Country of Dust

Episode 3: We don’t talk about the future

July 26, 2023 Country of Dust Season 1
Episode 3: We don’t talk about the future
Country of Dust
More Info
Country of Dust
Episode 3: We don’t talk about the future
Jul 26, 2023 Season 1
Country of Dust

Ashot Gabrielyan moved to an isolated village in Artsakh to work as a teacher after the 2020 war. He has loved living there, but repeated aggressions from Azerbaijan have made everyday life in Artsakh more and more difficult. How can he plan for his future, when so much is uncertain?

Support the Show.

Show Notes Transcript

Ashot Gabrielyan moved to an isolated village in Artsakh to work as a teacher after the 2020 war. He has loved living there, but repeated aggressions from Azerbaijan have made everyday life in Artsakh more and more difficult. How can he plan for his future, when so much is uncertain?

Support the Show.

HOST: In our first two episodes, we met Kolya and learned the story of his survival during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War. This episode, we’re talking to Ashot, a young man from Artsakh, about life in the aftermath of the war. 

After the ceasefire, in November 2020, I was gutted, but I remember thinking that now that the war was over, it was time to rebuild. I had no idea that in the aftermath, we wouldn’t just be reckoning with our losses; we’d have to keep dealing with new threats.

It’s been almost three years since the war, and it’s not just that things are unresolved – For people in Artsakh, daily life is getting more difficult by the day. In December 2022, Azerbaijan started an illegal blockade, cutting off the Armenians of Artsakh from the rest of the world. 

The Red Cross has been delivering humanitarian aid throughout the blockade - things like food and medical supplies. But, in late July 2023, as we are releasing this episode, they haven’t been allowed in for the past two weeks. Meaning food is running out for the 120,000 people living there. The number of early-stage miscarriages has nearly tripled in the past month due to stress and the lack of a balanced diet. There’s a fuel shortage which has ground almost all transportation within Artsakh to a halt. There are constant power outages, and the gas supply has been cut off for months.  

This is what it’s like right now, in July 2023, but no one knows what next week, or even tomorrow will bring. Life in Artsakh is SO uncertain, and Ashot’s story in this episode is about living through that uncertainty. We spoke to him several times over the past year. And every time we did, things in Artsakh had shifted.


Talking to him, I kept thinking of this verse from a Paruyr Sevak poem:

Հողն ավելի լավ ես զգում / Այն ժամանակ, /Երբ նա հանկարծ տատանվում է / Քո ոտքի տակ

You feel the earth more acutely, at that moment when it suddenly shakes beneath your feet.  

Welcome to Country of Dust - stories of a changing Armenia

This episode: “We don’t talk about the future.”

I’m Nyree Abrahamian

The first time we spoke with Ashot was in August 2022, back before the blockade. He was living in Kolkozashen, an isolated village in southeast Artsakh with a population of about 180 people. When he showed us around, he’d been living there for a year. He was teaching at the village school. 

ASHOT: So Kolkhozashen never had a road, a normal road let’s say. I remember when I came here, at first like, how long I'm going to survive in this village? 

HOST: Ashot’s in his early 20s and he grew up in Artsakh, but not in a small village like Kolkhozashen. He grew up in Askeran, a town about 15 minutes outside of the capital, Stepanakert. Then he went to university in Yerevan, and studied abroad in Portugal. He’s a cosmopolitan guy. The move to rural-Artsakh was a stretch for him. 

ASHOT: When I came here. I didn't have hot water. I didn't have bathroom. I didn't have anything to boil water on it. I didn't have fridge. I didn't like nothing. And the first day I came here I didn't unpack my stuff. The second day I woke up, I see my coat eaten by rats. 

HOST: He didn’t just share the house with rats, but with lizards and even a bat. He showed us what he used to do to protect his food – he’d put it all in a bag and hang it from the chandelier.

ASHOT: Hang the plastic bags and put all my like food here. So the rats wouldn't it get it

HOST: Eventually Ashot got a fridge and a washing machine, but he still doesn't have gas. Not just him – the whole village doesn’t have a gas line. But despite the rough village life, he loves it here. If you look at his social media, it is filled with endless posts of him and his students, hiking through the hills, singing songs, making up games 

They’re kids, enjoying their home.

