by Marianna Grigoryan and Sona Danielyan

Gray-haired and aged by war and hardship, 68-year old Rima Danielian moves with care down the edge of a bluff approaching a row of unremarkable shops in her town, Shushi.

She passes children coming home from school who are growing up in a Shushi far different than the one Rima sees in her memory.

"My city is the most beautiful," says Rima. "For centuries Shushi had been considered as the heart and center of culture of Artsakh. And today it seems life has become silent. Many things have changed."

In fact, in the decade since Shushi—on its strategic vantage point overlooking the capital, Stepanakert the site of prolonged and vicious fighting between Armenian and Azeri forces—almost everything has changed.

Rima's memory is good and its facts well known. Before the war, Shushi had 12,000 residents. It was a beacon of culture, a center of art, of publishing and of a refined life that, if found in Shushi today, is somewhere under the city's scarred exterior where 3,500 hang on.

A Borrowed Life: Roosters announce the beginning of the day in Shushi, soon followed by the ringing of bells at St. Ghazanchetsots Church—33 clangs from the tower, one for each year of Christ's life.

The bells mark the beginning of Anahit Danielian's working day. She sells candles at the church and says that even though most of her neighbors have nothing to do with their days, even the poorest ones come to pray; probably for a better life.

"It's true that it seems that people's life conditions don't change," Anahit says. "But in recent years people have been getting married more often and it delights the heart." It has become tradition, she says, for couples from Stepanakert (about 10 kilometers away) to come to the church for their weddings.

And the occasion to have outsiders in Shushi is welcomed by owners of the little shops that are evidence of the commerce of necessity, even in a skeleton of a city.

"Residents of Shushi mainly buy vermicelli, sugar, oil and cheap vodka," says 24-year old Liana Harutyunian, a shop worker. But "buy" is not exactly the right word. "They mainly borrow," she says. There are two bottles of champagne on her shelf, so long there that Liana can't remember where they came from.

"Sometimes those who come from Stepanakert for wedding ceremonies plunge themselves into excesses like that if, of course, they forget to bring that stuff with them. Such things are not for residents of Shushi."

Liana moved to Shushi from Masis six years ago with her two little girls and says that they couldn't live and exist here if her parents didn't help them by sending flour, potatoes and other necessary foodstuff from Masis.

"Many people don't work but I have a job," Liana says. "However, for two months I haven't been getting my monthly 15,000 thousand drams (about $26). She shows a notebook in which she keeps a record of "borrowed" food. "Only this copybook grows thicker and thicker. This month people's debt to the shop has become more than 100,000 drams (about $177)."

Buying on credit has become a way of life that, for many, is necessary but humiliating.

Stella Hakobian has seven children and receives a government subsidy for having a large family—an incentive by the State. "Every month the owner of the shop gets my children's allowances," says Stella, who moved to Shushi from Hrazdan, a town north of Yerevan. "During the month we take some things from the shop and then take my children's allowances directly to the shop. This is how our debts are covered."

Stella recently was given an apartment, another perk of having a large family. She and her children have a three-bedroom flat, but the only furniture in it is beds. "We have no job," says Stella. "The only good thing is that in winters we can go 'sticking' in the neighborhood forest for wood to heat our apartment. And in the spring we pick berries and sell them for cheap prices to earn money."

Shushi has not recovered in any comparable way with the development that has taken place in neighboring Stepanakert. And while the number of "large" families (having four or more children) is increasing in response to the State programs, the overall birth rate has dropped, officials say.

"When we were at war we thought everything would be ok," says veteran Karineh Danielian. "However, it was understood that there would be difficulties in the future. Anyway, hope still lives."

Culture as Pastime: City leaders say that Shushi's future lies in finding a way to keep its young people and assure a future for them in their city.

"The majority of young people don't think about leaving the city because they haven't got enough opportunities for thinking about it," says 22-year old Armen Poghosian. "For many of them a marshrutka (Russian for mini-bus) ticket from Shushi to Yerevan is as much as the sum they spend for living during a month."

But even in the diminished version of its former self, Shushi shows glimpses of what it once was, and efforts are made at providing a "normal" life that would encourage youth to stay.

In fact, cultural life shows the most obvious development in Shushi.

In this place of damaged and vacant buildings one can find an arts college, a drama theater, a puppet theater, a choir, a quartet, a dance group, and the list can continue. A few summers ago an arts festival was even started.

The State Humanitarian College named after Arsen Khachatrian is the only educational option given to students from Shushi and neighboring or remote villages. The college mainly teaches various arts and crafts such as painting, carpet making, decorative art, etc.

In May 2003, a technical school was renamed into the college, which, though small, is a sign of Westernization in a place that seems largely detached from the rest of the world—or more connected to its former Soviet regime.

The college was reopened in 1992 after the liberation of Shushi. Today the college has 181 students, ranging in age from 15 to 23.

During a recent day in the winter session at the college, students gathered to discuss the topic: "Love, Marriage, Family and Law", while teachers sat at a table to moderate the discussion.

After a short introduction students discussed questions on divorce, on children's rights and whether love is enough reason to get married, and looked for answers from their experienced teachers.

As is often the case in small towns, the youth of Shushi and their teachers have relationships that are open and relaxed. After the day's special program they all met to sing songs, read poetry, dance, eat, drink, then dance and sing some more. The scene, not typically found in institutions of learning, for example, in Yerevan provides a glimpse of life in Shushi.

Such events are a big thing for the youngsters here. It is noticeable that the day was planned with great care, especially through the way the girls prepared themselves in their best manner.

Shushi doesn't offer many opportunities, outside school, for its younger generation to socialize and even then, the events are restricted to daylight hours. When the sun goes down, activity is mostly limited inside apartments among family.

Our future is vague, the youngsters say. And they complain that their city of rich cultural heritage is too often overlooked.

"Stepanakert is Karabakh's advertising town," says David Avagimian, age 22, who joins other actors at the puppet theater after school. "For some reason they prefer to concentrate everything there."

The kids at the puppet theater say officials making promises to revive Shushi's cultural life don't seem to understand that culture is all that's developing in Shushi.

In fact the only singing ensemble in Karabakh is from Shushi (so, too, is a former "Miss Karabakh").

First it was a quintet founded in 2000 by girls singing in Shushi's Varanda choir, and now it is a quartet called Nareh who have become celebrities in Karabakh.

Karine,19, Alina 27, Christina 23 and Gayane 22, have taken part in some folk and pop festivals in Stepanakert where they've taken first place. The girls are mainly performing folk songs but in a modern way.

First they would travel around Karabakh and perform for free, just to become known. Sometimes they get paid today and they consider $200 ($50 each) a fair price. However they don't always get that much.

"If we have a good sponsor we'll get promoted," says Gayane. "If not we'll stay here and no one will probably know about us except Karabakh."

Anush Danielian, 22, says she dreams of having an Internet café in Shushi to connect youth with each other and the outside world. "The only thing we do now is visit each other, but that gets old.

"All of us have interesting dreams but to make them come true we need opportunities. And if dreams and possibilities coincided with each other, then Shushi would become the city of our dreams."

Originally published in the April 2004 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. Archived content may appear distorted on your screen. end character

About the AGBU Magazine

AGBU Magazine is one of the most widely circulated English language Armenian magazines in the world, available in print and digital format. Each issue delivers insights and perspective on subjects and themes relating to the Armenian world, accompanied by original photography, exclusive high-profile interviews, fun facts and more.