Baku to Gandzasar, Mrs Hakobyan’s story
Disclaimer: The reader should read this as an account of history. Having travelled in the Caucuses for a number of years and spent time in all the countries this is a recorded account from a neutral observer and journalist. The following is an account from an interview on 30/07/16 with an Armenian refugee living in Nagorno-Karabakh.
I was born in 1950 in the village of Gandzasar in Nagorno-Karabakh. Most people know Gandzasar for the 13th century monastery that sits on top of the mountains that surround the village. You will see in Karabahk that the mountains are rich with trees and in the summer season they almost glow vibrant green. There is something special about Nagorno-Karabakh it’s not just because I grew up there up but there is something in the land its self. To us Armenians it holds a place in our hearts, it’s a part of so much of our history and ingrained into a collective consciousness for all Armenians, ask any Armenian, even the diaspora and they will tell you the same.
When I was growing up in Gandzasar I went to the local school just down the road from my house, my siblings went to the same school. Back in the 1950s Nagorno-Karabakh was in the Soviet Union so of course in school we learnt Russian and back home we spoke Armenian. Looking back, it was a gift to be born into such a diverse linguistic region. I spoke, and still do speak, fluent Russian, Armenian and Azerbaijani. I had a few Azerbaijani friends who grew up in the village and went to the same school as me. We were all friends, we lived in the same village, did the same things and lived the same. Under the Soviet Union there were of course problems and difficulties but as a child you don’t feel them. Agriculture was a big employer in the region and my parents worked on one of the collective farms growing all sorts of produce that was sold all across the Soviet Union. From the South Caucasus region to the Crimea to the Ural mountains to Moscow and even as far as Siberia my father told us.
I was an excellent student in school and learnt eagerly, it was always a pleasure to borrow a book from school and in the evening after a meal with the family to read at the bottom of our garden. We had a lovely house with a decent size garden where we grow our own vegetables and had a small holding of chickens. The garden was always my retreat. Past the vegetable patch and near the chickens we had a bench with perfect shade. I would get lost in the books and thoughts of the future. With the mountain breeze in my hair and the sound of the chickens clucking to the side I would immerse myself in everything I could. Of course I had read the classics, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and anything I could get my hands on.
In the summer months when school was on holiday I would help my parents either on the farm or around the house and local area. The village was always a hive of activity and because Gandzasar had many families we always had people to see and things to do. My friends and I used to enjoy going down to the river fishing or just dipping our feet in the cool mountain water.
Childhood flew by and I had decided I wanted to pursue a career and profession that would truly challenge me, so I embarked on studying medicine. I had the idea that this would be a rewarding career and would give me the opportunity to help others while earning a decent living. So, when I was 16 I made the decision to move to Baku to continue my studies at the Medical University Institute of Baku in the capital city of Azerbaijan. The language didn’t faze me at all. I had many Azerbaijani friends and I had learnt Azerbaijani well. If anything, moving to Baku would help me in my chosen profession and I would perfect my Azerbaijani.
My mother, bless her soul, was very anxious about me leaving to Baku. Naturally a mother worries about her children but my parents were wonderful people and always supported me. For me it was the adventure and a necessity for the future. It was a shock when I arrived in Baku. I had been brought up in a mountainous village in Nagorno-Karabakh and Baku was a huge city with many motor cars and grand buildings. Thousands and thousands of people lived and worked there. Many Armenians also lived in Baku and there was a thriving Armenian community. We had an Armenian church in the center of Baku and lived well side by side with the Azerbaijanis.
It was in Baku that I met my husband. We met in a café in down town Baku and hit it off from there. He was Armenian and a good man, honest, hardworking and intelligent. He was also a skilled musician. He worked in Sumgait which is about a 30 minute bus ride north of Baku in the chemical production factory. Sumgait was a large employer and industrial town that had people from all over the Caucasus Region. In Azerbaijan at that time people from Armenia, Georgia, Russia and the different ethnic groups in Azerbaijani like the Talysh, Avars and Ashkenazi Jews all worked together with the Azerbaijanis.
After my husband and I married we moved into an apartment in Baku and started a family. I was 18 at the time and still studying at the medical university. After a couple of years, I had finished my studies and began to work in a medical practice in Baku. In total I spent 22 years of my life in Baku. I had two children early on in our marriage, a son and a daughter, and as a family we lived well. Our apartment was spacious and luxurious compared to others, we had everything we needed and more. Together my husband and I built a wonderful life for our children and ourselves. The children went to school in Baku and learnt Azerbaijani, Armenian and Russian as well as their mother tongue. Looking back, we were well off compared to others, we had a car, a nice apartment and good health. I can’t stress enough how the Armenians and Azerbaijanis were friends. We lived together, worked together, had mixed marriages and were friends in the real sense of the word. My husband and I attended many Azeri weddings, birthdays and funerals and many Azeri’s attended our wedding. It wasn’t just events and occasions, we shared everything, there was no difference between anyone and it was a normal life. Our neighbours were a wonderful Azerbaijani family. When the children were younger they played together and it was nice. They were similar ages and together they shared the trials and tribulations of childhood. The children went into different professions but remained solid friends over the years.