Kolkhozashen is like a lot of villages in Artsakh. It never recovered from the first Nagorno-Karabakh war in the 90s. And now after the 2nd war in 2020, it’s only 15 km from the border of Azerbaijani territory. 

ASHOT:  During the recent war, the village was hit several times.

HOST: Kolkhozashen was right on the line of contact. When we visited Ashot, there were still so many visible remains of the war: there was shrapnel everywhere, scattered in front of people’s homes. There was even a smerch rocket lodged in the road in the middle of the village. Ashot pointed it out to us. 

NYREE: Oh yeah, there's a smerch.

GOHAR: Is it not dangerous to have it here?

NYREE: It’s just the shell

ASHOT: Actual some of the villagers try to take this off from the ground but they didn't succeed because it's like very deep. but when we saw this when we talk with my students we actually came up with an idea 

HOST: They thought of making jewelry out of the remains of the rocket. This was just one of the many ideas they came up with, as a way to raise money and bring attention to the village.

NYREE: And you never thought you'd be a teacher. Hmm?

ASHOT: Never.

HOST: His mom is a teacher. Growing up, he’d see how tired she was all the time. He thought it wasn’t for him. But he knew that he wanted to contribute in some way to resolving the conflict in Artsakh. Ashot grew up with the history of the first Nagorno-Karabakh war all around him. Both his father and his grandfather fought in that war

ASHOT: I always knew that my granddad was injured and he still can't walk properly. And I knew that my father was also injured during the war. So I was like, Okay everyone's fathers participated in the wars that's normal thing. 

HOST: He imagined he might work in foreign affairs, helping Artsakh through diplomacy. He ended up studying international relations at Yerevan State University

ASHOT: I felt kinda disappointed by the profession I chose. Like I wanted to be a diplomat to solve the Artsakh problem.

HOST: As he studied in Yerevan and then in Portugal, he grew disillusioned. He told us he felt like “human rights and international relations were kind of a bubble.” A bubble “that didn’t include Artsakh”. 

The night the war ended in November 2020, that’s when he made the decision to teach. 

ASHOT: I was in a really emotional state. So to my friends on Facebook, I wrote a status about I'm not leaving Artsakh. Moreover, I'm coming back to Artsakh to teach history here. 

HOST: So he moved to Kolkhozashen through an organization called Teach for Armenia, that offers two-year teaching fellowships in underserved communities. Ashot wasn’t able to fulfill his two years of military service because of health problems. Teaching is his way of serving.

ASHOT: I feel like this is my Banak. This is my army. This is how I give my debt to my country. 

HOST: But it’s more than just doing his duty – even though he never pictured himself doing this, Ashot is in his element as a teacher. He GLOWS when he talks about his students. He took us to meet some of them at the youth center he helped them create. 

ASHOT: Naren a, Knarn a, Elena Nanu, shat urakh em

HOST: They’re typical teenagers - a bit bubbly, a bit shy. They joke around with each other but they’re also very aware of the moment that they’re living in. Nareh is one of Ashot's students. She’s 15

NAREH: For me as a teenager it’s okay to plan my day. But it’s not the same thing for all the people. For example when people want to create family here and to build a house, they can't risk because they aren't sure that they will live in the house they built. Everything is uncertain here. 

HOST: It’s not just how she feels. Uncertainty dominates everything in Artsakh. 

There were months after the war when it wasn’t clear in some places exactly where the new border even was. Some people ended up with their house on one side, and their garden on the other. And now, there were new types of threats.

Over the winter, there had been weeks-long gas cuts throughout Artsakh. The main gas line ran through Azerbaijani-controlled territory. When it was damaged, they wouldn’t allow a crew in to fix it. 

As we were having this conversation, in August 2022, the biggest source of uncertainty was the Lachin Corridor - which, after the war, became the only road connecting Armenia to Artsakh. 

According to the ceasefire agreement, Armenia was supposed to build an alternate road that would bypass certain settlements. But Azerbaijan was closing the old road before the new one was ready. It wasn’t clear if the new road would be safe to use, and there were fears that Artsakh might be completely cut off for an unknown period of time.  

