Kashatagh: Retaking and rebuilding a “third” Armenia in old Lachin
By Vahan Ishkhanyan ArmeniaNow
(As reported in AGBU magazine) 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
Among the ruins of war, buildings that were only shells are being
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. By renaming
and repopulating Kashatagh authorities are merging two Armenian states.
“Kashatagh is the land of our ancestors,” says head of administration
of Kashatagh Alexan Hakobian. “Armenians living here began thinning
out 100 years ago. As a result of the policy conducted by Stalin it
became a part of Azerbaijan. Today Kashatagh is again Armenian and
it will be forever.”
Despite being part of Karabakh, there are almost no Karabakhis living
here. The population is made up of immigrants from different regions
of Armenia who speak different dialects.
In some ways, Kashatagh is a “third” Armenia. It lacks the dramatic
gap between social classes seen in Stepanakert or Yerevan. Nor is
it infected with the corruption that influences life in so much of
For many Armenians, Kashatagh is an escape. 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.
Escape to Karabakh
Together with his wife and two children Karo Meseljian moved from
Yerevan to the provincial seat of Kashatagh, Berdzor (the city formerly
known as Lachin) 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.”
Doctor Artsakh Buniatian “sacrificed my skills” to Kashatagh. 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.”
Her daughter attends kindergarten and her son attends school. The
family lives in a hostel, where about 200 families are waiting to get
apartments that have been promised to those who come here to resettle.
The government of Karabakh (with assistance from Armenia) spends
about $600,000 a year building apartments for re-settlers.
Berdzor is a town of about 2,000 residents. Most, Karo says, “are
people who don’t like the city and who escaped from Yerevan and look
for things that they haven’t found in the city.”
And for many, government subsidies make moving to Kashatagh an
attractive alternative to life in most parts of Armenia.
Money for moving
Each family receives a 20,000 drams ($35) one-time allowance plus
one-time payment of 5,000 drams ($9) per family member. Families are
also eligible for a $210, 20-year loan for buying cattle. (The wait,
however, for getting the cattle loan is three to four years, due to
limited State finances.)
Residents of Kashatagh are also given electricity allotments.
(Additionally, while the cost of electricity is about four cents
per kilowatt in Armenia, it is about two cents here.) Water is free
of charge and there are no taxes on agricultural production. (If,
however, land is privatized, the owner must pay taxes, from which a
community budget would be formed.)
“We don’t accept everyone,” says head of Repopulation Department
of Kashatagh Administration Robert Matevosian. “Sometimes we notice
that people come here to get the non-recurrent financial assistance,
and then leave.
“We talk to migrants as long as it is necessary to find out whether
they came here to stay permanently or not,” Matevosian says.
Entering Kashatagh (Lachin), new red roofs are evidence of a region
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 homes.
And one can meet various types of former officials in Kashatagh. In
one village the director of the school is former head of the Education
Department of Yerevan. In another village one of former president
Levon Ter-Petrosian’s security service raises cattle. Former Minister
of Defense of Karabakh Samvel Babayan’s assistant is head of the
Resettling, but not resettled
After a decade of resettlement (often building homes from the
bombed-out remains of Azeri households), the region of 3000 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 Zangilan), 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
In their Kashatagh village Karine Ishkhanian and Svetlana Barseghian
make lavash on an improvised oven.
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
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
While he was trying to adapt he was invited to Berdzor hospital’s
“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 operations, 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 4 th
millennium B.C. Armenian household items from the 3 rd millennium B.C.
to the 19 th 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.
Re-settler Karo Meseljian says: “Here, you feel like a human being.”.
“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 of
Parajanov and Garzou. 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 4 th 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
The survival of resettlement
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 from
raising cattle. To the south, however, farms prosper from generous
growing seasons and fertile valleys of the Hakar River.
Faith is on the rebound, too, though there is a lack of clergymen and
churches. 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, 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
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
And, though nature offers favorable conditions, many villagers rent out
their land because they cannot afford equipment for cultivating it. A
typical lease is about $25 per hectare, plus 200 kilograms of wheat
“The State provided me with 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
Knarik’s family was among the first to move back into the region 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 croplands has
increased in Kashatagh from 5,000 hectares to 12,000 hectares. The
number of livestock has increased to about 26,000 head (cattle,
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.”