The River Behind the Fence
Edited by Monica Ellena
The Araks river laps Armenia’s southern border with Iran, flowing along a heavily patrolled fence. Growing up, Samvel Davtyan longed for a plunge into those waters flowing so close he could almost dip his feet -- just almost.
“As a child I would get as close as I could to the river, but it was on the other side of the border. Once [my friends and I] crossed into Iran [through a bridge], walked around in the bazaar, and later got shouted at by border guards on our way back.”
Those thoughtless, untamed years are long gone and that dreamed swim never happened. Now 63, Davtyan’s life rolls by quietly, in between family and pomegranates in his native village of Araksashen, which gets its name from the river meaning “settlement of the Araks” in Armenian.
The river is central to Armenia -- it has been flowing through its history, saving hundreds of thousands of lives during the 1915 genocide and successive wars, and turning the Ararat plain in a fertile valley.
"Yet, to most its waters remain off limits, in Araksashen as well as further north -- a fact that remains unknown to many. Despite marking a natural, geographical border with Turkey on the north-west and Iran in the south, the Araks glides along Armenia but for the most part does not flow inside its territory. Where it does, its waters are in “code-share” - the border between Iran and Armenia runs in the middle of the river, leaving one bank in Iranian territory, the other one in the Armenian one. The Soviets set up a fence to prevent movements and it has sitting there since -- Armenians can fish or access their land upon asking for a specific pass which is pretty straightforward procedure."
The Araks is not the only a communication route residents like Davtyan are cut off from. A railway used to run from Meghri, the main town of the municipality, to Yerevan, connecting the villages in the far south to the markets in the capital. Trains cut through the territory of the then-Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, but the conflict between Armenia Azerbaijan over the Nagorno Karabakh region led to the closure of the frontier, and, as a consequence, trains stopped operating. The rail never reopened, nor were the tracks redirected, deepening the isolation of the Meghri municipality which is nestled among towers of rock in the deep south of the country.
Up north, on the Turkish border, the Araks nurtures the Ararat valley. The river has given the name to a score of villages -- Arazap, Yeraskh, Yeraskhavan, Yeraskhahun, and Araks. Some hamlets are but a stone-throw away from the Turkish border, such as the Margara which sits 200 metres from the closed frontier. Like in Araksashen, villagers whose lands lie in the high security area patrolled by Russian troops can access their fields with a purposely-issued permission.
Azarap sits on the Araks’ northern bank -- quite literally as the name means “the shore of the Araks,” -- but bears no benefits, laments Manvel Harutyunyan.
“Yes, we are by the river, but we cannot go down to the banks and bring back buckets of water. We do not have such access,” explains the 53-year-old mayor.
As humans build separation lines, the Araks silently flows to symbolize a nature that knows no borders.