ASHOT: I really can't focus on my future now. I really don't want to focus on my future now. Because I don't want to imagine myself in the process of what will happen to Artsakh. It's not like we are afraid of the war. Of course we are. But the main problem is the uncertainty.

HOST: Whenever Ashot tries to make long term plans, it’s this strange balancing act. For example, he wants to continue building out this youth center - but to do that, he has to consciously forget about the situation in Artsakh. If he really starts thinking about what might happen, he won’t be able to do anything. It’s this conundrum: How can you plan for the future while - at the same time - not thinking about what might happen? 

ASHOT: We are stuck in the middle. Some of people a lot of people said the war never ended and I partially agree with it. Some people say the war ended two years ago and you can actually partially agree with that as well. But there's no peace for sure. 

HOST: The issue over the new road ended up being a footnote in the story of post-war Artsakh. Something that felt like a big deal at the time, but that’s small compared to what’s happened since. 

This is like a lot of things in Artsakh. There will be an event, but before you can understand what it means or how significant it is, something else happens. 

On September 13, 2022, a few weeks after our first meeting with Ashot, we were planning to drive back to Artsakh to interview him again. The night before we were supposed to leave, I made the mistake of checking twitter before going to bed. There were reports of shelling.Azerbaijan had attacked Armenia. 

It was by far the largest military aggression since the ceasefire. Towns and villages all along Armenia’s eastern border were being shelled. About 300 people were killed over the course of a few days. 

It was a scary moment. For many of us, it brought us back to 2020, to our state of mind during the war: not sleeping, obsessively following the news, but not knowing what to trust. I remember feeling a pit in my stomach. I was worried that I might never be able to go back to Artsakh. 

Several months later, we talked with Ashot again.

It was mid-January 2023.

GOHAR:  Ashot jan, will you tell me where are we right now?

ASHOT We are in Yerevan.

GOHAR: And why? Why are we here? Why you're not in Artsakh.

ASHOT: Because I can’t go back to Artsakh. Because the road is closed. And I'm stuck here. And I basically can't return home. I can't return to my village to my work. So yeah, that's why I'm here in Yerevan.

HOST: He’d left home a month ago. He was flying to a conference and while on a layover in Vienna, he heard from a friend who was stuck on the road out of Artsakh. The friend was trying to get his mother to a hospital in Yerevan, but was forced to return home.

A group of Azerbaijanis who said they were environmental activists were blocking traffic. But it was clear to everyone that this was a blockade by the Azerbaijani government.

ASHOT: I thought they are going to open the road again, very soon. But it didn't happen. I really don't know what to think now. 

HOST: The road had been closed at times before, for a few hours. He initially thought that that’s what this was. But now, in January, Ashot had been in Yerevan for over a month and there was no end in sight to the blockade. And it wasn’t just him stuck in Yerevan. Families were split apart.

ASHOT: I know a lot of children who are here without their parents, I know a lot of parents who are here without their children. But most of all, this blockade is about like humanitarian crisis in Artsakh. No food, no medication, no freedom of movement, constant fear, constant psychological attacks, and constant instability.

HOST: Only the Red Cross and Russian Peacekeepers were allowed across. And there were shortages of food and medications. A lot of Artsakh’s utilities run through Azerbaijani-controlled territory, and those lines kept on getting cut off.

And while Ashot was here in Yerevan, his students were still in Artsakh.

ASHOT: And basically, my children are deprived of the chance to study because their teacher is not in Artsakh. 

HOST: He tried to teach online, but there were so many power and internet outages, that many of his classes got canceled.

ASHOT: Okay, how can I tell the kids oh kids you know, everything will be fine with you? Because it's not fine now. It's been how many days? 34, 35 days now?

HOST: Store shelves were empty. Everything was being rationed. 

ASHOT: one of my students told me, you know I'm eating beans, I don't really like them. But I have to eat because there's nothing more.

HOST: Ashot didn’t know how long he’d be stuck in Yerevan. He moved in with a friend he’d grown up with. 

ASHOT: Initially I was going to stay in a hotel. But I wasn't sure I can handle this situation alone, like emotionally.