You know the reason we left Baku is a difficult story to explain. In the Soviet Union we all were the same and we lived similar lives. In 1985 when Michael Gorbachev came to power and this talk of perestroika and glasnost became common place we thought, well ok fine and life will continue. We trusted the leaders of the Soviet Union and from my experience life was stable and good and the majority of people were content with life. The Soviet news showed positive messages from around the Soviet Union and we believed what we saw. It’s not that we thought the Soviet Union was the socialist utopia where everything was perfect we are educated people and we all knew there were problems and difficulties like in any country or group of countries. The Soviet Union in some ways must have put national disputes and differences on hold to an extent but as we would soon find out, Gorbachev was going to be the end for the Soviet Union and the start of a new chapter for me and my family.
Around January we began to hear rumors that there was beginning a dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh and whether it was Azerbaijani or Armenian. We didn’t take much notice to be honest, we lived in Baku and didn’t think it was worth worrying about. Growing up I had shared many happy memories with my Azerbaijani school mates and often spoke on the phone to my parents who always spoke warmly of the Azerbaijanis living in the village. Of course being Armenian I knew Nagorno-Karabakh was naturally Armenian because of the history and even the amount of Armenians living there. It was very much majority Armenian. There were Azerbaijani towns and villages but in total according to Soviet statistic or whatever you want to call them, there were around 70% Armenian and 30% Azerbaijani living in Nagorno-Karabakh.
So as time went by the stories became more and more and grew in the imaginations of the people who told them. I’m sure it was almost like Chinese whispers in that one person tells another and that person adds this and that and it goes on as such. Then in February the stories turned more vivid with people reporting that they had experienced negative things in Sumgait. People were saying that the mood was changing and the Armenians and Azerbaijanis were not as close a friends as before. My husband didn’t remember any ill feeling and was good friends with all his colleagues. Because my husband was a talented musician he used to play with some Azerbaijani friends who were police officers. Together in Baku they would meet and practice together, he played the clarinet and they the accordion, flute and the kamancha.
Anyway these police officers worked in and around Sumgait and he would often see them when he caught the bus from Baku to Sumgait in the morning before walking to work. One day in February as he was having a coffee in the morning with his friend near the bus station in Sumgait the friend told him it was best to return to Baku. My husband was surprised and wanted to know why his friend was telling him this.
The friend explained that over the last few days there had been gatherings in the center of the city and many people were speaking to the crowds about how they had been forced to leave Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Some were speaking of crimes and the whole situation was becoming inflamed with nationalism on both sides. Feeling a sense of concern they drank coffee and spoke for an hour or so about the situation and what might happen. After the conversation he got on the bus and came back to Baku. Later that evening he told me what his friend had told him and I began to reflect on the situation. It only really dawned on me then that my colleagues had become slightly colder over the previous few weeks. It was the small things that you can only really notice when you have known someone for years, things like greetings and bits and pieces in day to day life. We began to think about what our options were and what we could do. We had built a life and we happy. Our neighbours were in the same boat as us, they didn’t understand and were the same to us as always. However, we knew something was changing, you could feel it in the wind. The news began to filter out from Sumgait that massacres had happened and that the Armenian population were being killed in their homes and on the streets. I say news but it was by word of mouth. The Soviet news was saying everything was fine and that the Armenians were telling lies or things were being exaggerated. All this was between 26-28 February. Then around the 30th I saw something that disturbed me and confirmed to me that something was changing, even in Baku.
After work I used to get a bus home because I worked in the northern outskirts of Baku and lived in the southern outskirts. In the summer I would take the hour plus walk home and walk along the sea front but as it was winter I paid for the bus. The bus always took the same route, from the northern part which was a mix of housing and businesses, through the center with its high buildings and government offices and then into the southern part. Where I lived in the southern part it was mostly housing and the streets were filled with all types of people, well off and less well off, Russians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
The bus pulled off as normal and made its way along the same route. We passed the boulevard in the center next to the Caspian Sea and began to drive towards the southern section of the city. Looking out the window as we drove down a usually quiet narrow residential street I saw a group of young men, teenagers up to twenty somethings. The group were dressed mostly in black and as it was snowing they had black over coats and warm Russian styled hats.
