Letter from Armenia (A)
Yma o Hyd may have been written about the Welsh, but if there’s a nation that embodies this spirit, it’s Armenia.
Arriving a week before the game, I flew to Tbilisi and took the sleeper train down to Yerevan, hoping Wales could put right June’s 2-4 trouncing.
The workhorse Soviet-era engine clunked and passports were checked on five separate occasions through the night – once on a freezing platform somewhere in rural Georgia, having been ushered off spotlit carriages by border guards and circled by stray dogs.
Sleeper train proved to be something of a misnomer.
Stepping off at Yerevan, I trudged toward the centre and arrived to a beautiful dawn over Republic Square. After finally finding an open café, I basked in the smugness of how cool the journey would sound to my Wales Away friends.
After a drizzly day taking in the main sights of the capital, I was off again.
As the first Christian state, ancient monasteries dot the landscape of Armenia. From Gegham with its chambers carved into the mountainside, to Haghartsin hidden amongst the rolling hills of Dilijan that reminded me of home.
But being a fanboy of brutalist architecture, my personal pilgrimages took me to the Iron Fountain of Gyumri(which sounds pleasingly like the treigliad of Cymru) and to Sevan to the Armenian Writer’s Union retreat, jutting out over the lake like an avant-garde modernist Tŷ Newydd.
I met with my Armenian friend Yana that I knew through a previous job in Brussels, who very kindly showed me some of the more inaccessible sights as well as the best spots back in Yerevan.
A researcher and former parliamentary legal advisor, Yana comes from Nagorno-Karabakh (the Russian term often used in English), known in Armenian as Artsakh.
Artsakh is a disputed region, historically populated by Armenians but given to Azerbaijan by Stalin as part of a divide and rule strategy.
As the USSR creaked and then crumbled, long-standing tension flared into violence. Its most recent chapter saw a nine-month blockade and large-scale military offensive carried out by Azerbaijan. This forced a hundred-thousand Armenians to abandon their homes practically overnight in September this year, which has been considered ethnic cleansing by a European Parliament resolution.
When Yana went to study in the United States last year, the blockade had not yet started. When she left for California, she had no idea she would not be coming back to her home.
Now living in Yerevan with other members of her family forced to leave, she says many Artsakh people are struggling in the capital as they face a confusing legal status in addition to the profound and recent trauma of losing their homes and communities.
Employers are hesitant to hire people from Artsakh because of this uncertainty and although those from Artsakh have Armenian passports, they are technically not Armenian citizens and may have to be registered as refugees.
The majority have gone to Yerevan to find work. Accommodation is scarce and some landlords, sensing opportunity, have raised prices. The perception is that Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has done very little indeed (to be polite) to help in the wake of this crisis.
There is an additional worry that being dispersed throughout the capital – a city of over 1 million – the distinct culture and dialect will struggle without Artsakhi spaces. The wounds are still exceedingly raw, but one hopes that in time groups and organisations will form to preserve these traditions and language for future generations. And hope remains amongst those that have fled that they will one day return.
Thanks to Yana I got a seat in the home end for the match. With the sun setting and people shuffling to their seats, I started spotting other Welsh fans in the stands, undeterred by the previous night’s rough treatment of members of the Wal Goch at the hands of the Yerevan police.
Despite our very crafty donning of Armenia scarves and flags, hastily bought from the market on the walk to the stadium, we weren’t fooling anyone. Knowing nods and winks were exchanged at key moments but staying seated and silent and hands firmly in our pockets, especially during the anthem, was not easy.
Sat to my left was a lanky teenage Armenian boy of about 14 who appeared to be having the best day of his life, his enthusiasm so genuinely infectious that I almost forgot I wasn’t supporting Armenia when Lucas Zelarayan scored a 5th minute goal.
His voice broke as he booed, and I struggled to hold back my laughter on several occasions as he shouted in English “FC crybaby!” every time a Wales player was fouled and a rather cutting “David Brooks: random guy!” at the away end.
A scrappy 1-1 draw led to a fantastic night out with mates, ending up at a dive bar run by Russian hipsters. Many young, liberal Russians have come to Yerevan since the invasion of Ukraine, setting up cafés and restaurants and making respectable efforts at learning and using the Armenian language.
In contrast to Tbilisi and Wales Away’s previous host-city Riga, there is no anti-Russian graffiti around the city centre.
I asked Yana about this, who said whilst Armenians might be extremely critical of the Russian government or policy – there is a deep sense of betrayal at Russia’s failure to safeguard the 2020 ceasefire agreement, effectively allowing Azerbaijan to freely take Artsakh – there is no resentment or xenophobia towards ordinary Russians.
Most welcome the new arrivals, boosting diversity in an otherwise rather homogenous Yerevan. A refreshing take.
As many fans left the day after the match, there was one final visit, Khor Virap.
Khor Virap is a hilltop monastery frequented by pilgrims, wedding parties and soldiers alike, located on the plain that surrounds Mount Ararat: the holy mountain and national symbol of Armenia, and considered the landing place of Noah’s Ark. Its scale is difficult to describe and at over 5000m high (Yr Wyddfa stands at 1058m), its presence looms wherever you go.
But just beyond the monastery lies the closed border with Türkiye, guarded by Russian towers. Following the Armenian Genocide, Mount Ararat today lies within Turkish territory, and the atrocities are to this day officially denied by the Turkish state.
The call to prayer was audible from villages just a couple of kilometres past the border fence. Also within sight is the northernmost tip of Iran, just 7km away.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt the weight of history quite so heavy in the air.
Further up the rocks from the monastery, an Armenian flag flaps defiantly. Naturally we walk up for a photo at the top. We get in position to pose and I notice something on the pole. A Wrexham AFC sticker. Of course.
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