HOST: He was helping organize protests and social media campaigns against the blockade, but it all felt so futile. 

ASHOT: there's a lot of stuff to do, and there is nothing to do at the same time I don't really know what am I doing here? All my attention is back in Artsakh, all my clothes, all my, I don't know. My. Even my charger is in Artsakh. You know, like, my life is in Artsakh, basically. So I don't feel like I'm in Yerevan. I don't know. What can I do? But as soon as the road is open, I will I will go. I will definitely go to first hour. I need to go.

HOST: Even though the blockade had lasted over a month, Ashot still hadn’t unpacked. His suitcase was waiting by the door. 

GOHAR Why aren't you opening your suitcase?

ASHOT Why should I? I'm going to Artsakh. I'm returning. Why should I open my suitcase?

GOHAR You don't want to lose any second. 

ASHOT No. No. 

HOST: We spoke to Ashot one more time 5 months later. It was early June 2023. The blockade was still in full force, with no end in sight. But he had finally made it home. It was good to hear his voice. 

ASHOT: Yes, I'm still in Kolkozashen. 

HOST: He’s back in Artsakh, we’re in Yerevan. The blockade has stretched on for half a year now.

ASHOT: I don't know like, we don't talk about future, let’s say. But like, we are okay.

HOST: Ashot ended up being stuck in Yerevan for 48 days. Then, he was able to find a way around the blockade and into Artsakh. He had heard that there was this alternative road, but it was dangerous.

ASHOT: I was nervous, but not because of the Azeris but because of the unknown road that I'm going to take. 

HOST: He went to Goris, a town near the border. A lot of people who were trying to get back to Artsakh had gathered there. He asked around and after a few days, he was able to get a spot in a car.

ASHOT: I heard a lot of stories, a lot of comments about the road. Like physically it's not safe to drive there. Because it's like all on the mountains on a gorges so I was like worried if something will happen to the vehicle. No one will come to rescue us

HOST: The car was packed: with people and with luggage.

ASHOT: The vehicle was, was supposed to be for, I think 15 people, but we were 33 people in the car. And each of us had like, four or five suitcases. So there was not much air to breathe in that vehicle. Because like, I had a lot of suitcases on me literally.

HOST: But - he made it back.

Since Ashot returned, the blockade has shifted and become more official. The border has tightened, and this alternate road is no longer an option.

By now, Azerbaijan has dropped the guise of environmental activism and has installed an official checkpoint with soldiers in the Lachin Corridor.

The first thing Ashot did when he got back was to visit his family in Askeran. He gave them fruit that he’d brought from Yerevan, things they couldn’t get in Artsakh anymore

ASHOT I brought some tangerine for my little brother, bananas, apples. When he saw the apple, he grabbed one and started eating like how I missed eating fruits. 

HOST: He stayed there for a few days and then returned to Kolkhozashen to get back to his students.

ASHOT: I came to the village and went straight to the school and the classes were still going on and when the kids heard me in a hallway I they ran out of the classes came in surprised like hugged me

HOST: While we’re talking Ashot disappears from the computer screen

NYREE: You’re frozen

JEREMY: Ashot you still there?

HOST: We wait a few minutes 

NYREE: oh there we go.

ASHOT: Sorry guys my electricity is cut I don't have electricity right now I don't know why 

NYREE How are you calling

ASHOT: I’m using my data. It's like very unstable connection.

HOST: There are planned outages these days - Ashot gets electricity for a few hours at a time now – but he’s supposed to have it right now. 

Some of Artsakh’s electricity used to come from Armenia, but with the blockade, the only source of power is one hydroelectric reservoir. It’s running low, so they have to ration power. 

ASHOT: If you have a laundry you need to do that while you have electricity.

HOST: Also, gas has been shut off in Artsakh for months, so no gas for cooking, heating or hot water. AND there’s a shortage of fuel for cars, so people’s freedom of movement is being restricted, even within Artsakh. 


Armenians can’t freely cross the checkpoint. Their only way across is if they get permission to travel with the Red Cross or with Russian peacekeepers. They’re the ones bringing across medical supplies, and food. But there have been weeks at a time when even the Red Cross hasn’t been let through.

