Kashatagh: Rebuilding in old Lachin

April 2004

Kashatagh: Rebuilding in old Lachin

Vahan Ishkhanyan

Kashatagh may be the only region of “two Armenias” where there are no
magnificent villas or foreign cars. As one resident said, there are no rich
or poor here and all are equal.

Outsiders still know it as Lachin, famous for the corridor that was the
hard-won link between Armenia and Karabakh, gained during fierce fighting in
1992. But to the locals, this area retaken from Azerbaijan and made the
sixth region of Karabakh has regained its ancient name.

“Kashatagh is the land of our ancestors,” says head of administration of
Kashatagh Alexan Hakobian. “Armenians living here began thinning out 100
years ago and as a result of the policy conducted by Stalin it became a part
of Azerbaijan.”

For many Armenians, Kashatagh is an escape. It lacks the dramatic gap
between social classes seen in Stepanakert or Yerevan. Here, they can move
to a new region and start a new life where they become landowners instead of
refugees. With the exception of officials, it is hard to find any who say
they settled here for patriotic reasons.

Together with his wife and two children Karo Meseljian moved from Yerevan to
Berdzor (the city formerly known as Lachin). the provincial seat of
Kashatagh, two years ago. He left his older son in Yerevan with his parents
while he attends chess school there.

“In Yerevan everything gets on my nerves: bureaucrats, cops, traffic
police,” says Karo. “At every turn people’s pride is mortified. Trying to
get any document, people are dishonored. Here you feel like a human being
and don’t feel the influence of authorities on you. People understand each
other very easily here, they are friendly.”

In Yerevan, Karo had a small shop which was somewhat profitable. Now he
rents out that shop and has started a business in Berdzor, bringing goods
from Yerevan and selling them to local shops. “When I had a shop in Yerevan
every day I had to deal with bureaucrats,” he says. “I had good profit
there, but it is better to have small profit here than to see their faces.”

His wife, Gayaneh, is a nurse. She didn’t work in Yerevan, but in Berdzor
she works in a kindergarten. “When you work your life becomes more
interesting,” she says. “The staff is very good. We made new friends.”

People move to Kashatagh for many reasons. Some have sold their houses in
Armenia to cover debts, and come here to start debt-free living. Some young
couples want to start families separate from their parents. Most see the new
region of Karabakh as offering opportunities they don’t see in their old

And one can meet various types of former officials in Kashatagh. In one
village the director of the school is the former head of the Education
Department of Yerevan. In another village one of former president Levon
Ter-Petrosian’s security service raises cattle. Former Karabakh Minister of
Defense Samvel Babayan’s assistant is head of the Social Department.

After a decade of resettlement, the region of 300 square kilometers now has
about 13,000 residents. Of 127 settlements, only 57 have electricity.
(Authorities say villages in the southern part of the province should have
electricity within a year, however the northern parts don’t expect
electrical service for at least five years.)

There are two hospitals in the region, in Berdzor and in Kovsakan (formerly
Zangelan), the second largest town, near the border of Iran. Each community
has a nurse. At the Berdzor hospital, director Artsakh Buniatian insists on
keeping his hospital a place where residents can receive free treatment.

“If a doctor takes money from a patient he will be punished for that,” says
Buniatian, age 69. “However, we can’t treat all diseases and when we send a
patient to Yerevan or Goris then he finds himself in a completely different
world and falls into the hands of hawks, where they demand money and
medicines of him. There, residents of Kashatagh are taken for third rate
people, who cannot cover their treatment expenses.”

Eight doctors work in the Berdzor hospital. They earn 45,000 drams (about
$80) a month. Buniatian says that it is almost impossible to find a doctor
who will agree to work in the region. Nobody wants to come here and work
only for salary, without taking money for services, he says. Buniatian spent
the war working in a field hospital in Karabakh. After the war he again
returned to his former work, as a surgeon at a hospital in Abovian (just
north of Yerevan).

“I hadn’t seen my family for three years. Three daughters were waiting for
me. After the slaughter of war it was hard for me to adapt to civilian

While he was trying to adapt he was invited to Berdzor hospital’s opening
ceremony. “I was invited to spend two days, but, at the opening ceremony a
Karabakh Minister handed over the order of appointing me to this position,”
Buniatian says. “I thought that during the war I had been in so many
difficult places and now it is God’s will and it means that people need me.”

The surgeon’s abilities are limited by a lack of facilities and about the
most complicated case he can treat is appendicitis. “I used to perform any
type of difficult operation, but, what can I do,” he says. “I sacrificed my
skills to the war, and now to Kashatagh in this way.”

