In Yerevan

Daniel Trilling

The genocide memorial in Yerevan, a giant complex built when Armenia was part of the USSR, sits on a ridge overlooking the city: its museum tells of how ethnic Armenians in the final years of Ottoman rule were massacred and forcibly scattered and how the lands claimed by Armenian nationalists were reduced, by military defeat and international diplomacy, to the present-day republic in the South Caucasus. Passengers who leave the metro station at Yerevan’s central square are greeted with a giant map of Greater Armenia, a historical region that mostly falls within the borders of the current republic’s neighbours: Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia. And on the streets, pasted to lamp-posts, walls and junction boxes, are fly-posters offering cheap minibus rides to distant cities: Krasnodar, Rostov, Novosibirsk. The republic’s economy is partly sustained by emigrant workers, most of whom go to Russia.

A local representative of the UNHCR gave me a sheaf of briefing notes in a folder with a picture of Fridtjof Nansen on the cover. Nansen was the Norwegian diplomat who, through the League of Nations in the 1920s, introduced the first form of international refugee protection, later replaced by the UN Refugee Convention of 1951. Travel documents known as Nansen passports, recognised by more than 50 countries, were issued to people made stateless by upheavals during and after the First World War. Displaced Armenians were one of the groups to be issued them; Russians outside the borders of the newly formed USSR were another: my grandmother was one of them. When I was a child she used to talk about her Nansen passport in almost reverential tones: a white document – the blankness seemed important – that allowed her to cross borders and never be tied down to one country. She regretted having ever given it up. I told this to the Armenian UNHCR official; she smiled and said: ‘You are from our country too.’

Per capita, according to the UNHCR, Armenia has received more asylum applications from Syrians than any other country in Europe apart from Germany and Sweden. Most of those who have come to Armenia are ethnically Armenian, so it has been treated in official rhetoric as a homecoming. Many Armenians have come from elsewhere to live in the republic over the last century but there are large diaspora communities in the US, Europe and the Middle East. The Ministry of Diaspora offers citizenship to anyone who can show they are Armenian by descent, by culture, or by membership of an Armenian church. Early in the Syrian war, the Armenian Consulate in Aleppo started issuing passports so people could leave the country more quickly – a temporary measure, taken when there was still hope the war would be over quickly, but the situation now looks permanent. More than 22,000 people have arrived from Syria since the war began (Armenia has a population of three million); 14,000 have stayed.

Policymakers sometimes take it for granted that refugees are better off in countries close to home, or among cultures similar to theirs, but as the UNHCR official explained, the Syrian-Armenians faced problems that occur elsewhere. People had trouble learning the language, or learning the Armenian script; their children struggled at school. Some of the younger men were claiming asylum to avoid military service. Finding jobs was difficult, though some people had brought their businesses – restaurants, for instance, or tailoring – with them.

Many people were living in rudimentary conditions, housed by the government in decommissioned Soviet barracks. Some had left, using their Arabic to pursue business connections in the Middle East, or travelling to the EU on their Armenian papers, then tearing them up and claiming asylum as Syrians. The EU now asks Armenia to share data on Syrians in order to stop this happening.

Another official told me that the arrival of people from Syria, more comfortable doing business in Muslim countries, had provoked ‘a new conversation about what Armenian identity is’. But the risk was that without local solidarity and international support some people would never quite settle: this had happened to some of the 360,000 Armenians displaced from Azerbaijan in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the two countries fought over possession of Nagorno-Karabakh, a majority Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan’s territory.

One morning I took a marshrutka from the centre of Yerevan to the outskirts. A friend had offered to introduce me to people who had fled Azerbaijan two decades ago. Our stop, at the end of the line, was called Artsakh Avenue; Artsakh is another Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh, which Armenia still occupies. Opposing troops regularly take pot-shots at each other across the front lines and for four days in April last year, this descended into heavy fighting that killed more than 300 people. My friend told me how scared people were that a larger war would break out, and what it was like to grow up in a country bordered by hostile neighbours: Azerbaijan blockades Armenia, and Turkey has never maintained diplomatic relations. ‘You really feel trapped here,’ she said.

The bus stopped on an empty road surrounded by derelict industrial sprawl. We crossed an overgrown yard and approached a barracks-like building next to a tall factory chimney. This was accommodation for several hundred refugees who had arrived from Azerbaijan in the 1990s, supposedly temporary, but people had been living here for over twenty years. There was a grocery shop in a repurposed shipping container outside the building. The owner sat beside it in the shade of a tree, next to a backgammon board: he invited me to play, but I apologised and said I didn’t know how. He told us that a neighbouring building had recently been cleared and the inhabitants finally moved to more lasting accommodation; here they were waiting their turn.

We went into the barracks, up a crumbling staircase and knocked on a door. Inside a single, narrow room, a white-haired woman in late middle age was lying in bed with a blanket pulled up to her chin. An older woman sat and watched over her. The woman in bed introduced herself as Nina and her companion as her mother. She apologised for being ill, but insisted we stay. Nina wanted to know where I was from. She told me that she came from Baku, which had many beautiful boulevards, as beautiful as the boulevards in London. In a mix of Armenian and Russian, Nina told us that she had been a major in the KGB during Soviet times but that her real vocation was as a poet. She motioned to her mother to fetch something from a cabinet – every surface in the room was covered with piles of papers or stacked plastic utensils – and handed me a poem in Russian, along with a photograph of a young woman. ‘That’s me,’ she said. The poem was called ‘Nostalgia’.

Nina said that she’d had many Azeri friends before the war and had been shocked to see people who were kind to her in person writing anti-Armenian diatribes in the press. She described the pogrom of 1990 that had forced her and her mother to flee Azerbaijan: armed gangs with lists of Armenian residents going door-to-door, men in the street forced to drop their trousers to show if they were circumcised, an elderly neighbour thrown from a balcony and attacked as she lay dying. Her stories looped around, she kept stopping and saying ‘but there were people who were good to us too,’ the words tumbled out too fast to be caught by my rudimentary Russian. ‘I wish you could understand all of it,’ said my friend, who was translating. ‘She’s telling it so vividly.’

I had been told that some of the refugees from Azerbaijan never took up Armenian citizenship because they identified more strongly with the Soviet Union and were never quite sure of their new home. Was that the case for Nina, I asked. ‘I am Armenian,’ she said emphatically. ‘But we moved around.’ She came from a military family and had grown up in Ukraine as well as Baku. ‘My mother fought in the Great Patriotic War.’ Nina’s mother, who had stayed silent throughout the conversation except to tell her daughter to keep the blanket pulled up, leaned forward and pointed to a scar beneath her headscarf. I asked if they had ever taken up Armenian citizenship and Nina reached into her handbag, first passing me her mother’s Soviet war invalid’s ID card. I asked if I could take a photo of it; she laughed and praised my intelligence-gathering skills. Then she handed me her own ID, a blue booklet with ‘Travel document (Convention of 28 July 1951)’ printed on the front in English, Russian and Armenian. ‘There,’ she said. ‘That’s my Nansen passport.’