by Vahan Ishkhanyan
Kashatagh may be the only region of "two Armenias" where there are no magnificent villas or foreign cars. As one resident said, there are no rich or poor here and all are equal.
Outsiders still know it as Lachin, famous for the corridor that was the hard-won link between Armenia and Karabakh, gained during fierce fighting in 1992. But to the locals, this area retaken from Azerbaijan and made the sixth region of Karabakh has regained its ancient name.
"Kashatagh is the land of our ancestors," says head of administration of Kashatagh Alexan Hakobian. "Armenians living here began thinning out 100 years ago and as a result of the policy conducted by Stalin it became a part of Azerbaijan."
For many Armenians, Kashatagh is an escape. It lacks the dramatic gap between social classes seen in Stepanakert or Yerevan. Here, they can move to a new region and start a new life where they become landowners instead of refugees. With the exception of officials, it is hard to find any who say they settled here for patriotic reasons.
Together with his wife and two children Karo Meseljian moved from Yerevan to Berdzor (the city formerly known as Lachin). the provincial seat of Kashatagh, two years ago. He left his older son in Yerevan with his parents while he attends chess school there.
"In Yerevan everything gets on my nerves: bureaucrats, cops, traffic police," says Karo. "At every turn people's pride is mortified. Trying to get any document, people are dishonored. Here you feel like a human being and don't feel the influence of authorities on you. People understand each other very easily here, they are friendly."
In Yerevan, Karo had a small shop which was somewhat profitable. Now he rents out that shop and has started a business in Berdzor, bringing goods from Yerevan and selling them to local shops. "When I had a shop in Yerevan every day I had to deal with bureaucrats," he says. "I had good profit there, but it is better to have small profit here than to see their faces."
His wife, Gayaneh, is a nurse. She didn't work in Yerevan, but in Berdzor she works in a kindergarten. "When you work your life becomes more interesting," she says. "The staff is very good. We made new friends."
People move to Kashatagh for many reasons. Some have sold their houses in Armenia to cover debts, and come here to start debt-free living. Some young couples want to start families separate from their parents. Most see the new region of Karabakh as offering opportunities they don't see in their old homes.
And one can meet various types of former officials in Kashatagh. In one village the director of the school is the former head of the Education Department of Yerevan. In another village one of former president Levon Ter-Petrosian's security service raises cattle. Former Karabakh Minister of Defense Samvel Babayan's assistant is head of the Social Department.
After a decade of resettlement, the region of 300 square kilometers now has about 13,000 residents. Of 127 settlements, only 57 have electricity. (Authorities say villages in the southern part of the province should have electricity within a year, however the northern parts don't expect electrical service for at least five years.)
There are two hospitals in the region, in Berdzor and in Kovsakan (formerly Zangelan), the second largest town, near the border of Iran. Each community has a nurse. At the Berdzor hospital, director Artsakh Buniatian insists on keeping his hospital a place where residents can receive free treatment.
"If a doctor takes money from a patient he will be punished for that," says Buniatian, age 69. "However, we can't treat all diseases and when we send a patient to Yerevan or Goris then he finds himself in a completely different world and falls into the hands of hawks, where they demand money and medicines of him. There, residents of Kashatagh are taken for third rate people, who cannot cover their treatment expenses."
Eight doctors work in the Berdzor hospital. They earn 45,000 drams (about $80) a month. Buniatian says that it is almost impossible to find a doctor who will agree to work in the region. Nobody wants to come here and work only for salary, without taking money for services, he says. Buniatian spent the war working in a field hospital in Karabakh. After the war he again returned to his former work, as a surgeon at a hospital in Abovian (just north of Yerevan).
"I hadn't seen my family for three years. Three daughters were waiting for me. After the slaughter of war it was hard for me to adapt to civilian medicine."
While he was trying to adapt he was invited to Berdzor hospital's opening ceremony. "I was invited to spend two days, but, at the opening ceremony a Karabakh Minister handed over the order of appointing me to this position," Buniatian says. "I thought that during the war I had been in so many difficult places and now it is God's will and it means that people need me."
The surgeon's abilities are limited by a lack of facilities and about the most complicated case he can treat is appendicitis. "I used to perform any type of difficult operation, but, what can I do," he says. "I sacrificed my skills to the war, and now to Kashatagh in this way."