While laying the foundation for a new society, culture has not been ignored
in the resettling of Kashatagh.

In 1996 a Museum of History was opened in Berdzor, which now holds some 300
exhibits, including bronze and stone items that date to the 4th millennium
B.C. Armenian household items from the 3rd millennium B.C. to the 19th
century show the rich heritage of the region. Most items in the museum were
collected by director Livera Hovhannisian, who before moving to Berdzor had
worked for 18 years in the Yerevan Museum of History.

“During one month, I had traveled in 47 villages and collected all these
exhibits to be in time for the museum’s opening,” she says. “Those days many
villages hadn’t been settled yet. Accompanied by two men, I was going to
every village by truck and we were searching and finding in every house
things we had been looking for. In one village we were fired upon. Residents
of that village hadn’t seen other people for a long period of time and when
they saw us they were very scared and thought we were Azeris.”

About 200 paintings are displayed in the gallery including works by
Parajanov and Carzou. Some paintings were sent from the Ministry of Culture
in Yerevan.

“The director of Yerevan Art Gallery said: ‘How can I give them to you? What
if this territory is retaken?’,” Hovhannisian recalls. “I said that if this
territory is retaken then let these paintings be lost with the territories.
And he agreed and gave 25 paintings.”

As Armenian life in previously enemy territory is formed, one feature, the
Church, lacks a significant presence in Kashatagh. In the entire province
the only functioning church is Holy Ascension, built in Berdzor in 1997.

In 2002, Diaspora benefactors restored a 4th century church in the village
of Tsitsernavank, however there are no clergy there. “We need at least three
clergymen in the north and three in the south,” says the only priest of the
region Ter Atanas. “People of the south need just one chapel but there is
nobody to give money and construct it.”

The highest settlement in Kashatagh is 1,700 meters above sea level; the
lowest, 330. In the mountainous north, life is harsh and most villagers
exist raising cattle. To the south, however, farms prosper from generous
growing seasons and fertile valleys of the Hakar River.

It was in such a valley that the first families resettled, mostly in
Tsaghkaberd (formerly Gyuliberd) where 70 families now live.

The Vardanian family, refugees from Kirovabad (Azerbaijan) were among the
first. “My husband knew that this area was populated and I took my children
and came here,” says Gohar Vardanian. “It was a good time for collecting
fruits. We collected many fruits and I told my husband, ‘Ashot, we will stay
here.’ We are here for 10 years now.”

Three Vardanian children finished school here and one now studies at
Stepanakert University. The family income is, literally, their “cash cow”.
Each year the Vardanians sell a calf to cover essential expenses. “My
children have already finished their service in the army,” Gohar says. “The
only thing left is to pay for my son’s education. I think this year we won’t
sell a calf.”

Like their neighbors, the Vardanians harvest mulberry, fig, quince and
pomegranate in addition to traditional crops. They make about 400 liters of
mulberry vodka each year. Residents had hoped that by now there would be
food processing plants in Kashatagh, but investments haven’t materialized.

And, though nature offers favorable conditions, many villagers rent out
their land because they cannot afford equipment to cultivate it. A typical
lease is about $25 per hectare, plus 200 kilograms of wheat.

“I have the land but how can I cultivate it if they don’t grant credits and
don’t give a seeding machine,” says school director Samvel Sedrakian, a
former Yerevan journalist. “I have eight hectares of land but I can’t sow
it. It’s true, villagers feed themselves, there are not hungry people, but
they cannot make any profits.”

Slava Tokhunts is an exception. He moved to Kashatagh from the Goris region
and brought a seeding machine with him. Every year he sows wheat on his 5.5
hectare property.

“I don’t ask anything from anybody and I can also help those who are
hungry,” he says. He makes cheese from milk of his six cows and then
barters the cheese for various items such as sugar and clothes. Selling
products out-right is difficult because trading involves going to one of the
towns in Armenia, and most villagers can’t manage such trips.

Over the past five years, the area of cultivated crop-lands has increased in
Kashatagh from 5,000 hectares to 12,000 hectares. The number of livestock
has increased to about 26,000 head (cattle, goats, sheep).

At the same time, the stream of migrants has tapered. Between 1997-98,
nearly 800 families moved to the province. Last year, 80 new families
settled there and about the same amount left.

“Sometimes I’m sad when people leave. But it’s normal that some of them will
come back,” says Berdzor official Alexan Hakobian. “It shows that the
process of repopulation is free and nobody is forced to live here.”