Exiles remain true to their pact

When a village in Armenia and one in Azerbaijan exchanged populations 20 years ago, the residents promised to care for each other’s graves.

Ishkhan Tzaturian preparing a video for the former residents of Dziunashogh – who live in his native village, now called Kerkenj.

Yerevan – In a villager’s garb, an amateur video camera in hand, Dziunashogh resident Ishkhan Tzaturian walks and talks to himself as he records the village, the houses, the trees, and everything that might bring back memories for the present-day residents of the Azerbaijani village of Kerkenj. Iskhan switches back and forth between Azerbaijani and Armenian.

“This is your house. This is the apple tree. This part of the house wasn’t there; I added it recently,” he says as he records. The video is meant to go to Kerkenj, to the Azerbaijani whose old home he lives in.

Dziunashogh is one of the villages of the Lori province of Armenia, near the Georgian border. The name of the village used to be Qzlshafag, and until 1989 Azerbaijanis lived there. Kerkenj is one of the villages of the Shamakhi province of Azerbaijan, and until 1989 Armenians lived there. Ishkhan was born in Kerkenj.

A film by journalist Seda Muradian, who heads the Yerevan office of the U.K.–based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), tells the story of the two villages, Dziunashogh and Kerkenj, and their residents. In 1989 the Armenians and Azerbaijanis of these two villages promised each other to avoid desecrating the graves of their ancestors. They have kept that promise for 20 years now. Moreover, they take good care of the cemeteries.

Watching amateur videos

Another touching moment from the film: In the Azerbaijani cemetery in Dziunashogh, a few young Armenians lift up a headstone that has tipped over, and they carefully wipe the dirt off it. A scene follows, this one filmed on the other side of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. A man walking around the Armenian cemetery of Kerkenj reads out the Armenian inscriptions on the headstones.

Starting in 1996, the residents of Dziunashogh and Kerkenj have made amateur videos of their villages and have exchanged them over Georgia. In one scene from the documentary, the Azerbaijanis of Kerkenj have gathered and are attentively, longingly, and sadly watching the video of their old village, street, house, and tree.

On May 29 Ms. Muradian’s From Home to Home documentary premiered at the Moscow Cinema in Yerevan. The author had started working on the film in 2006. She has been in Dziunashogh many times in the last couple of years, staying at people’s homes. Azerbaijani journalists helped her out by filming the scenes in Kerkenj.

“The more I watch the film, the more I like it,” she told the Armenian Reporter. “When I had just finished it, there was a time I’d even get moved to tears. After more than two years of work, it’s not what I had first conceived. Perhaps exhaustion was the reason that I didn’t care for the film at first, but it gradually grew on me. Now the film and I are having an interesting relationship. We are getting closer to each other. The reactions of viewers are helping with that a lot.”

Telling people’s stories

It’s not possible to dislike this film. This film tells people’s stories. True, it tells sad stories, but it does not portray war, violence, or migration – though the people of Dziunashogh and Kerkenj obviously have experienced migration.

From Home to Home starts with these words on the screen: “1989. The Karabakh conflict, which began a year ago, is heating up. The Soviet regime is unable to stem the violence. The Armenian population leaves Azerbaijan en masse. Azerbaijanis leave Armenia.”

One of the heroes of the film, Tzaghik Tzaturian recalls that when they were being moved the Armenia, in May 1989, her mother-in-law was having a hard time coming to terms with the bitter reality of leaving Kerkenj. “My mother-in-law was bawling over the walls,” she recounts. The mother-in-law asked her daughter-in-law and her son to take some soil with them. But her son responded, “We are going to our land. Why would we take soil from here?”

The idea of making a film about Dziunashogh and Kerkenj came to Ms. Muradian in 2005. “In a chance meeting, I happened to find out about these two villages and the population exchange. At first, I was interested in this as an editor. I assigned an Armenian journalist an article for IWPR. When I saw the article, my interest in the story grew,” she said.

The film was prepared with the Hayk studio with the support of Armenia’s Ministry of Culture. In the early stages, Ms. Muradian also had some international grant support.

“I conceived of this as a television documentary at first. Later, when the Ministry of Culture offered its support, and I started working with the Hayk studio, and the studio provided a director, Arsen Gasparian, I had to adjust my approach. Hayk studio insisted on a film, not a television program. From the start, even when it was going to be a television documentary, I didn’t want the film to have the voice of a journalist. I wanted the Armenians and Azerbaijanis, the heroes of the film, to tell their own stories,” she said.

The heroes of the film cannot forget their birthplaces, their ancestral homes. Tnits Tun ends with Ishkhan Tzaturian’s moving words: “I ask God for the opportunity to go and see [Kerkenj], for just a day, an hour, and to come back [to Dziunashogh]. That’s the difficulty. We can’t forget. That’s it.”