Kerkenj: Looking Back at Armenia

Author: Lala Aliyeva, Sitara Ibrahimbayli

Edition: Memory

Once a year, 83-year-old Azerbaijani Bayram Allazov travels from his house a few hours outside of Baku to the hills of southern Georgia for a look back in time. From the village of Irganchai, he tries to see the location in neighboring Armenia, just three kilometers away, that he still considers home. But the effort inevitably fails.   

“I look out from there. There is nothing. Emptiness,” Allazov says sadly.

In late 1988, Bayram Allazov, the chairman of the state-run collective farm, or sovkhoz, of the ethnic Azerbaijani village of Qizil Shafaq (Red Dawn) in northern Armenia, took a momentous decision. He shared with his village a proposal that they exchange their homes with those of Kerkenj, a village of ethnic Armenians in Azerbaijan, some 540 kilometers to the east.  

One of his sons, then a student in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, had phoned with the proposal from an Armenian friend from Kerkenj.

With violence mounting between ethnic Azerbaijanis and Armenians over Azerbaijan’s breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, it seemed to the villagers like a sensible move. 

A view of the village of Kerkenj through springtime dogwood blossoms
Bayram Allazov, 83, and his wife, Khanim, 70, going through a collection of photos. After several attempts living in Baku, where their children are, they moved back to Kerkenj in early 2018
Bayram Allazov points himself out in an old photo from Armenia.
Bayram Allazov’s wife, Khanim (second from left), with relatives from the Georgian town of Marneuli during the 1960s
Inside Bayram Allazov's house
A monument located at the entrance of Kerkenj commemorates those villagers who died fighting during World War II.
Although some tombstones have been damaged, villagers maintain that Kerkenj’s Armenian cemetery has been preserved as promised.
Villagers attribute the scratches on the photos of some of the tombstones in Kerkenj’s Armenian cemetery to misbehaving children.
A Kerkenj house features some decorations that reflect Azerbaijan’s traditional love of horses and horsemanship.

The February 1988 violent attacks against ethnic Armenians in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgayit already had prompted many Armenians to flee Azerbaijan. By late that year, ethnic Azerbaijanis in Armenia no longer felt safe – a rock thrown from a window in the town of Kalinino (modern-day Tashir) had recently killed an elderly Azerbaijani man, Allazov is quoted as saying in a Heinrich Böll Foundation study of the village exchange. Qizil Shafaq  [modern-day Dzyunashogh] was already the last ethnic Azerbaijani village left in Armenia, he told Chai Khana.

At one of his regular meetings with villagers to share the news from Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, Allazov, who doubled as the village’s school principal, passed on the proposal from Kerkenj.

“[W]e men decided to go and see it,” he says of the village. “There was no time and no other choice.”

A mutual verbal agreement to preserve and look after each other’s cemeteries – a point of honor in both cultures – was key to the exchange. With that done, the male heads of Qizil Shafaq’s households voted for the move to Azerbaijan.

Mamed Valiyev shows a cattle shed that he built in Qizil Shafaq in 1974.
Mamed Valiyev took not only his furniture and clothes from Qizil Shafaq to Kerkenj, but also his cattle. “[H]alf was sold to Azerbaijanis in [the village of] Irganchai [in Georgia]. In general, we took everything. Only our two-storey houses are left.”
In Soviet times, Mamed Valiyev’s wife, Maral Valiyeva, 70, used to make carpets at home and sell them to the state. She states that the carpets’ designs did not differ from those made by local Armenian women.
Kerkenj villager Mamed Valiyev’s wife, Maral, brought this 1906 samovar with her to Azerbaijan from Qizil Shafaq.
The spartan interior of former truck driver Mamed Valiyev’s house in Kerkenj
Mamed Valiyev shows part of the bridle for a horse that he brought to Azerbaijan from Armenia.

In May 1989, the migration began. It lasted three months. Two hundred out of Qizil Shafaq’s 330 families moved to Kerkenj. The others opted for Baku, about 120 kilometers to the south.

Allazov claims he was the last to leave Qizil Shafaq. “I was sure” about what we were doing, he says.

Before they left, the Azerbaijani villagers followed tradition and organized a funeral feast to say farewell to their ancestors buried in Qizil Shafaq’s cemetery.   

Already, the villagers understood that they would not likely return.

Today, memories of Qizil Shafaq are what they mention first.

