In the Line of Fire.

Dangerously beautiful: Joghaz Lake & Berqaber Village on the border with Azerbaijan.

On my second day in Armenia, we went to the border town of Berqaber (which means “Bringing Fruit Harvest”). It was the end of a long day we’d spent visiting other youth groups and Heifer projects in regions northeast of Yerevan, but Vahe, my Heifer guide, was intent upon taking me to visit this one family before we made the 2-hour trek back to Yerevan.

The Gasparyans have been involved with Heifer for several years.  The father Gorik works in the border patrol, on a small lake that is half-owned by Armenia and half-owned by Azerbaijan (and yes, that is a recipe for disaster). The military is the only industry the town has, so Ella stays home with her three sweet children and mother-in-law, raising food and animals.

Valeria, Hrachya and Veronica Gasparyan

In late 2011, Ella received a heifer that gave birth to twins (a rarity); she’ll pass on the baby heifer to another needy family in a few months. Veronica, Ella’s beautiful daughter, received a turkey as part of her Heifer Animal Husbandry training – which she’s now parlayed into 6 turkeys, 17 turkey chicks, 10 chicken hens and 30 chicks.

The household is full of animals, the yard is laden with fruit and flowers, and the setting is beautiful – except that while we were sitting there having coffee, we heard gunfire (it sounded like firecrackers). Ella’s children told me that when the AK 47 guns start firing during the school day, they push their desks back from the window and keep studying. And then they showed me the bullets they’d pulled out of the walls of their house.I guess this is what it’s like to live in the Palestinian territories or the settlements. It was simultaneously frightening (not for myself, but for the beautiful children, whom I never wanted to let out of my sight) and totally surreal. You have to wonder how the heck it’s ever going to end and what could possibly be the point of prolonging this age-old conflict.

Across the lake and in sight: the Azerbaijan Border Station

Azerbaijan is a Muslim country, a former Soviet Republic like Armenia, and a big country with untold riches in oil and gas. Its conflict with Armenia is over Nagorno-Karabagh, the predominantly Armenian territory that was made a special autonomous administrative zone under Azerbaijan control by Stalin in the 1920’s, but then sought independence from Azerbaijan when the Soviet Union disintegrated in the 1990s. The resulting conflict was a bloodbath on both sides, with 30,000 killed and countless others displaced (most all the Azeris fled their homes in Karabagh and moved east). In 1994, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabagh won the war and declared their independence (though the republic hasn’t been recognized by any other country in the world). Yet the Azeris have not forgiven, forgotten – or even accepted this secession, and troops are still dug in trenches on both sides.

Turkey, in solidarity with Azerbaijan, closed its borders with Armenia, effectively cutting it off from trade and commerce development – and yes, this whole saga is like listening to somebody telling you stories from a bad divorce. You just want it to stop already.

Veronica’s grandmother, who’s lived through the aftermath of the genocide, the Soviets, and the Azeri war.

But for Armenians like the Gasparyans, this is life. Their small village of 450 people has dozens of boarded-up houses, as neighbors flee the violence. Yura, Berqaber’s devoted community leader, is working with Heifer to try to stabilize and empower the village with income-producing animals, but it’s hard not to listen to the words of Veronica’s grandmother and feel some despair.

“My husband’s family came from Western Armenia (now Turkey). We went through the genocide and still they shoot at us. Why our government doesn’t let us shoot back?”

It’s a raw feeling. Two months ago, Heifer visitors were scheduled to come see Veronica’s thriving turkeys but it was too unsafe. She was heartbroken with disappointment. Today, she’s holding my hand and hugging me fiercely as we walk through the gates. I don’t want to let her go. As strong and competent as her mother is, I simply cannot imagine raising my children in this culture of war – and nothing seems destined to change.

I’m so happy Heifer is helping families in Berqabar survive, when no one else is coming to their aid. But until peace comes, I’ll be worried sick about Veronica. She’s in my heart now.

Categories: Heifer International | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 24 Comments

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24 thoughts on “In the Line of Fire.

  1. Betty, so glad you brought this reality to us. Too hard to comprehend it all, let alone ‘accept’ it. So wonderful that Heifer is making a new reality possible. The best possible change will come from within, with a little bit of help from friends 🙂
    Shalom to you and L’shanah Tovah to your entire family.

    • Thanks so much, Meredith — and I am hoping that somehow this conflict gets lessened and/or resolved, but it seems a dim possibility. You know, the Armenians remind me a LOT of the Jewish people — very well educated, hard-working, prosperous, family oriented and persecuted … it’s kind of weird the similarities!! Shalom!!

  2. sarah

    Oh goodness – you’ve made me cry again. I can tell how worried you are about that gorgeous girl and her brothers, and really it’s only by focusing on individual stories like this that we see the awfulness of war. Especially prolonged, apparently without-end war. That was an amazing post, Betty. Thank you.

    • Great to hear from YOU, Sarah — been thinking about you so much!! I really adored her so much — you can tell just from looking at her face (she looks so much like my niece/goddaughter) what a special girl she is … and the thought of living with bullets flying past your house (and your dad manning the border post) …what unbelievable stress. I really wanted to capture the surreal nature of that … and the pointlessness of the conflict (in my opinion — it’s all pointless when it leads to loss of life)… so I’m glad you were reading. Miss you!!!