The group saw the bus approaching and briskly walked towards the bus and into the road. They began to line up around the bus on either side and bang on the side of the bus asking if there were any Armenians. The street was narrow so we were moving at a slow pace but eventually the driver stopped the bus because one of the group stood directly in front, forcing us to a halt.
Two of the young men boarded the bus and asked the driver if he had any Armenians onboard, to which the driver said he hadn’t any idea. The two boys dressed in black with neatly trimmed hair visible from beneath their hats began to make their way down the bus asking every passenger as they went “Are you Armenian?” Of course everybody replied they were Azerbaijani, even if they weren’t because the sense of something bad happening was obvious if one were to admit to these people who you were. The boys pressed some passengers suspecting they were being lied to and asked them to say the word ‘Fundukh’ (hazelnut). This sounds simple enough but for an Armenian the “f” in Azeri often comes out as a “p” sound. It was the kind of minor linguistic tinge that some never loose in their speech, no matter how long they have been speaking Azerbaijani. Eventually one of the men approached me as I sat patiently waiting my questioning. The man must have been no more than twenty, with pox marked cheeks and a thin, sparse mustache. He asked straight away “Are you Armenian?” to which I replied no and began to ask him what was the reason for all this. My Azerbaijani was so good that I was prepared for the whole ‘hazelnut’ question but the young man was satisfied with my response and continued down the bus, scowling as he went. Eventually the two of them finished their questioning and turned to leave, apologizing to the driver for disturbing the passengers. They stepped off the bus and into the slush by the side of the road, the crowd dispersed and meandered to the side of the road, lighting cigarettes and waiting for another bus to pass.
After February it was obvious something was happening in the South Caucasus region. My husband was out of work and struggling to find work in Baku. Difficulty finding work was normal because of the declining opportunities with the Soviet Union, it wasn’t him being Armenian it was just signs of the time, recession you could call it. In May I began having complications with work. In Soviet times you were given a work permit. Your employer would have a copy and you would retain the original, this was proof of your right to work and citizenship. One day when I was leaving work I was asked to bring my work permit in the following day. Of course I asked why? And would it be returned to me? I received only the answer that it must be checked by the work authorities in Baku. After a couple of days with no word about my work permit I began to worry. Then that evening the phone rang and it was the head of the medical practice where I had been working, he told me that tomorrow I must pick up my last pay packet. I knew then we had to think about leaving Baku. Both my husband and I were out of work and the Azerbaijani authorities had my work permit with my picture, name and address on it. If a war was going to break out, then it is understandable they would wish to round up Armenians living among them. The next day my husband and children packed some belongings and stored them in our Azerbaijani neighbour’s apartment while I got the bus to collect my final pay packet. Coming back from work with the pay in my pocket I couldn’t help thinking what if the authorities had come already or when will they come. We stayed the night in our neighbour’s apartment and fortunately so. Around 7am the following day we heard knocking on our door and then the door being forced open. Through the walls you could hear commotion and the sounds of a search, draws being opened, beds turned over and cupboards cleared out. The authorities then knocked on our neighbour’s apartment. As we hid in the bedroom, our neighbour opened the door and spoke to a tall officer who enquired as to where the family from next door were. Our neighbour held her nerve and easily explained “They must have left; we were not close at all”. The climate of fear had begun and friendships were now being denied in public.
Our time was up in Baku and we had to accept the difficult decision to leave. This was the most difficult decision of my life, we had a good life and lived well, the children were happy. There was only one place we could go and that was our homeland, Nagorno-Karabakh. Gandzasar was the best option, we could move there and build a life again, I could continue my career in the local facilities or even commute to Stepanakert and my husband could find work.
Arranging how we would leave was difficult, we had money in the bank, around 50,000 Azeri manat and the value of the apartment was substantial. I was able to withdraw some money from the accounts in previous weeks but there were limits on the withdrawals from the banks. We packed our bags and with the help of our Azeri neighbours arranged to be driven from Baku to Gandzasar. The driver was a relative of our neighbours, he was a kind man and asked only the basic money for the drive. He had driven from Khachmaz all the way to Baku and then would drive us from Baku to Gandzasar. After packing the car, we drove through the day and into the night. Through Baku, across the plains of western Azerbaijan and then up into the mountains of Nagorno-Karabakh. The roads were empty in parts and then packed in others, people coming and going, some for trade and others for moving. Finally, after a grueling drive that lasted hours we arrived in Gandzasar early in the morning. We thanked the driver and said our goodbyes. Saying goodbye to a life and friends is no simple thing, it was a sad time for everybody. I remember my Azeri friends fondly but alas we are not in contact, not since 1994.
In the morning we arranged a lift to Stepanakert and registered ourselves as refugees. We had nothing, absolutely nothing. The money we left in the bank in Azerbaijan was eventually confiscated by the state and the apartment also. We tried to arrange a sale over the phone and got less than the minimal amount the property was worth. Even then the money which was deposited in the bank was confiscated with the rest of our assets we owned in Baku. We were fortunate though, we had our health and relatives in Gandzasar to help us set up a new life. The government in Nagorno-Karabakh had financial difficulties as you can imagine with the war fast approaching. It wasn’t a declared war but with skirmishes and deaths on both sides it was a war, just an undeclared and unreported war. The government was able to give some refugees temporary accommodation and luckily others had family to support them. My husband volunteered to join the armed forces. Nobody was forced to join the army, it was an honour and a patriotic duty. He would sleep at home and train in the day for the first few months and then he was gone for around three years. He would return on leave from the army a few times over the years however, he was busy, the war pushed the Armenian troops to their limits. It was a difficult time for the fighting men and the families left behind. He told me many stories of the battles he was in, the things he saw and the places he went. The war spread across Nagorno-Karabakh so he and his unit went everywhere from the plains to the mountains, from lush green valleys and ravines to baron, desolate mountain peaks. He saw many of his friends perish over the time but was proud to have done his part in the liberation of Nagorno-Karabakh. He had fought for his right to live and survive and we were all proud of him, he received medals from officials in Stepanakert for his bravery. I’m not sure which battles or when but it could have been any. Crawling in the snow, baking in the Caucasus sun, living off wild berries and sporadic rations took its toll on our forces but they pulled through and secured Nagorno-Karabakh.
It must have been around 1990 that the Azerbaijanis who lived in Nagorno-Karabakh started leaving or at least leaving Gandzasar. I had found work in the local medical institute in Gandzasar, working as an anesthetist and had an Azerbaijani colleague. She did similar work to me, helping the doctors administer anesthetics and keeping medical records etc. There were a few Azerbaijani families in Gandzasar but I only knew my colleague. Towards the end of the year the village had a local meeting with the majority in attendance. My colleague and other Azerbaijanis were asked to leave the village. This was inevitable given that we were slipping into a war with Azerbaijan. There was no violence that I know of and the Azerbaijanis just left the village.
By 1994 the war was having a heavy toll on both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Both sides were exhausted after years of fighting and sacrifice and so a truce was called in May 1994. The Armenian forces had secured Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding territories to act as a military buffer zone between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan.
My husband returned home from active duty and found work on a farm for a short time, after which he began work as a bus driver in and around Nagorno-Karabakh. His passion was always music and he worked as a musician in the evening playing at weddings, parties and whenever and wherever he was asked. The government in Stepanakert helped us with what they could at the time and we just went from there. After some years of hard work and saving whatever we could we had built our home and a shop. I had to leave my work in the medical profession for various reasons and now run this shop. My husband is retired but still plays music all over Nagorno-Karabakh.
I have had a blessed life, really. I have two wonderful children a son and a daughter. When we came back to Nagorno-Karabakh my daughter met her husband and moved to Kapan in the south of Armenia. My daughter has three sons and the eldest works as a translator of English in Kapan and the other two do various jobs around the Kapan region.
My son is an established soldier in the Nagorno-Karabakh army. Like his father he is brave and very skilled at his job. In the recent escalation in April he won several medals that were awarded to him in Stepanakert for his efforts during the conflict. He lives in Nagorno-Karabakh with his wife, two sons and two daughters. Because he is in the army he moves from time to time with his family in military accommodation. One of his sons is one of the best clarinet players in the South Caucasus region, I know he is ranked third in total, since he was young he played the clarinet and now can earn a living off his profession.
When I hear people ask ‘Can Nagorno-Karabakh be an autonomous province under Azerbaijani control and can Armenians and Azerbaijanis live together?’ I can only say not in my opinion. With everything that has happened, the conflict and the deaths, the building up of animosity towards each other, it is impossible now. I have always had an open mind but this was tested during the April escalation. I spoke to my son about the whole issue, he told me not to worry and that everything would be fine. To everybody’s horror when the Armenian soldiers were asleep the Azerbaijanis launched attacks in the dead of night. Imagine being asleep at your position and then all of a sudden you are attacked. How could we live with these people and constantly wonder if they will violate us in the night.
It is a difficult life for everybody especially with the whole refugee situation in both of our countries, I feel immensely sorry for those that have suffered as I have. We are all children of God and what has befallen us has been horrendous and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. They are poor people in fate as many Armenians but I believe nobody wants war, we all want to live in peace and that is all I hope and pray the future will bring.
Who knows what the future will bring but I am hopeful and so are my grandchildren, hopeful, but not positive, that everything will be ok. I don’t want my grandchildren to go through the same as my generation had to and I’m sure it is the same feeling in Azerbaijan.