Border Lands Off-Limits: Meghrashat Residents Face "Security" Quanda

Yeranuhi Soghoyan

20 09/08/03 | 18:02

The most picturesque structure in the village of Meghrashat, close
to the Turkish border in Shirak Marz, is the Sourb Astvatzatzna
Church. Even though the belfry and walls were damaged in the
earthquake, the church still amazes visitors with its massive
size. During the Soviet era it was used as a storage facility.

‘I still haven’t found a benefactor so that the sound of the church
bell can ring out in this village. We’ve grown sick and tired
of listening to the muezzin’s call to prayer," says Mayor Vahram

At exactly 2:30 pm the village calm was broken. It was prayer time
in the village of Moungyughar over on the Turkish side.

"That’s not all. At seven in the evening it’s the same story. There’s
no escape. We have to listen to it. Less than one kilometer separates
the two villages," added the mayor.

Meghrashat was founded in 1812 and lies some 500 meters from the
border. Starting in the 1950’s, Meghrashat, along with a few other
Armenian villages, found itself cordoned off within the restricted
zone. You needed a permit to enter the area.

‘Just imagine a prison. You could walk around but needed a permit
to enter. It was forbidden zone for non-residents. My father passed
away in 1965. At the time my brother was living elsewhere. By the
time he arrived it was late at night. He had no permit and they
didn’t allow him in. He had to return to Gyumri," says Deputy Mayor
Ishkhan Sahakyan.

Mrs. Aileta from Megrashat remembers that it was only after residents
constantly protested that the permit entry system was removed.

No outside suitors for village girls

"The village was cut off. There were no outside suitors for the girls
in Meghrashat. Thus, marriages took place within the village. There
came a point when the entire village was interrelated. Something had
to be done," Mrs. Aileta says with a chuckle.

In 1967 the permit system was eased somewhat. The road barrier opposite
the village was removed. However 99% of the village’s pasture land and
fields now lay behind the barbed wire that delineated no-man’s land.

"Now, are we to blame for Meghrashat’s geographic position?" complains
Mayor Maghatelyan, "Is it our fault that our lands are so close to
the border? Does it mean that the animals can no longer graze there?"

Village residents square-off with border patrol

Come every spring, the residents of Meghrashat also start to have
their share of problems with the command of the border guard unit
stationed in Gyumri. The mayor told us that in 2006, the former
commander of the unit gave an order that the villagers wouldn’t be
allowed to take their animals out for grazing for two months.

Just before this there was an incident of cattle rustling and security
was beefed up all along the border.

"They wouldn’t open the road barrier so that we could take the animals
to graze," recounts Grandpa Vazgen from the village. "Our livelihood
was crumbling before our eyes. Later, we called in a camera crew to
document what was taking place here. They came and shot some film
and then showed it here and there. We thought the problem would be
solved. But the problem is that there have been no border violations
in the village. But if there’s an incident along the entire stretch
of the border, we along with the others suffer."

Mayor Maghatelyan realizes that the border guards go about their
business in accordance with RoA regulations regarding border
security. And the law stipulates that guards have the right to forbid
anyone access to the border closer than one kilometer.

No lands for grazing

"Meghrashat is less than a half kilometer from the border. So, will
they evict the entire village? Will we have to move to the nearby
village of Kaps? Of the village’s 350 hectares of land that fall
within the border zone, we only cultivate 50. Every day, we have to
graze some 400-500 head of cows. Where should we take them?

The current commander of the border patrol, Mr. Polishuk, says that
we should graze them on the lands in the neighboring villages of
Haykavan and Voghji. Do you think our neighbors would allow such a
thing?" Mayor Maghatelyan said.

In the spring of this year, an attempted border violation was
registered. Border patrol Commander Sergei Polishuk reported the
incident at last month’s Regional Council meeting and called on all
mayors of border communities to remain alert and to cooperate with
all security measures.

"I don’t understand what else we can do to cooperate. Last year
we rounded up some Turks who had entered the village and handed
them over," recounts Vahram Maghatelyan, "this was the incident
Commander Polishuk was referring to. The alarm was raised at
all the checkpoints. But, in the end we never understood what had
happened. They said that some Kurds on horseback crossed the border
and then went back."

Shirak Regional Administrator visits border

The border patrol commander even raised the issue with the Regional
Administrator with the request that he talk to the villagers and see
if they could come up with an alternative to grazing the animals
within the restricted zone. Regional Administrator Lida Nanyan,
at the invitation of Commander Polishuk, visited the border areas
considered to be dangerous. However, she refused to take Commander
Polishuk up on his offer.

Mrs. Nanyan explained that, "I told him that I wasn’t ready to penalize
the residents of Meghrashat. They live off the income derived from
their livestock. I said that it was their problem and that they were
getting paid to monitor the border as necessary. If the guards have
a problem their ranks should increase. That’s their responsibility."

Meghrashat’s mayor attended this year’s National Assembly hearings
regarding the border communities. He said that, "If all those
resolutions are actually implemented then conditions in these
communities would be so wonderful that everybody would pack their
bags and head off to live in the border villages."

"But God knows when all that will happen, if it ever does. The fact is
that the village receives a yearly state subsidy of one million AMD as
a border community, complains Mr. Maghatelyan. "What kind of money is
that? Can the problems of the village be solved with such a pittance? I
got so angry last year that I told them to keep their money; that it
wasn’t a proper amount but more like a charity hand-out. This year
they’ve allocated three million. But it’s still not enough for villages
like ours. People like us safeguard the border, the national border."

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