Caught in Between: Armenian Refugees from Azerbaijan

Author: Argam Yeranosyan

Edition: Unseen Borders

They came by group in trucks; a few people owned one, but most rented them.

“Some villagers would rent one truck and offer to transport their neighbors’ belongings,” recalls Michael Gharibyan, 48. “A few Azerbaijanis helped us get to Armenia, so that we were safe on the way here.” 

As tensions over Nagorno Karabakh broke into a full-fledged conflict in the late 1980s, Armenians living in Azerbaijan fled to Armenia while Azerbaijanis in Armenia moved to Azerbaijan. Many families exchanged houses and properties.

Originally from Mirzik, Azerbaijan, Gharibyan left in1988and resettled a few miles away, just over the administrative border with Armenia, in Jil. As he headed west, hundreds of Azerbaijanis from Jil headed east to Azerbaijan. Neither the Armenians nor the Azerbaijanis ever returned to their original homes. 

Jil sits on the northeastern bank of Lake Sevan, in a narrow strip of land squeezed between the water and the Sevan  mountains.. Until 1988, Jil was mainly a village populated by Azerbaijanis. The Armenians who settled there were mostly from Azerbaijan’s Dashkasan, Shamkhir, and Khanlar (now Goygol) regions.

A view of Lake Sevan from Jil, home to about 600 Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan.
There is a '1988' carved into one of the walls of the houses. The villagers usually tell their family stories after their relocation.
A cross from the Armenian monastery of Targmachats in Azerbaijan’s Dashkesan region stands at the entrance to Jil. It was taken to Jil by Armenian refugees fleeing the village of Khachakap (renamed Qushchu) in 1988. Legend has it that Mesrop Mashtots, the 5th-century linguist who created the Armenian alphabet, translated the Bible into Armenian in the monastery.
Lida Nazaryan, 72, hails from the village of Khachakap, now Qushchu, in Azerbaijan. Behind her stands Mount Artanish, which separates Jil from settlements in Armenia’s borderline Chambarak region.

Amenities are few. For lack of cash and a proper store, villagers barter dairy products for clothes and fruit.

Many did not manage to adapt to the new environment and left. Twenty-nine years later there are only 600 people in the village.

Those who stayed, like Gharibyan, who acts as the village’s head of government, are still in limbo. They are unable to return to their homes in Azerbaijan, and Jil, though located not far from the Sevan-Vardenis highway, lacks a basic road connection to the rest of Armenia.

The border with Azerbaijan is a mere 3.5 kilometers away. About 60 villagers work as contractors for the army in defending that borderline.  

“It was tense during last year’s April war,” explains Arthur Hovhannisyan, one of the servicemen. “We thought that there might be an attack on this side, as there are less than 10 kilometers between the lake and the border. If [the Azerbaijani army] took the road, five to six  villages would be totally surrounded.”

That did not happen. Compared to the northeast of Armenia, shootings in Jil do not occur daily since the Armenian army holds higher ground here.

Arthur Hovhannisyan, 31, (right) is a farmer and a serviceman. He is one of about 60 Jil men contracted by the Armenian army to control its positions along the border with Azerbaijan. “We already lost our homeland once. We cannot allow it to happen again,” Hovhannisyan says.
Seventy-year-old Svetlana Tsarukyan stands before the mountains that fence off Jil to the north. Locals call the mountains “ Tsapataghi koghmanq,” or “near Tsapatagh,” an area village.
“If there were a painting school in the village, my children would become wonderful artists as they see this beautiful lake every morning,” says Jil resident Anna Saribekyan, 30. She was a child when her family fled Azerbaijan.
Three-year-olEvgenia Saribekyan is the youngest child of Anna Saribekyan, a refugee from Azerbaijan.
The Jil River, which flows from the Geghama Mountains, divides the village of Jil in two. Locals use its waters to irrigate their fields. “When I saw this stream in front of this house, I decided to live here,” recalls 80-years old Hersik Tonoyan, who settled in Jil in 1988 with her husband.
Instead of fences, poplars encircle private land plots. The high trees protect the village from Lake Sevan’s weather and the strong winds coming from the mountains. Villagers usually cultivate vegetables in these plots.
“These trees were planted by Azerbaijanis during the Soviet Union. Now when a tree dries out we cut it and plant a new one,” says 68-year-old Jil villager Serzhik Frazyan.
Villagers’ horses grazing freely in fields around Jil, within range of Lake Sevan.
Like most villagers, 24-year-old farmer Arthur Aghababyan uses a horse to follow his livestock up to mountain pastures.
Alik Maghakyan, 27, prefers his animals to graze on the fields along Lake Sevan instead of up in the mountains. The railway track on which he stands separates most of Jil’s sowing areas from the lake, which is protected as part of the Sevan National Park. The railway is key as a transportation line from the gold mine of Sotk, a town further south.
The world map in seventh-grader Tigran Hovsepyan’s classroom has seen better days. The pupils were asked to picture Jil and its border. Hovsepyan drew the road that leads past the village’s school, church, poplars and lake shoreline to army positions on the border.
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