Saturday, May 19, 2012

Armenia, 2012

A few pictures from my just-completed OSCE long-term observer mission to Armenia. Most of these photos were taken in Shirak province, in Armenia's far northwest.

The scene below is at the United Airlines passageway between Terminals 1 and 2 at O'Hare Field in Chicago, on my way out of the US...

The lonely blue door is at the railway station in the appropriately-named town of "Ani Station," near the Turkish border:

The enormous and desolate Yererouk Basilica is in the same general area, and was constructed some time around the 5th century. Its roof collapsed in an earthquake in the 1700s, with its empty shell remaining today. In a dark corner, inside the church, worshippers light candles at a makeshift altar.

My Swiss colleague and I lived and worked for six weeks in Shirak, with our headquarters in the capital of Gyumri, a city cursed by the 1988 earthquake that devastated northern Armenia and killed over 25,000 people. For the people of Gyumri, time came to a standstill in 1988, and nearly 25 years later, the city has not emerged from the trauma. Gyumri, one fears, will never re-invent itself, but rather may slide into a permanent fugue state.

One man we talked to over a cup of coffee said that after the implosion of the Soviet Union, "it was like Marquez's 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' here," with people practicing alchemy and living in a magical-realist landscape.

And now? There's a sense of melancholy resignation that grips the city that, once in a brief while, yields reluctantly to hope.

Here is a (cheerful) woman selling spices in the market, along with a picture of my friend Sonna:

Like anyplace else in the former USSR, commemorations to the Second World War (the "Great Patriotic War" in the Soviet Union) era can be found everywhere in Armenia, and sometimes in the most obscure locations. This memorial can be missed easily, standing somewhat removed from the main north-south road leading to the Georgian border. The proud, brooding eagle's head now sits as a curious artifact, having been dislodged after the 1988 earthquake. You can just make out the crumbling plaque on the main edifice (upper right side of photo) that reads "1941 - 19..."

Gyumri is known as Armenia's art center, and there are galleries and a thriving art community in town. The welder below is working on a statue of Jesus, which stood on a huge scaffolding not far from my hotel. We were told that when finished, it will be shipped to Syria, of all places.

Finally, we come to Yerevan and Heathrow, on my way back to the US. Yerevan is this year's "World Book Capital," and in random alleys all over the city you can find colorful, graffiti-like murals depicting famous authors. This one, of Jean-Paul Sartre, is irresistible:

Back at Heathrow, waiting for my connecting flight. I took a time-exposure and pretty much got what I wanted in this shot: