by Sevak Hakobyan
“You can say we’re now in little Talish,” Vilen Petrosyan says with a smile as he shows a cluster of temporary residences in Alashan. Petrosyan has been the mayor of Talish for the past 25 years.
Today, the communal kitchen, public bath, and administrative buildings of Alashan, a former resort village, have been turned into makeshift homes. Following the April War of 2016, close to 46 families from Talish, totaling 180 residents, have taken refuge in Alashan. Of the rest of Talish’s 500 residents, they’re now scattered across various communities in Artsakh and Armenia. Petrosyan knows exactly where each of his fellow Talish natives has ended up, and assures us that he keeps in touch will all of them.
Vilen Petrosyan was to celebrate his 52nd birthday on April 2, 2016. The previous day, his wife had cooked several sumptuous dishes, as well as a birthday torte, for the family feast. But in the predawn hours of April 2, the Azerbaijani army rained down rockets and machine-gun fire on the peaceful population of Talish. Most everyone fled for their lives. Within a few hours, Talish had become a ghost town.
During the Four-day War unleashed by Azerbaijan, a few Azeri soldiers had been able to enter Talish. At that time, there were still some Armenian civilians left in the village. The Azeris savagely killed three elderly people and subsequently launched a disinformation campaign on the Internet, claiming they had captured Talish.
“We used every means available to quickly get our people out of the village and give them shelter wherever we could,” Petrosyan recalls. “In Alashan today, we already have a medical clinic, a mayor’s office, a school, and two stores. In addition, our folks grow crops and raise animals on more than 600 acres of land. But of course, despite the more or less comfortable life that they’ve built here, these people sorely miss their birthplace, and anxiously wait for the day they’ll be able to go back.”
The reconstruction of Talish, one of the Martakert Region’s oldest villages, has been a top strategic and political priority for Artsakh and Armenia. Cognizant of the urgent importance of rebuilding the border village, Armenia Fund benefactor and honorary member Antranik Baghdassarian has provided generous support for its restoration, including the refurbishment of homes, the community center, the event hall, and the social center, as well as the potable-water and sewer systems. With this major contribution, Baghdassarian has once again underscored the fact that the Armenians remain united in the struggle for Artsakh’s security and prosperity. Now, as Talish rises from the ashes, it is demonstrating to neighboring Azerbaijan and the world that the Armenians will continue to live and create in their historic homeland.
One of the 18 rebuilt homes in Talish belongs to a big family, the Hayrapetyans. Vachik, the father of five children, has visited Talish only a few days ago. But while living temporarily in Alashan, he never misses an opportunity to go to his birthplace and see what’s been changed since his last visit. He asks us to take him and his son along with us as we’re headed to Talish.
We reach the village after a 40-kilometer drive. We’re met by an eerie silence that’s broken occasionally by the sounds of construction. Only one family lives here. There are also a number of men engaged in animal farming, in addition to the construction crews. The reconstruction of the mayor’s offices, the event hall, and 18 homes is already completed. Next to be rebuilt are the kindergarten and the school.
“And this is our home,” Vachik says as he takes us to his fruit grove. He then opens the door to his refurbished home. “Here’s the kitchen,” he says. “This is the kids’ room, and that’s the living room. We’re waiting for the furniture.”
As he’s about to tell us how the nine members of his family will divide the rooms between themselves, we hear the creaking of the front-yard gate. It’s Oleg, the son of the only family that has returned to Talish.
“What’s going on?” Oleg asks jokingly, “You’re moving in already? Well, it’s about time. How much longer can we live without neighbors?”
Oleg has moved back to the village with his 80-year-old mother, Grandma Agnes; and 88-year-old father, Grandpa Benik. The elderly couple were the last to leave the village on April 2, 2016, and the first to return, in November 2017. It was Grandpa Benik who had been the most vocal about returning to the village as soon as possible. Now that he’s here and witnesses the transformation of his birthplace, sometimes he can’t believe it’s the same Talish they escaped from in 2016.
“He keeps asking, ‘You’re sure we’re back, right?’” chuckles Grandma Agnes, who for 50 years has worked in Talish as a nurse. “After leaving the village in April 2016, we lived in Nor Geghi [in Armenia’s Kotayk Region] for a few months. We used to count the days. We couldn’t wait to come back. In the 1990s, too, during the war, we left Talish and then returned. Now it’s the same story. I can’t live anywhere else. We are so very grateful to Armenia Fund and our benefactor! In the past, we didn’t even have regular cold water. Now we have hot and cold water around the clock, and Armenia Fund has done a marvelous job renovating our home.”
As Grandma Agnes makes coffee in her newly furnished kitchen, she bemoans the fact that she can’t treat us to desserts, since as yet there are no stores in the village to buy fresh pastries from.
“Had you come by tomorrow, we would’ve eaten together,” she says. “We’re going to mark Grandpa Benik’s 89th birthday. We’ve slaughtered a lamb. We’re going to make a little spread and celebrate his birthday in our renovated home.” As she says this, Grandma Agnes chokes up and turns her face away, no doubt hoping that next year her family will be able to mark Grandpa Benik’s 90th birthday together with their newly returned neighbors.