Mardakert, Nagorno-Karabakh, 9 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Sounds of music blare across the streets of Mardakert. More than two hundred local residents have gathered for a wedding party in the northern Nagorno-Karabakh town, just three kilometers away from a dividing line separating Armenian and Azerbaijani forces. And only demolished houses remind that the town and entire Mardakert district was the scene of the heaviest fighting during the bitter war with Azerbaijan that was stopped by a cease-fire agreement four years ago.
Mardakert is the largest of Nagorno-Karabakh's six administrative districts. Its size and fertile land meant that the district accounted for 40 percent of the agricultural output of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast that was part of Soviet Azerbaijan. In 1989, its population numbered 46,300 of whom 87 percent were Armenians and 12 percent Azerbaijanis.
Fighting in Karabakh that broke out in late 1991 did not bypass Mardakert. A successful Azerbaijani offensive in summer 1992 resulted in the occupation of over 80 percent of its territory, triggering the flight of the Armenian population.
But an Armenian counter-offensive in February 1993 reversed the situation, culminating in the re-capture of the town in June the same year. It was not until after the May 1994 cease-fire that refugees began to return to their homes en masse.
Six out of the district's 60 towns and villages remain under Azerbaijani control. There are now no Azerbaijanis living in the Armenian-controlled territory and vice versa, a characteristic feature of the conflict.
Apart from heavy casualties, the war has dealt a severe blow to Mardakert's economy and infrastructure. With 27 villages completely destroyed during the war, the district's GDP in 1997 was a mere 5 percent of the 1989 level. The district administration estimates the war damage at $360 million. But only a fraction ($3.6 million) has been spent on the reconstruction work since 1993.
Housing is the number one problem in Mardakert. Stone walls are all that is left of former decent houses in many villages. Over 500 families currently reside in temporary shelters. The authorities say they have re-built 1336 houses to date. The rest is done by the people themselves. The Mardakert administration says financial aid from Armenia and Diaspora would substantially accelerate the reconstruction process. Without that it can only handle 50 houses a year.
Secondary education comes next in the list of priorities of the Mardakert people. With 30 schools already repaired, almost all villages provide primary or secondary schooling. But the lack of teachers and textbooks is a major problem. Textbooks are fully identical with those used in Armenia. Many parents cannot afford to pay 1500 to 2000 drams ($3-4) for a textbook.
An interesting solution was found in the Haterk village where pupils pay 200 drams each month to cover the cost within one academic year. The school in Aghabekalenj, a small village near the district center, has only eight pupils. The authorities are considering closing it and having the kids enrolled in the Mardakert school.
The move will be vigorously opposed by Marietta Gabrielian, head of the village administration. "The school in a village signifies that life is continuing there. If you close it, many refugees will be reluctant to return," she says.
The fate of Gabrielian, an energetic woman in her mid-50s, epitomizes that of many Mardakert Armenians. Her husband perished in the war, son is a military officer and two daughters work as teachers. Like thousands of others, she fled her village in July 1992 in the face of advancing Azerbaijani troops and after a one-year stay in Stepanakert returned home. "We have gone through very difficult times but I don't regret our struggle," she says.
A common feature of all Karabakh schools is a special board carrying pictures of local soldiers who were killed in the "Goyamart" (fight for survival), Karabakh Armenians' reference to the war against Azerbaijan. The school in Haterk has 47 such photographs posted on the board. A typical Karabakh school is named posthumously after a village's or town's war hero.
Some 690 Mardakert soldiers paid with their lives for the military victory over Azerbaijan. Stepan Kalashian, a journalist from Yerevan currently based in Mardakert, is collecting data about all of them to publish a book containing their photos and appropriate information. He says the book, sponsored by his "friends in Yerevan," will come out soon.
Agriculture remains the main source of income in Mardakert, with grain the main crop. Hence, the importance of fertilizers and irrigation for local people. The district has Karabakh's biggest Sarsang reservoir. The authorities hope to complete the repair the water distribution system to irrigate thousands of hectares next spring. 5,300 hectares of agricultural land are not being used due to numerous anti-personnel mines. Their removal requires substantial funding.
The villagers now live in the anticipation of land privatization announced by the Stepanakert government. The issue is causing controversy as many elderly people fear that they will be unable to cultivate the land on their own after the break-up of collective farms.
These concerns highlight the wider problem of the lack of young people in villages. Most of them are in the Karabakh military. In the words of Nelson Stepanian, a teacher from the Kusapat village, privatization is the only way to develop the district's agriculture. At the same time he cautions that the process should be slower than it was realized in Armenia in the early 1990s. "We should draw lessons from Armenia's mistakes," he says, arguing that the state should continue to provide farmers with tractors and harvesters.
These concerns are shared by Sevak Ardzrouni, head of the Mardakert district, an ethnic Armenian from France. He says "very serious research" has been done on the privatization issue and all factors taken into consideration. "I am an optimist," he says. Like every local official, Ardzrouni calls for greater assistance from
Armenia and Diaspora, while stressing that the emphasis should be shifted from humanitarian to business programs. To that end, he says, the administration is developing various business plans in areas like agriculture and food processing.
According to Ardzrouni, the district's development is impossible without the reconstruction of its battered infrastructure. The 35-year-old governor, appointed last April, pins much hope on 12 million dollars earmarked by the US Congress last year directly for Karabakh. Negotiations are currently underway with US officials on how the money will be spent.
In any event, the new authorities led by Ardzrouni appear determined to raise the district from the ruins, with or without foreign aid.