Disarming Armenia (November 2001)

I was away again this past week, this time in Armenia in the Caucuses. Go find it on a map! This was for yet another regional training meeting of the campaigners conducting research for Landmine Monitor. They came from all over the former Soviet Union. The campaigner from Azerbaijan was assigned a bodyguard from Armenia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs (secret service) as well as Police & Army escorts since both countries are technically still at war. It made for some interesting trips outside the hotel.

Armenia and Azerbaijan began fighting over an enclave named Nagorno-Karabakh in 1988 and the struggle escalated after both countries became independent in 1991. By May 1994, when a cease-fire took hold, Armenia held not only Nagorno-Karabakh but also a significant portion of Azerbaijan. The unresolved war with Azerbaijan seemed to cast a shadow over everything. Neither country has signed up to the ban treaty.

We stayed in the capital, Yerevan, on the main street just around the corner from the square. My first impressions were that it was extremely poor and run-down. Old women in headscarves swept up leaves on the streets. Lada and Trabant cars polluted the air as did smoke from domestic fireplaces. Like most post Soviet states, Armenia has seen better days. But very few people asked me for money as they do on every block in DC! Among the young male population, there is 60 percent unemployment. All the locals had dark hair and dark eyes – they were quite curious in my blonde hair and that of my colleagues.

In our minimal spare time we were taken to look at their book collection in the national archives, some old churches, the home of a famous Armenian film producer and artist named Sergei Parajanov, and to the Sunday market. Armenia is a very religious country and in the square a huge cross stands where a statue of Lenin was previously placed. The Pope visited in September for the commemoration of 1,700 years since they embraced Orthodox Christianity as the state religion. One church was built to honor “Saint Gregory the Eliminator.” The market had an amazing collection of silver, carpets, stone carvings, Soviet memorabilia and household items and while we were practically the only foreigners visiting, we were not harassed by any of the vendors.

We could see their beloved Mount Ararat from Yerevan but the mountain is in Turkish territory. We visited the genocide memorial, built to remember 1.5 million Armenians killed by Turkey in April 1915. They’ve had a rough history. In 1988, a huge earthquake killed and injured thousands. In November 1999, armed men burst into the Parliament debating chamber and killed the Prime Minister and seven other members, in a crime that is still unresolved.

Our hosts were extremely generous, stuffing us with food and brandy/vodka toasts as well as some fine Armenian wine. They like their BBQ. The main organizer, a woman named Jemma, had for years headed up a region as a Communist Party boss and her authoritarian leadership talents actually translated quite well into coordination of their campaigning efforts against landmines. All the government officials and military generals treated her and our group with respect and interest. Our activities led the nightly national new reports.

Before we left, we made a field visit to the Tavush border region in the north of the country, driving for three hours through some winding tree-lined gorges and mountainous plateau. We stopped for photographs at Lake Sevan, which has a water level that has steadily been dropping but no one knows why. Many of the villages we passed were empty, as Azeri and Russian residents that had fled during the war had not returned. In many parts the soil is polluted with toxic chemicals such as DDT and during the war an energy blockade led to severe deforestation when citizens scavenged for firewood.

After speeches and brandy shots at the Mayor’s office, we headed for a village on the border with Azerbaijan. I rode in an Army jeep with the head of the Engineers, asking him questions about the area and the nature of the problems, which included snipers, uncleared mines and unexploded ordnance (including cluster bombs), poor economy, no road or rail link to neighbouring Georgia or Azerbaijan and so on. The head of the village listed their grievances and thanked us for coming to hear their views. I turned to walk down a path between the buildings to get a better view and was pulled back by a soldier who said that Azeri snipers on the opposite hillside were still taking shots at the residents.

With 3.3 million people, the country is the same size as New Zealand. Probably the biggest difference between the two is NZ’s brief and comparatively peaceful history. I’m glad I had the opportunity to check out Armenia.