagers had gathered. An old man was talking about the war. “My son was a commander. He fought the Azeris near Amaras. His men were outnumbered. Avo, Monte Melkonian, gave orders to retreat. My son refused. They destroyed 18 Azeri tanks. They are near the monastery. Soon after, my son was killed by the Azeris.”

We left the village, saddened by his story….

Ashot Pegor, Karabagh Hero
He who passes by, kneel before this grave — here rests your brave brother…

I had met Nellie, the widow of the famous commander Ashot Pegor, during a trip to Karabagh the previous week. With our friend Shushanik, whom I had met last year in Karabagh, we visited the memorial in Stepanakert which honors Pegor. An inscription reads: “I love from sea to sea,” meaning, an Armenia from sea to sea, as in the time of Dikran the Great.

Now, the evening before Professor Dadrian was to leave for Yerevan, we were invited to her home for dinner.

Together, we reminisced the adventures of the last three days, and congratulated Professor Dadrian for his lecture and the important work he is undertaking for the Armenian nation. Our reunion was made complete, as Shahkeh Setian and Vahan Bournazian, fellow-travelers from last year’s Karabagh journey, were at the dinner. They are currently living in Stepanakert and teaching at the university. With the Iskenderians and Shushanik, our guide and friend, we talked about our two meetings in Karabagh, and hopes for the future….

We thanked Nellie and her three sons for their warm hospitality. It was an honor to be in their home, the home of the great hero, Ashot Ghoolian, known as Pegor.

We are indebted to Zori Balayan, and others like him, for their unrelenting work on behalf of the Armenian people. I remember Zori standing next to Mamig and Dadig. Both are rooted in Karabagh, their native land….

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