The threat of war, close to home: A trip I won’t forget

The Armenian Weekly. When the large scale attacks by Azerbaijan started in Armenia this month, it felt more personal to me. These attacks on our homeland should motivate every Armenian to extend a hand or, at the very least, use their voice to raise awareness and help stop this crisis. I immediately recalled my 2017 trip to the targeted and vulnerable villages of Koghb and Berd, where I met the locals and heard their stories and learned their fears.

I was an intern with the AYF Internship program in Armenia. We took a trip to the northeastern province of Tavush, where I served as a design intern for the Homeland Development Initiative Foundation (HDIF). HDIF’s mission is to create jobs and industries in remote communities throughout Armenia, where villagers use their skills like crochet, sewing and woodwork to create unique products from our homeland and market these products around the world. Our goal was to document these remote communities and share the good work they are doing in partnership with HDIF. We wanted to tell their story.

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I didn’t expect to be spending my summer in an area which I knew very little about, especially since it was my first time visiting Armenia. I had only learned about the larger villages and cities as an Armenian school student and AYF member. However, this trip really opened my eyes to the communities in our nation which struggle with lack of opportunity and the threat of attack from Azerbaijan.

It took a few hours to get to Berd, but it was a scenic journey with winding mountainous roads and lush landscapes. When we arrived just outside the village, we pulled over to take some pictures next to the welcome sign. I remember the hill road overlooking the village with the border of Azerbaijan not far ahead in the distance.

Preparing to interview the women of Berd Bears (Photo: Alek Surenian)
Preparing to interview the women of Berd Bears (Photo: Alek Surenian)

We interviewed several women from “Berd Bears,” who make crochet teddy bears and other animals; it’s considered a bestseller in the HDIF catalogue. While speaking with these women, I learned more about what their lives are like. They are far from the opportunities in Yerevan and are susceptible to border clashes with Azeri forces. I felt a sense of frustration, but an optimism to carry on and make the best of things. They want to survive, prosper and sustain themselves. I personally have never felt this way, but exposing myself to this environment helped me empathize with them. This sense of empathy comes from a shared experience of a tragic family history. Although my family suffered from the Genocide and was displaced, I now live comfortably in the United States. But there are Armenians who do not share in that fortune. They continue to deal with hardships and do anything they can to make a living and survive. I felt compelled to help, but also bond as a fellow Armenian with one common goal—a free, independent and united Armenia.

We also visited Koghb. As we twisted and turned through the mountain roads, I vividly remember seeing sniper pillboxes where Armenian soldiers stood on alert, waiting for any possible attack by Azerbaijan. That felt very strange to say the least, driving around my homeland and seeing bits of what reality is really like—to be a landlocked country with neighbors who only want to bring death and suffering to my people. But the experience helped me realize that many young men were putting their lives on the line to defend what we have, most of whom are close to my age.

These recent attacks reminded me of these experiences from three years ago. That trip made me feel afraid, sad, angry and uneasy, but also proud and optimistic for what the future holds in these communities that are affected by war, but driven to look on the bright side. I hope this story shines some light on what it’s like to visit these border villages of Armenia because all they want is peace and prosperity to carry on without fear. But others on our borders disagree…

Overlooking the border of Armenia and Azerbaijan a couple miles away (Photo: Alek Surenian)
Overlooking the border of Armenia and Azerbaijan a couple miles away (Photo: Alek Surenian)

There is now word of joint military exercises between Azerbaijan and Turkey. This is an aggressive and dangerous tactic given the recent attacks by Azerbaijan along the eastern borders of Armenia and Artsakh. Turkey and Azerbaijan are threatening a regional war, simple as that. I fear these “war games” are part of a military offensive to expand, just like what happened in northern Syria, but in our homeland. Our soldiers, undoubtedly, will be closely monitoring these military actions and will be prepared to defend our borders. We here in the Diaspora will faithfully support them.

Armenians worldwide have been responding to these attacks with mass demonstrations. We have come with messages of peace and unity. We are in tough times to say the least. But our support and national pride for our people will not be tarnished by the aggressors or any obstacles which get in our way.

You attack our communities, we rebuild what is destroyed. You kill our servicemen, we honor them as martyrs and continue the fight. You assault our people from LA, Boston, Brussels, Istanbul, Moscow, and Kiev, we continue to protest, protect and support our communities of the diaspora.

The time to rally for the cause is now. Call your representative, donate to organizations, raise awareness. We must do all we can to prevent another genocide and end this violence.

We want peace. Azerbaijan and Turkey want war, death and destruction of Armenia. So what are you going to do? The time is now, and the power is yours.

Alek Surenian

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