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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.