  3. Ginger

    An amazing country, beautiful people and a heart-wrenching story. Thanks for always keeping my own troubles in check.



  4. What a sweet sentiment Betty. And what a shame that great, innocent kids have to grow up with so much danger and strife around them. Growing up is hard enough as it is without picking bullets out of the walls.

    As Ginger said above, thanks for keeping my own problems in perspective. 🙂

    • Everything about this year is keeping my problems in perspective — and I just hope that I never forget those lessons! In fact, I’ve got a whole raft of people who I’m worried about and praying for, and every time I look at my photos, their stories come back to me. Thanks so much for your comment FF!

  5. War is almost always senseless, but when thousands of people die over a relatively tiny patch of land, that’s pure insanity. I knew nothing about this subject, Betty, so thank you for educating me once again. I hope things improve for the family you got to know and love, and for everyone there.

    • I’m pretty much against all war, too — and it makes me ill when people (Mitt) glibly say, “Oh we should just invade…” as if there were no lives at stake, and nothing catastrophic in the concept. I had never heard of this Nagorno Karabagh conflict either, and the idea that 18 years later it’s still actively being fought over … well, it’s really depressing. I’m hoping that somehow both sides can come to the table and try to settle this so people like Veronica can stop living on the fault line…Thanks for writing, Charles!

  6. Didi

    Looking at that beautiful blue eyed girl with her wonderful steady gaze…how can she not get into your heart. I’m wondering her age? I’m sure you would like to keep her safe in your pocket…I would too.

  7. Veronica is 13 … and every time I look at photos of her, I can feel her arms around my waist just hugging me tight. I think the village is very isolated and not many people come to visit … so she was really excited for me to come admire her turkeys and the great job she’s doing with her work. But more than that, I was just so moved by this village caught up in the crossfire of a conflict that won’t end. I don’t think I could stand to ever go to the Israeli-Palestinian territories … it would just kill me!

  8. Oh, Betty, it’s chilling to see all of those bullets. Goodness. And little Veronica is a cutie. She’s in my heart now, as well. Thanks for sharing the family story. Hope you have a great weekend.

  9. This really helps put things in their proper perspective. An interesting though heart-wrenching read. Keep it up, you make this world a better place…

    • Alessandro .. I was so touched by Veronica and her family, living such a pastoral life in the most unlikely place of conflict! Thanks for your comment!

  10. Your posts are so beautiful and touching. Heart melting stories Betty.

  11. I think at the core of every world religion is the commandment to treat others as you would want to be treated, and yet we don’t. I don’t understand us, Betty. I really don’t.

    • It’s the golden rule of all spirituality and I’m at a loss to understand why religion is used to divide people … thanks for your comment, Sybil!

  12. BJ

    Thanks Betty for putting an image such as the face of beautiful little Veronica to this worthwhile storyline.

  13. Since you introduced us to Armenia, the people, their language, and their strifes, I did some homework and discovered that the Armenians and the Azerbaijani have been fighting since 1905. One particularly vicious battle in 1919. Over the same things they fight about today. The United States gave Armenia $32million in aid last year but that amount was cut almost 20% for fiscal year 2013. The Armenian-American community is not happy with our current president who vowed to foster Armenia’s growth and development through expanded trade, but then cuts aid. That’s why Heifer and other foundations are so desperately needed. And critical.

    We can never stop war. But if there are always children with faces like Veronica, there’s hope.

    This is such a meaningful and thoughtful post Betty.

    • Hi EOSR! I’m so happy that my posts on Armenia have prompted you to do some more research discovery on this fascinating country! Yes, the grudge match in the Caucasus go back for centuries and the fights have been brutal — and because Azerbaijan is Muslim and supported by Turkey, the historic foe of Armenia since the Ottoman Empire, there is no love lost between them. in 1920, Stalin gave Nagorno-Karabagh to Azerbaijan, as a protected affiliate state whatever that means, despite a population that was about 75% Armenian, and that was the genesis of a lot of resentment and hatred.
      As for the foreign aid to Armenia, I hadn’t heard about that. Very interesting! The people I talked to in Armenia seemed to have a very favorable opinion of Obama, actually — probably because the biggest threat to Armenian stability and prosperity is a massive influx of refugees from Syria … or any catastrophic attack on Iran…both Armenian neighbors, and they see Obama as less likely to allow that to happen. But the biggest concern of Armenian Americans, I think, is getting America to call out Turkey for the Armenian genocide of 1915 .. and until that happens, they’re not going to be satisfied. Doesn’t seem likely,however, given Turkey’s huge importance to American military and diplomatic interests in the Middle East. Such an imbroglio … and so sad for the beautiful people like Veronica who are literally in the line of fire. Thanks for the thoughtful comment!!!

  14. Deb Morrow Palmer

    So much tragedy you have heard about this year. No wonder you are disgusted with our country and unnecessary political hate. This election has made me want to crawl under a rock and hide from my friends!! Also didn’t have time to tell you how proud I am to know you and you looked so beautiful for your award ceremony weekend!

  15. I have heard about a lot of tragedy but my overwhelming takeaway is one of SO much hope and joy and optimism for the future of our world if we can all just keep on working together and helping each other … thanks so much for following, Deb … we have GOT to get together in Philly!!! thanks, B

  16. Thank you so much for sharing. It certainly is a story of hope.

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