While laying the foundation for a new society, culture has not been ignored in the resettling of Kashatagh.
In 1996 a Museum of History was opened in Berdzor, which now holds some 300 exhibits, including bronze and stone items that date to the 4th millennium B.C. Armenian household items from the 3rd millennium B.C. to the 19th century show the rich heritage of the region. Most items in the museum were collected by director Livera Hovhannisian, who before moving to Berdzor had worked for 18 years in the Yerevan Museum of History.
"During one month, I had traveled in 47 villages and collected all these exhibits to be in time for the museum's opening," she says. "Those days many villages hadn't been settled yet. Accompanied by two men, I was going to every village by truck and we were searching and finding in every house things we had been looking for. In one village we were fired upon. Residents of that village hadn't seen other people for a long period of time and when they saw us they were very scared and thought we were Azeris."
About 200 paintings are displayed in the gallery including works by Parajanov and Carzou. Some paintings were sent from the Ministry of Culture in Yerevan.
"The director of Yerevan Art Gallery said: 'How can I give them to you? What if this territory is retaken?'," Hovhannisian recalls. "I said that if this territory is retaken then let these paintings be lost with the territories. And he agreed and gave 25 paintings."
As Armenian life in previously enemy territory is formed, one feature, the Church, lacks a significant presence in Kashatagh. In the entire province the only functioning church is Holy Ascension, built in Berdzor in 1997.
In 2002, Diaspora benefactors restored a 4th century church in the village of Tsitsernavank, however there are no clergy there. "We need at least three clergymen in the north and three in the south," says the only priest of the region Ter Atanas. "People of the south need just one chapel but there is nobody to give money and construct it."
The highest settlement in Kashatagh is 1,700 meters above sea level; the lowest, 330. In the mountainous north, life is harsh and most villagers exist raising cattle. To the south, however, farms prosper from generous growing seasons and fertile valleys of the Hakar River.
It was in such a valley that the first families resettled, mostly in Tsaghkaberd (formerly Gyuliberd) where 70 families now live.
The Vardanian family, refugees from Kirovabad (Azerbaijan) were among the first. "My husband knew that this area was populated and I took my children and came here," says Gohar Vardanian. "It was a good time for collecting fruits. We collected many fruits and I told my husband, 'Ashot, we will stay here.' We are here for 10 years now."
Three Vardanian children finished school here and one now studies at Stepanakert University. The family income is, literally, their "cash cow". Each year the Vardanians sell a calf to cover essential expenses. "My children have already finished their service in the army," Gohar says. "The only thing left is to pay for my son's education. I think this year we won't sell a calf."
Like their neighbors, the Vardanians harvest mulberry, fig, quince and pomegranate in addition to traditional crops. They make about 400 liters of mulberry vodka each year. Residents had hoped that by now there would be food processing plants in Kashatagh, but investments haven't materialized.
And, though nature offers favorable conditions, many villagers rent out their land because they cannot afford equipment to cultivate it. A typical lease is about $25 per hectare, plus 200 kilograms of wheat.
"I have the land but how can I cultivate it if they don't grant credits and don't give a seeding machine," says school director Samvel Sedrakian, a former Yerevan journalist. "I have eight hectares of land but I can't sow it. It's true, villagers feed themselves, there are not hungry people, but they cannot make any profits."
Slava Tokhunts is an exception. He moved to Kashatagh from the Goris region and brought a seeding machine with him. Every year he sows wheat on his 5.5 hectare property.
"I don't ask anything from anybody and I can also help those who are hungry," he says. He makes cheese from milk of his six cows and then barters the cheese for various items such as sugar and clothes. Selling products out-right is difficult because trading involves going to one of the towns in Armenia, and most villagers can't manage such trips.
Over the past five years, the area of cultivated crop-lands has increased in Kashatagh from 5,000 hectares to 12,000 hectares. The number of livestock has increased to about 26,000 head (cattle, goats, sheep).
At the same time, the stream of migrants has tapered. Between 1997-98, nearly 800 families moved to the province. Last year, 80 new families settled there and about the same amount left.
"Sometimes I'm sad when people leave. But it's normal that some of them will come back," says Berdzor official Alexan Hakobian. "It shows that the process of repopulation is free and nobody is forced to live here."