“Pastures, springs, big, two-storey houses, natural products, 800 healthy cows, a river crossing the village, full-fledged winters, no humidity,” reminisces Allazov. “When guests from Moscow used to visit Yerevan, their first destination was [the regional town of] Kalinino [Tashir], to see this beauty.”

The villagers remember how they cried and kissed the walls of their houses in Qizil Shafaq before they left; how, when they moved to Kerkenj, they did not want to enter their new dwellings, but spent most of their time on the streets.

“I often have a dream,” shares 81-year-old Mamed, a former tractor driver in Qizil Shafaq’s sovkhoz. “I dream of my village, I dream of my tractor.”

Like other villagers, Mamed, who came to Kerkenj with his wife and four children, returned to Qizil Shafaq a few times after the move. Administrative-border guards and local officials “let us do it without any problems,” he says.

Sevinj Mammadova , 46, moved to Kerkenj from Armenia just after graduation from high school, in 1989. She recalls that her father’s house in Qizil Shafaq was quite large and, for this reason, none of the ethnic Armenian migrants from Kerkenj wanted to live there. “We sold it to the state and, for this money, we bought a house here and one apartment in Baku.”
Villagers Ramiz Mammadov and his wife Sevinj are talking with their son, Elsever Mammadli who currently studies in Baku.
Sevinj Mammadova poses near a print of the Russian artist Ivan Kramskoi's celebrated 1883 painting, “Portrait of an Unknown Woman.” She brought the print with her from Armenia to Azerbaijan.
Every house in Kerkenj seems to have its own cat, which is unusual in Azerbaijan, where pets are not common.

Even so, the sense of risk meant these were brief visits. “I was the guest of the Armenian family in my own house, but I did not stay there overnight,” says Mamed.

Communist Party officials allegedly attempted to convince them not to leave Armenia.

Kerkenj’s new inhabitants also had wanted to name the village Shafaq, but their request was denied. “Kerkenj” was a Turkish name, they were told, and, therefore, could be left unchanged. (Kerkenj’s former ethnic Armenian inhabitants say the name means “harder than stone” in their dialect of Armenian).

Traveling to Kerkenj today, nothing except its past distinguishes this village from neighboring villages.

On a hillside that is to the left of the villages lie the graves of its former ethnic Armenian inhabitants.  

Locals concede that children have scratched a few tombstone photographs and knocked over a few tombstones, but say it is hard to keep a constant eye on youngsters. They maintain that the cemetery has been preserved.  

The cemetery’s care-keeper, a local mullah who guards both the village’s ethnic Armenian and ethnic Azerbaijani cemeteries, declined to comment to Chai Khana.

Allazov, the village’s main aqsaqal or male elder, described the damage with a frown.

Despite his nostalgia for Qizil Shafaq, however, he does not believe that a friendship between Armenia and Azerbaijan can be revived. 

“Imagine, you have a small garden,” he says, speaking of Nagorno Karabakh and the surrounding seven territories now under Armenian control.  “You grow the trees that bring the fruit, you grow the flowers, and then your neighbor comes and takes this garden from out of your hands..."

That connection with the earth matters deeply to him.  

In Kerkenj, as in Qizil Shafaq, Allazov served as the sovkhoz chairman. Though his 70-year-old wife, Khanim, and he have tried living in Baku, home to his daughter and three sons, he says he cannot.

“I was born and spent all my life in the country. I missed it. I wanted to hear the sound of the rooster, how the cow is mooing, a barking dog, and how my cat meows,” he says.

So, every morning, he changes his clothes and heads to the fields to help with the farming in Kerkenj. The setting may be different, but his devotion to his work is not. 


Women from Kerkenj in a truck en route to work in the fields
With the local economy far from booming, men in Kerkenj, as elsewhere in rural Azerbaijan, often just sit, talk and watch what is going on in the village to pass the time.
Children born since the 1989 exchange of villages know Kerkenj’s story only from their parents and share none of the nostalgia for Qizil Shafaq.
“It is 120 kilometers from Kerkenj to Baku, and it was 120 kilometers from Qizil Shafaq to Tbilisi,” the closest metropolitan area to the villagers’ former home in Armenia, says Mamed. “This is the irony of fate.”

 Follow this link to read the story about Dzyunashogh [Qizil Shafaq]

This material may contain terms, which are not favored by all the parties of the dispute/conflict. Terms used in a material belong to the author and not to Chai Khana.

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