The River Behind the Fence

Author: Anush Babajanyan

Edition: Spaces

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. 


Ani Simonyan, 31, poses for a portrait in Pokr Vedi. Located just 8 kilometres from the Turkey border, the village is also known as Khor Virap, after the name of the monastery dating back to 642 A.D, which sits on the top of a hill overlooking the snow-capped cone of Mount Ararat, the symbol of Armenia.
An Armenian couple walks towards the Khor Virap Monastery for their wedding. The Araks river flows a handful of kilometres away, through the vast plain between Turkey and Armenia; although it marks the entire border between the two countries, the river is entirely in Turkish territory. The lack of relations and closed border since 1994 means the waters are out of reach for Armenians.
A carefully-moustached worker at the Khor Virap monastery mingles with guests waiting for a wedding to begin. The monastery is just a few hundred meters away from the Araks which serves as a natural geographical border between Armenia and Turkey.
A view of the wide plains stretching between Khor Virap and the Turkish border. In the wake of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict in the early 1990s Turkey sided with Azerbaijan and closed the border with Armenia which to date remains close.
The Araks River along the Armenia-Iran border. The fence visible on the right is patrolled by Russian troops.
A makeshift entrance to a private land plot next to the Iranian border with Armenia, near Meghri. The Araks flows behind the fence marking the border, but farmers are granted access to its water through pumps and channels.
Ripped curtains in the main building of the abandoned train station in Araksashen. The train station used to serve the whole municipality of Meghri, the nearby town of 3,500 and it has not operated since the early 1990s due to the conflict with neighbouring Azerbaijan over the region of Nagorno Karabakh. Since then, trains stopped operating, the station went into decay and the isolation of the region increased.
The statue in front of the long-deserted train station in Araksashen seen through the window of a discarded wagon. The last train passenger left in November 1991, while freight trains stopped in April 1992.
Moonlight shines over a rusty train in Araksashen. “This used to be an active location and we easily traveled to Yerevan,” recalls a resident.
Samvel Davtyan, 63, collects pomegranates in his plot in Araksashen. The fertile valley of Meghri is Armenia’s pomegranate capital and the fruit trade is central to the local economy.
Araksashen residents walk along the main street. Russian troops keep a tight eye on the border along the Araks whose waters are fabled to be rich of fish. Residents maintain that the local economy would improve significantly should people allow to fish freely in the river.
Ani Beglaryan, 9, paints a picture of Araks River, at a night behind a curtain in her grandparents' apartment in Araksashen. “I know exactly how it looks,” she says, “I have lived here all my life.”
Hasmik Kandazyan, 59, opens the curtains as her granddaughter Ani is drawing. Kandazyan has a rare permanent job at the local clinic. The local economy struggles, partly due to the region’s isolation.
Persimmon trees in Lehvaz, a village of 600 people, which is part of the Meghri municipality. The Meghri river, a tributary of the Araks, flows by the village.
Persimmons are laid out to dry in Lehvaz where the Poghosyan family owns about 160 persimmon trees. Meghri survives, in part, due to its temperate climate which is favourable for fruit trees; the local cannery has been processing the local fruits since 1928.
A water reservoir in the village of Araks in north-west Armenia. The village was renamed after the river in 1946 when the then-Soviet authorities established a large state farm.
Avik Mkrtchyan, 62, finishes cleaning a fish next to his pond which he uses to breed fish. Visitors come to fish, afterwards buying their catch or throwing it back into the water.
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