Baghanis, a rural community in Armenia’s Tavush region, is just feet away from the Azerbaijani border depending on where you’re standing. Despite a ceasefire agreement signed between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the mid-1990s, this border town has experienced enemy fire multiple times since, with the bullet-pocked walls on homes and buildings to prove it. For most of its residents, the war is not over. And, by all accounts, neither is the town’s resolve to stay put, despite the physical perils and financial hardships its residents endure.
In effect, the Armenian town most endangered is perhaps the least likely to become extinct, thanks to the sheer will of these pillars of patriotism who have long resisted the temptation to abandon their ancestral homes for an easier and safer existence.
Today, life under constant threat is the daily routine for the 800 inhabitants of Baghanis. Yet this reality is neither taken for granted nor underestimated, but rather factors largely into the calculus of every decision about how to improve living conditions that are under the town’s control. Thirty-three year old Narek Sahakyan, the current mayor of Baghanis, puts it this way: “The number one problem for Baghanis is physical security, which is vital. That is the most important thing for us. For any project we are considering, we first calculate whether or not the project will work under our unique circumstances.”
What’s more, in order to protect the residents from Azerbaijani shootings, houses close to the border have been fortified and one of the classrooms in the school was converted into a safe house. With the assistance of outside organizations, these self-appointed custodians of the homeland have also been able to implement a number of public improvement projects, most notably providing drinking and irrigation water, gas, street lighting and other infrastructure upgrades. In 2019, a new kindergarten opened its doors, which, unlike the existing kindergarten, is located as far from the border as possible to avert enemy fire. It boasts a heating system, playrooms and even a summer theatre to serve the needs of the 19 children who attend—the hope of the town’s future.
There are other considerations. Baghanis is a farming and cattle-breeding town, but due to its close proximity to the Azerbaijani border, many sections of land remain uncultivated. Grazing has its own perils; cases of losing valuable livestock from enemy fire are not uncommon.
Mayor Sahakyan notes that an underdeveloped economy is another major challenge. “We have a ready workforce that needs to earn a living. We understand that nobody is going to want to build a chemical plant in a border zone, but there can be a processing factory or a trade workshop for the villagers. For example, Grand Tobacco has a wet cigarette acceptance point where 40 people do seasonal work. But the majority have no other source of income than farming their small plot of land.” In recent years, some locals have tried to take advantage of the location of Baghanis on the Yerevan-Tbilisi interstate highway by selling their produce and agricultural goods on the sideroads.
Voskehat Gorginyan, who has lived in Baghanis for more than 40 years, says that it is lack of work more than fear of bodily harm that is more conducive to emigration. “Today the whole world has become a dangerous place,” Gorginyan says. “When we hear shots, we go into hiding at that moment, then we come out and return to our normal lives. We have no intention of leaving our homes.”
As for Benik Shahnazaryan, he has lived his entire 84 years in Baghanis, 58 of which as the town’s lone hairdresser. Still open for business, he notes that his customer base has declined in recent years because it saves money to cut one’s hair at home, although firmly stating that he and his family have no intention of leaving. Benik describes the perspective of his neighbors: “We don’t worry about that permanent danger from the other side of the border, we go on living in our homes, in our town, with our people. My three grandchildren attend the local school. It is true that there are times when the school is under fire, but they have gotten used to it.”
Today 100 students attend the only school in town, situated one kilometer from Azerbaijani positions. Over the years, it has repeatedly been attacked from the Azerbaijani side. In September 2018, a school gym was damaged by the Azerbaijani hostilities. Nevertheless, the school forges ahead with business as usual.
Another challenge is housing for young people. “If you’re planning to get married, you have a housing problem,” remarks mayor Sahakyan. “It takes from $8,000 to $10,000 dollars to build a home. It would lift a great burden for us if the Armenian government would follow the example of the Artsakh Republic and implement a housing works project for border communities like ours. There could be a precondition: Whoever takes ownership must commit to live in that house and not sell it.”
The residents of Baghanis say their only wish is to live in peace. The absence of danger will allow them to develop, rebuild infrastructure and housing, and keep the younger generations from emigrating. They also don’t think of themselves as military heroes, but as patriotic citizens of a nation. “We are ordinary people who see our future in Armenia. The stronger the state, the better we will be, so we must do our share to build a strong Armenia together,” states Gorginyan.
Mayor Sahakyan agrees. “We are so far from politics, our mission is different, our mission is to be a border town. The state border starts here. We are ready to stand behind our army and defend our homeland. We are not going to leave our homes, we see our future bright and victorious in Armenia. And we are convinced that tomorrow will always be better than yesterday.”
He noted that there have been no incidents from the Azerbaijani side for about a year now—a possible sign that the enemy has finally gotten the message: Baghanis won’t budge.
Banner photo by Davit Hakobyan