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A Trip to Shurnukh in Syunik Region — Our Southern Gate

Armenian News Network / Groong

April 8, 2021
By George Tabakyan

Syunik, Armenia — Friday early morning, we left our hotel in Goris to head to Shurnukh, the border village which has become the center of the news in recent months. This was my 3rd visit after the war and this time we were visiting with our Sahman NGO team to start our small family businesses in Syunik’s border villages. After the November 9th capitulation agreement, more than 15 villages in Syunik became border villages; hence our decision to extend our NGO operations to Syunik.

Shurnukh is the most badly hit village in Syunik. Although, the first point of the November 9th capitulation agreement mentioned both troops on both sides remain in their positions, the government decided to unofficially demarcate the new border between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Syunik region. The authorities denied several times that a demarcation or delimitation process has been implemented but recently deputy PM Avinyan announced that the latest soviet administrative maps (1974) were used as a basis to deploy the troops from both sides. The use of 1974 maps as a basis is in fact a demarcation process.

As a result of the demarcation, on the 17th of December 2020, the Armenian troops and village reserve forces were removed from the mountainous positions where they were positioned when the agreement was signed, and the Azerbaijani troops approached the village and gave notice to the population to vacate their 12 houses which fall within their new border. With the presence of the Russian peacekeepers, the houses were evacuated, and the Azerbaijani army deployed in that part of the village. All 12 families carried official title deeds for their houses which makes it unexplainable why the same government would give up their lands based on an old administrative map.

Figure 1. Shurnukh according to the 1974 soviet administrative maps

From that day, Armenian border guards have been stationed in the village along with the Russian peacekeeping troops who are stationed right in the Armenian part of the village.

Figure 2. The Armenian and the Azerbaijani parts of Shurnukh village
Figure 3. The 2 signs of the village

In order to reach Shurnukh, we had to cross the road from Karahunj to Vorotan. With the undeclared demarcation, the 4.5 km road has totally fallen under the control of the Azerbaijani forces. They have setup a small command center near that road along with a mutual checkpoint with the Russian peacekeepers at the end of the road near Vorotan. While the road is under their control, Armenians are allowed to use this road as this is the main road tying Kapan to Goris and the only road used for transporting goods from Iran to Armenia. The Armenian border guards cannot enter this zone and for any incident, the Russians are informed to enter and intermediate. Needless to say, the future fate of this road is unknown along with everything else in Syunik.

Figure 4. Goris — Vorotan road which is completely under the Azerbaijani control

We passed by the Azerbaijani checkpoint in Vorotan and came face to face to an Azerbaijani soldier who was guarding the border. This was the closest I had ever been to an Azerbaijani soldier in my life. Vorotan has also lost 20 houses with the undeclared demarcation, all households held official title deeds from the Armenian authorities.

We continued driving from Vorotan to Shurnukh. This 21km road has fallen right on the new border and hence it has been used by both parties since December. The road within the forest is monitored by Azerbaijanis on the left side and the Armenian along with the Russian peacekeeping troops on the right side with no checkpoints till Shurnukh. It is not recommended at all to take this road at night.

We reached the village and the mayor welcomed us in his temporary house/office. Apparently, his house was one of the 12 which were handed over to the Azerbaijanis and his family has taken shelter in the mayor’s office until they find a solution. He tells us that in December, the government promised to build a new neighborhood for those who have lost their houses, but no works have been carried out so far. His main issue that day was the loss of 12 cows by one of the villagers, the Russians were informed and they were mediating with the Azeris to return the cows back to the villager.

Figure 5. The new Armenian-Azerbaijani border dividing the village of Shurnukh.

The general mood in the village is uncertainty but nobody had plans to leave. The people are still under the shock of how their village which was 75 km from the Artsakh-Azerbaijani frontline became itself a frontline. The village reserve was controlling the village heights till the 17th of December until they were ordered to abandon their positions.

Figure 6. The lost houses of Shurnukh

The best part of the day was meeting the village beekeeper Stepan. Due to the undeclared demarcation, his barn and property entrance were supposedly under Azeri control. However, he refused to leave and after Russian mediation, the Azeris accepted to leave the entrance open and move the border by couple of meters.

Figure 7. Stepan’s “divided” house

Stepan had lost his bee farm and when I asked him how we could help, his answer was “if you have funds, support our Army, they need it more than me”. This is coming from a man who was about to lose his property in the absence of any governmental official — a government which kept on paying bonuses to its high ranking employees and ministers before, during and after the war. Yet, for him the Army and the country were above everything. As always, I meet the most decent and honest Armenians in the most remote areas, and we should only respect such people.

We bid farewell to our friends in Shurnukh and headed back to Goris. On the road, we had the “pleasure” of encountering an Azerbaijani military vehicle which was using the same road accompanied by a Russian patrol. There were soldiers in the vehicle who were fighting our army just 4.5 months ago… an outcome that we would have never expected even in our worst nightmare.

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George Tabakyan is the Co-founder of Repat Armenia Foundation and Sahman NGO, and Executive director of Arar Foundation. He appears regularly on Groong’s Week in Review podcasts.

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