Journal Highlights: Roads I Have Traveled ... Excerpt #4 Nagorno-Karabakh 1998

(continued): Nagorno-Karabakh: August, 1998: As we were being served dinner in the basement of the main government building, the four of us who had been assigned to stay at the bombed out downtown hotel began trying to figure out which of the dirty, tattered sofas in the lobby we would use as beds. As providence would have it a gentleman intervened and invited us to stay at a facility where there were latches and locks on the doors and running water in the sink, toilet, and shower. It was a miracle! 

Sunday, August 16

At breakfast Lady Cox and Zori informed us that we would be going once again in the helicopter. As we shuddered and shook to a successful liftoff, our helicopter once again took us just barely over the tops of more burned and bombed-out villages. At one point the clouds parted, and I was able to get a spectacular view of Mount Ararat. As I sized up the mountain, I tried to imagine a puddle of water sixteen thousand feet deep, and the time Noah and his family must have had trying to make their way off the steep mountain with a menagerie of animals. 

The Armenians built their churches in the most inaccessible places you could imagine. There is no such thing as a church “on the way.” They are all very much out of the way. But I suppose that’s why they are still in existence today. The cathedral at Gandzasar, known as the Hill of Treasure, now conducts services on a regular basis. During the war the Azerbaijanis tried desperately to destroy the church. They encircled the building and fired missiles and mortar shells at it. The monastery next door was blown up, but neither the bombs from the air nor the mortar shells nor the rockets could destroy the small cathedral. All the shots missed the church, except one missile that penetrated one meter inside the building but did not explode. The people all talked about the miracle God had performed in sparing the church. Zori told me that during Stalin’s reign, all the priests and bishops in all the Armenian churches were either killed or shipped off to Siberia to be worked to death. 

Our helicopter had to dock about one and a quarter miles down the hill from the church. Dr. Scott and I decided to hike up to the church instead of waiting for a four-wheel-drive rig to take us. The priest and the people of Gandzasar had planned a spectacular feast in our honor. Two men led two young sheep through the ancient churchyard and back behind the monastery, where the sheep were butchered for our lunch. As some of the men cut the meat, others built the fires, and still others began stabbing the meat onto shish-kebab skewers. Mountain-village women prepared breads and salads and cooked vegetables to be placed on the nearly forty-foot-long table. By the time we were ready to eat, over fifty people sat down at the table. 

The generosity of the Armenian people is almost incomprehensible. They have nothing, and yet they will give you anything and everything they might have. The average Karabakhi makes only one thousand drams a month, and a loaf of bread costs one hundred drams. That equates to purchasing ten loaves of bread a month—and nothing else. Our interpreter, Irena, who speaks three languages and works for the health ministry, earns an income equivalent to twelve US dollars per month. She has to feed two teenagers as she tries to live on such a salary. Yet there is nothing she would not do for a guest or for someone she saw in need. 

After the feast Zori had one more surprise for us. We all got back into the helicopter and flew a ways farther down the mountain close to the village of Vanenka. Rafee, the pilot, set the big, ugly, orange bird down about one hundred yards from the cottage of a mountain beekeeper. As we walked from the chopper to the house, I noticed hundreds of blackberry bushes just loaded with ripe berries. The lady of the cottage had set a very long table loaded with bread and bottled mineral water. Between the small house and where the table was set in a tree-lined opening, we had to cross a small creek.

Set up alongside the creek was a beautiful antique samovar filled with boiling tea and a small burning log in the center chamber of the samovar keeping the liquid hot. I had no idea how old the samovar must have been, but it delighted me to see it in practical use out in the rugged mountains of Nagorno-Karabakh. 

Before we were seated at the table, the bee farmer directed us to the area where he kept his beehives. He gently shooed the bees away and opened the top of the hive. Then he carefully tugged and pulled one of the thin sections from the hive where the bees had built their honeycomb. He repeated the process until he was certain he had retrieved enough honey for our dessert party. 

Once seated, we were served piping hot tea, fresh bread, large platters of fresh honey still in the honeycomb, and generous helping of blackberries in thick, sweet juice. I don’t know what heaven is going to be like, but I think I will suggest to the Lord that he include in the venue something quite like that setting in the wooded mountains of Karabakh along the stream, with honeycomb, fresh bread, fresh berries, and hot tea. 

Monday, August 17

The health minister suggested we perform the needs assessments at the children’s hospital and general hospital today, and the maternity hospital, military hospital, and psychiatric hospital tomorrow, and then drive out to the region near the front lines of the war on Wednesday to a town called Martakert. That way we will have been able to assess six of the institutions by the time we have our next meeting with the prime minister. Additionally, we set our final meeting with the minister of health for Wednesday at 5:00 p.m. to bring him a complete report on our findings and deliver our recommendations for the region’s health-care system. 

On our way to the children’s hospital, I was watching the people of Stepanakert as they walked along the streets. For a two-block stretch, there were no people on the streets except women. I turned to the backseat where Irena, our interpreter, was riding and mentioned my observation that the streets were filled with only women and a few children.

“That’s because our men are all dead,” she replied. She then told us that her husband had been an antiaircraft gunner in the war. He survived being shot during the war but died a short time after the signing of the cease-fire as a result of some kind of head or brain injury. Now she has been left alone to raise her teenage son and daughter. “It is impossible to live on what we earn in Stepanakert. I earn the equivalent of twelve US dollars a month for many long hours. I have tried to find students who want to learn English, Russian, or American English. But the problem is that they don’t have any money either, so it is difficult for them to pay me.” 

She then went on to add, “But I don’t have it as bad as many in Stepanakert. Nearly 80 percent of all the families here do not have a husband or father in the home. They are dead, and the wife now has to raise a much bigger family than mine, by herself, and also try to earn a living.” 

For the rest of the drive to the hospital, all of us in the car just sat there stone silent. 

Why, I thought, are we the first ones to come and help the people of Karabakh?

Next Week: Astonishing Miracles

© Dr. James W. Jackson   

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