A walk for peace and nonviolence with Jill Carr-Harris
The Jai Jagat marchers have been walking 143 days since we left Delhi. The walk through Armenia began at the Iranian border eleven days ago and since then we have covered about 154 kilometers. Today we are in Sisian, west of the urban center Goris in the large southern Syunmik Region. The terrain is mountainous, as we are in the Caucasus, and trekking is difficult. What helps me to get through most days are the panoramic views of the ice-capped mountains and the mostly sunny weather. The Caucasus mountains resemble the Alps, they are majestic and snow-covered with a quiet grandeur.
Sometimes when it is windy on the mountain roads, one has to resist the elements with all one’s might. There are areas of snow, but less than we thought. We are usually traveling on cleared roads, and there is a constant flow of vehicular traffic with a lot of trucks transporting goods. There are also quite a few automobiles (many old models of Russian Ladas), and although we have been told that this is a highly militarized state, and we are close to the border, we only see the occasional army truck. Most people seem to be living comfortably.
We have been going up-and-down mountain slopes, covering on average about 18 kilometers each day to reach the village or place of stay. (Today it will be 15 kms uphill.) We are invariably grateful for the warm greetings by school leaders who offer us classrooms in which to stay the night. Thankfully the designated classrooms mostly have hot wood stoves or heating, providing a cozy atmosphere in sub-zero temperatures for us to sleep.
A few anecdotes of the travel: On the third night we were in Andokavan and were welcomed into a village school with the hot stove lit and ready for us to begin preparing food. The principal, Samuel, had eight students. It seemed that he was the center of the community life; through him and the other family members we got a glimpse of their unforgettable hospitality. It was reminiscent of the family feeling that we received in much of our four months in rural India.
Again in Artsvanik a few days later, in a small village of eight hundred people that was situated on the side of a mountain half way up from a glacial lake in the valley, the principal was a woman of Russian origin. She brought together the teachers and children for a meeting and they showed a lot of interest in the march and in the stories of the marchers. The children had many questions about different aspects of why we were walking and the relationship to Gandhi. We left knowing that we had spawned something in that place that would likely grow in the future.
Another memorable village was Vorodan, farther down in the valley and close to the border with Azerbaijan. The mayor and the village doctor gave us riveting narratives about their lives of conflict. They spoke about the fall of the Soviet Union and the onset of what they called a “genocide’” in 1988\. This is when Armenia and Azerbaijan became involved in a cycle of conflict that continues today. The mayor shared his story of being a former combatant and how he had sustained internal injuries. He was taken to a hospital in France where a nine-day operation was performed by caring doctors who brought him back to life. Since then he has continued to fight as a member of the civilian force. What was most interesting about his story was that he had grown up in Vorodan and during his childhood the majority of inhabitants had been Azerbaijani people. At that time they were all brothers and sisters. The enmity that grew up has only existed during the past three decades — since the Soviet republics become nation states. At least this is the mayor’s account.
The woman doctor who was with the mayor was a former citizen of Azerbaijan who spent her childhood there. She had friends there, went to university and medical school, and by all accounts, lived a peaceful life. Suddenly it all changed in 1988 when her family had to move into a small room and lost their freedom of movement. The pogram of Armenians began. She left for Armenia after the earthquake and then continued staying there. What was interesting about her story is that she was prepared to live a very simple life in Vorodan for the sake of freedom. She was a remarkable doctor who saw her life mission as serving Armenian combatants and veterans.
Having heard these stories of Armenians’ feelings toward Azerbaijan, we are aware that Azeris would have their own perspective on the war. This we want to further understand and we hope that we can meet Azerbaijan friends before leaving this region.
On the seventh day we arrived in Goris, the fourth largest city in Armenia. This was an architect’s delight. Goris, a historic center, consisted of beautiful stone houses. The mountains around seemed to be in harmony. Goris provided us with bathrooms for washing. Up until that point we were struggling with water and small toilets in the schools so people needed a good cleaning. We were also able to wash our clothes.
So as sixteen walkers, we are cooking our own food on mobile gas stoves and we are learning to cook the local foods such as millets, even though we are still consuming mostly rice, along with dahl (lentils) to make nutritious meals. There is plenty of fresh bread and cheese. Each day on the walk, the cooking team brings lunch to the marchers, often hot soup chock full of potatoes and vegetables, and then goes forward to the school to begin the dinner preparations. We are finding the energy to walk and are maintaining a limited budget while having good cooperation. The larger team will arrive after a couple of weeks and as we will have 50 cooking, walking, and meeting, it will be easier because the routine has been set.
Beyond cooking, these sixteen committed peace walkers have come together as a strong group to help one another. There are many changes in personal habits towards being more giving and helpful. We are strengthened by the evening prayer and for our many reflections and discussions on Gandhian and nonviolent action with people we meet. We were discussing with Armenians last night the way that people can participate in the training that we propose to have in Yerevan. The hope is that modeling the march and the nonviolence training will be with local Armenian youth long after our departure.
It’s a great opportunity to be on this Global Peace March, especially as we see so much violence in the news. By walking from village to village and town to town, person to person, step by step, we see that most people are living commodiously and seeking peaceful lives. This reality is often not portrayed by the larger media, which instead often gives a “bird’s eye view” without context and ground-truthing. At least this march gives us the opportunity to represent the “worm’s-eye view,” which is organic and local. We want people to see this portrayal.
Jill Carr-Harris is a nonviolence acvtivist and a co-organizer of Jai Jagat.
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