ASHOT: We all we all know that the blockade is about the ethnic cleansing of Artsakh but that but that doesn't mean that we wake up or sleep thinking about the how they will kill us or how they will you know how we will flee our houses No, that's not what we are thinking about everyday,  our everyday everyday life is about finding new ways new solutions to to go on with whatever it is here because you don't have electricity fine. Let's do something more interesting. I don't know let's read the book. Or let's have an excursion with your students. Or there is no ice cream okay but there is milk so let's find a way to make our own ice cream

HOST: With everything happening around him, Ashot’s life keeps moving forward. He’s just finishing up his teaching fellowship in Kolkhozashen. 

ASHOT: I mean, this is this were the like, the most meaningful years of my life. I gave a lot to the village and to my students, and I got a lot from the village and from the students. Basically, I'm also graduating with them.

HOST: He’s emotional about leaving, but he’s 22 and he wants to continue building his life.

ASHOT: But yeah - I need to actually kind of focus on my career as well. So I have to move on. But the situation keeps like screwing all my plans about my future. 

HOST: He’s still disillusioned by international relations, but is considering working at an NGO, maybe one focused on humanitarian work. But that kind of work will likely not be in Artsakh.

NYREE: So you're thinking you'll come to Yerevan, most likely?

ASHOT: That's a tricky question. I really want to be in Yerevan, I really want to return to yerevan. But I also understand if I will exit Artsakh, there is a high chance that I will not be able to return. Which will mean that maybe there won't be a chance for me to come to see my family again. So it's very hard, tough decision to make. So I try to escape it.  For right now. I don't want to rush things and then regret I don't know. I still didn’t come to the final decision.

HOST: Ashot wants to have the option of living and working outside of Artsakh and also to be able to come home. He doesn’t want to be stuck in either place.

And while he can probably find a way to cross into Armenia, many people in Artsakh feel like if they even used the checkpoint - that they’d be validating it: that using it helps Azerbaijan legitimize its claim.

Since the war ended, it feels like there’s been a chokehold on Artsakh, and it’s getting tighter and tighter. 

JEREMY: This is hard to say, but it sounds like if you leave Artsakh, that you're thinking that you won't be able to go back is that? Is that how it it feels?

ASHOT: Yes, you know, you kind of feel guilty of thinking about that as well.I don't know like I don't want to be the one who leaves, I don't want to be the one who leaves. But I don’t want to be stuck in Artsakh. Like it just feels illegal. You know, like, I don't know how to explain that to leave your students here in a blockade with no electricity with no food with whatever and come to Yerevan enjoying your life to the fullest. But then again, it feels illegal to myself as well like, Okay, I'm staying in Artsakh what will I do here? What can I do? 

ASHOT: I don’t know guys. Let’s change the topic I don’t want to talk about this anymore. 

HOST: We finish up by talking about his students. 

It’s June, the end of the school year - He helped them organize a big graduation ceremony.

Nareh, who we heard from earlier, got accepted to one of the top high schools in Armenia, a boarding school in Dilijan. And two graduating students are heading off to university in Yerevan. 

Ashot tells us that he came to Kolkozashen to save it, but that it ended up saving him. The one time we were able to visit him there - when the road was still open - I remember when he toured us around, how he came to life. 

ASHOT: This kind of village life is is great You just wake up in the morning. You have great neighbors. You have great students, you have great co workers.  

HOST: The village has made him so happy. And while his future isn’t going to be in Kolkhozashen, I hope that whatever comes next will be as meaningful as his life there has been for the past two years. His purpose there has been so certain, even while the earth has been shaking beneath his feet. 

Country of Dust is created and produced by Nyree Abrahamian, Jeremy Dalmas and Gohar Khachatrian; with help from Gabrielle Kaprielian. Sound engineering and music by Jeremy Dalmas. 

And thanks for the support from

  • The Creative Armenia - AGBU Fellowship
  • Impact Hub Yerevan
  • The Vahé and Lucie Foundation
  • and Meeting Point Studios

And thank you so much for tuning in. We’d love it if you could spread the word about the show, it really does help a lot.