Earlier in the week, I took a journey off the beaten path of typical Diasporan Armenian tourism of the homeland. After 7.5 hours on the road, on what should’ve been a 4.5 hour drive, we finally arrived in Kapan.
Let’s rewind just a little though. It seems that, in order to pick a solid taxi for your travels, it’s not enough to just ensure that they have a functioning meter, real license plates, and a semi-modern exterior; the most important thing to make certain of is that this car is equipped with a confident and capable driver (վարորդ)—namely one who has some sense of direction, who can assess the fact that their existing engine problems will probably be some sort of factor on a 100º drive through scarcely frequented mountain roads, and who isn’t quite so fed up with life that they really don’t care where or when they arrive.
After all those hours of slowly trekking up, down, and around countless mountains, all the while not being quite so sure if we’re even remotely on track, we suddenly found ourselves in a sizeable city, almost as if from nowhere. Kapan is located in Southern Armenia, near the Iranian and Azerbaijani borders, and is the most populous area in the Syunik province. According to varied accounts of the local population, Kapan boasted a population of up to 50,000 – 75,000 up until the war. Continuous waves of mass emigration due to economic hardship and unemployment has dwindled Kapan’s once flourishing population to a mere 35,000. One of the most tragic things you could hear a war veteran describe is how, after standing up and fighting for the lives of their families and their right as a people to live in their historic lands, many citizens of Kapan are now leaving the city, and even the country—not as a result of war or foreign forces, but in a desperate attempt to find work and survive. According to local estimates, the situation has gotten so dismal that 31% of the population in Kapan is now unemployed, giving it the highest unemployment rate in the country.
Upon arriving, we were shown around parts of the city, and spent the evening walking the city center, taking in the sights and sounds—the endless flow of people, the carnival rides, the warm greetings. During the following morning, we were taken to six different kindergartens and had a chance to interact with the administration and the kids. We also saw some famous local landmarks, such as the Gandzasar football stadium, Mount Khustup (Խուստուփ Լեռ – the quintessential symbol of Kapan), the local TV station (named after Khustup), the statue of Tavit Peg (Դաւիթ Բեկ), the city cultural center, and the memorial grave of General Karekin Njteh (Գարեգին Նժդեհ).
I was very surprised and inspired by the amount of youth in the city. Although given those dreary statistics, the people of Kapan have a very strong and resilient character; they’re very proud of the fact that they were able to defend and retain their lands—to defeat the vast resources and forces of Azerbaijan, all the while going about their daily lives as their city and surrounding villages were relentlessly shelled from the surrounding mountains. On this same note, we also had a very eventful ride back from Kapan to Yerevan, as our driver was a decorated war veteran who had stories about the war and his life that I couldn’t even make up if I tried (whether or not they were mostly true might be another issue). When discussing how vastly outnumbered his troop was against the Azeris (the hundreds vs. thousands really wasn’t an exaggeration during the Artsakh Liberation War), he jokingly stated that [«Մէկ հոգի քիչ ա, բայց երկուսն էլ շատ ա։» “One person is too few, but two is already too many.” This calls into play the Armenian stereotype of being hardheaded and oftentimes unwilling to work with others; it also however reinforces the tenacity and willpower of the Armenian, that has allowed for the survival of this resolute people throughout practically all of recorded history.
This visit to Kapan taught me something very valuable about Armenia, as both a concept and a land;
Հայաստանի գանձերը իր ժողովուրրդն է։ The treasures of Armenia are its people.
I’d rather not ramble about how Armenia boasts a 99% literacy rate, that Armenians are known for having amazing stories and anecdotes, etc. Instead, I’d just like to state that, if you, as a nonresident of the country, take the time to open up to the average citizen and to hear their thoughts, you will oftentimes leave with a sense of enlightenment that you could not have expected.