Armenia: War on the Waterfront

Author: Gayane Mirzoyan
Edition: Unseen Borders

Freshwater fishing is not usually the riskiest of occupations. Unless, that is, you’re a fisherman on the Joghaz reservoir, a sort of aquatic buffer between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In that case, you fish at night. 

Built in the late 1970s for irrigation and a planned fish factory, the 2.14-square-kilometer reservoir, set against a majestic column of volcanic rock (called Gavazan or Göyəzən), may look Tolkienesque, but life here is no fantasy.  

Since the early 1990s, when full-fledged war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh, this shimmering body of water has been off limits to both sides.

The risk of shelling from across the reservoir means that Armenian fishermen from the 465-person village of Berkaber, just 500 meters away from Azerbaijani military positions, take their boats out into the water mostly when it’s dark. To avoid snipers, they stay close to the shore. 

Berkaber villagers cannot use most of their farmland since it is on the side of the Joghaz reservoir controlled by Azerbaijan.
The Joghaz reservoir, built in Soviet times, was designed to irrigate the fields of both Berkaber and the Azerbaijani village of Mezem and to supply fish to a planned canning factory.
Sixty-four-year-old Suren Khudaverdyan makes a living growing vegetables in a greenhouse. Like most Berkaber villagers, Khudaverdyan lost access to his farmland after the Karabakh war. The land is now within range of Azerbaijani artillery.
Despite the danger, most Berkaber residents still live in their native village.
Serzh Mailyan, 51, is a fisherman, now one of the most dangerous jobs in Berkaber.
Here is one of the products of Anushavan Khudaverdyan, 27, who left his job in Russia and returned to his native Berkaber to start a dried-fish business. His products are sold as a beer snack in neighboring towns and villages.
A picnic in an orchard on the shores of the Joghaz reservoir

The fish are likely the only winners. Since the trout and carp that populate the 60-meter-deep reservoir have moved away from the shore, hefty catches no longer occur, says Serzh Mailyan, 51, one of Berkaber’s six remaining fishermen.

As a result, Mailyan earns no more than 4,000 drams ($8.28) from each catch.

Still, what fish there are have enabled another Berkaber villager, 27-year-old Anushavan Khudaverdyan, to set up a small, dried-fish business.  

"The work is seasonal. We work only five months a year in summer and autumn, when there is demand for a snack with beer,” he says.

Khudaverdyan, who returned home from Russia to open this business, sells his dried fish only in the surrounding Tavush region, but says he plans to expand.

That’s assuming that shelling does not increase. In the past, during prolonged ceasefire violations, villagers say fishing stopped for several years.

Already, the fact that the reservoir cannot be regularly used and maintained has led to erosion of its bottom, they add.  The water has begun to stagnate from lack of movement, Mailyan claims.  

“The water in the reservoir is clean. It came from the mountains. But since the beginning of the war,  nobody can use the water [freely].”

Berkaber school children spend their free time in the village.
Berkaber schoolchildren attend a robotics class in the village public school. Such classes are regularly held throughout Armenia, including in border areas.
A village fair for tourists in front of Berkaber’s St. Gevorg Church, built several years ago by an Iraqi Armenian philanthropist.
Berkaber children help their parents sell fruit, beans, dried herbs, honey and dried fish at the St. Gevorg market, organized by the NGOs Sahman and Repat Armenia, which promotes repatriation to Armenia.
Locals at Berkaber’s autumn village fair
Sixteen-year-old Berkaber student Srbuhi Khudaverdyan, left, wants to be a journalist.
Despite the risks posed by the nearby Azerbaijani army, these Berkaber girls say they like to relax on the shores of the Joghaz reservoir.

As they look across Joghaz’s waters, Berkaber’s residents can easily see inhabitants of the Azerbaijani village of Mezem relaxing on the reservoir’s shores, celebrating weddings or working in the fields. 

The rich farmland on the other side of the reservoir that once also sustained Berkaber – and led to its name, which means “bounty” – lies within range of Azerbaijani artillery, beyond reach. 

Unable to access these fields for over 25 years, many in Berkaber now instead grow fruit and vegetables in greenhouses. Some were built with assistance from a Yerevan non-governmental organization, Sahman (Border), which runs various economic-development and social-welfare projects in Armenia’s frontline villages.

But with no gas supply in the village, it's difficult to make money with a greenhouse, comments greenhouse owner Suren Khudaverdyan, 64. 

“Gasification would let us sell fruit and vegetables during the off-season at a higher price," he says. As it is, villagers like Khudaverdyan only use their greenhouses in warm, sunny seasons.    

Some assistance, though, does exist to mitigate these obstacles.

The Armenian government covers part of the price of electricity and irrigated water and has exempted Berkaber villagers from paying tax on the fields which they can no longer cultivate. 

To encourage business, it also does not require border residents to pay income or VAT taxes. But the relevant law, passed in 2015, expires early this year.

The view from Berkaber resident Grisha Dilbaryan's house looks out on the Azerbaijani village Mezem and Azerbaijani military positions.
Berkaber villager Grisha Dilbaryan is considering opening a café that would offer visitors a glimpse of life on the frontline.
The Dilbaryan family serves guests fruit they have grown on land near the Joghaz reservoir.
To shield his house from potential shelling, Berkaber resident Grisha Dilbaryan built a wall at the end of the balcony where his guests usually sit.
Berkaber villager Grisha Dilbaryan, 50, and his wife, Alvard, 44, are considering turning their waterfront house into a café despite the risks of shelling.

Sahman co-founder Erik Baghdasaryan objects that three years “is not enough for people to realize the benefits of this law and begin to take advantage of it.” He’d like to see a five-year extension. At the time of this article’s publication, there was no public information that that will happen.

A law, though, can do little to reduce the risk factor for starting a business here.

Fifty-year-old village official Grisha Dilbaryan regularly hosts visitors for free and has considered turning his residence into a café. The house boasts a stunning view on the Joghaz reservoir.

There’s just one catch: his house sits in the line of fire from artillery and snipers across the reservoir. 

Locals joke that the would-be eatery should be called Café Extreme.

But Dilbaryan, like the village fishermen, appears to take the reservoir’s risks in stride.  It would take something more to stop his business plans.

"The house is often shelled, but I prefer not to hide, but to continue to sit on my balcony,” he says. “This is a heroic village.”

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