An enclosure, the humid mouth of a mountain. The air lingers heavily as faint lines emerge against the black. The latent image announces a passage barreled in concrete to another country. Distant, a point of light bursts into life announced by a deafening roar, echoing through.
Norashen!” The choir sings.
“I was on a short school break, heading south to see family. I’d heard about the clashes at the Nakhchivan border and the armed forces blockading infrastructures, but it didn’t occur to me that the railway was also compromised. Boarding the train, I was struck by how utterly empty it was. Desperate to see my family on the short break, I tried to think nothing of it. Rolling past Ararat, the train attendant entered my car and was shocked to see me. In a panicked voice he whispered, ‘What are you doing here? Haven’t you heard?’ That was how I found out that the mutual non-interference agreement signed to prevent disruptions to basic transport infrastructures had collapsed and militias were seizing passengers and goods on the Yerevan-Baku line. With the attendant’s help I managed to find a hiding spot in a dark storage closet. Only a few minutes after I’d crawled under the blankets, the train came to a full stop and armed men boarded. They searched the entire wagon thoroughly and interrogated the attendant before leaving and sending us on our way. When I arrived home, my parents were in tears ‘How did you make it?’ they asked. Apparently, the day before my ride, they had kidnapped 12 students on the train and held them as prisoners. That was the last train to ride those rails.” – A. A.
Agarak in Armenia’s Syunik Marz region lies at the intersection of Armenia, Iran and Nakhchivan along the Aras River. The river was designated as the boundary between the Russian and Persian empires at the conclusion of hostilities during the Russio-Persian war. Following the treaties of Golestān (1813) and Turkmenchay (1828), ethnic populations previously unrestrained by geopolitical borders found themselves separated depending on which side of the strategic boundary they fell on. Reconstituting the region’s geopolitics resulted in a complex remodeling of demographics, which laid the groundwork for nascent nationalisms for the decades to come. Following the conclusion of the Iranian Crisis of 1946 and the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Northern Iran, the Aras River became heavily fortified throughout the cold war as the boundary between the USSR and the western-backed Iranian government. With the militarization of these borders, Agarak became a frontier border town that depended heavily on the train and highway infrastructures that connected Yerevan to Southern Armenia through Nakhchivan along the Aras River valley. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a series of hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia rendered these routes impassable, effectively isolating Agarak from the rest of the country. Surrounded by evacuated linkages, with only early-Soviet mountain roads to connect the town to Northern Armenia, Agarak became a virtual island with limited access to basic resources; inaugurating a period of desperation when the residents turned to hunting and small-scale farming for survival. These conditions continued until two years after the infrastructural collapse. At which point the Iranian state erected a provisional pontoon river crossing, later upgrading it to the current two-lane bridge connecting Iran’s Nordooz to Agarak. This linkage flourished with expanded trade and the burgeoning tourist industry, which brought Iranian goods and tourists back to this region for the first time since the Soviet blockade.
The vision pans out as the safety alarm blares across a gulf of space. He smiles and closes his eyes. A thunderous sound. The damp interior is showered in dust as the church shudders with a bellowing earth. The hillside collapses and exposes its contents to the waiting mouth of a bulldozer.
Meghri!” The choir continues.
“Charles de Gaulle was born in Syunik! His father owned a mine in Kapan and De Gaulle spent his early years in this region. It is said that in fact, the very copper that was used to fabricate the Statue of Liberty was derived from these mountains. When the Russians seized the mine from French holdings, they constructed a massive monument out of copper depicting a bear with a key in its mouth. This was meant to symbolize the transfer of power. This statue became an icon of Syunik Marz and was used as a hood ornament on the old Soviet trucks working the copper mines of Agarak.” – S.S.
Agarak was originally the name of a village built on the northern slopes of the Aras River valley. During the Soviet rule, a Copper-Molybdenum mine was established on the village’s periphery. The mine was subsequently expanded with the construction of a workers’ settlement in the lower reaches of the valley. As the mine grew, the structural stability of the older village was compromised by the shock waves rippling from the mine’s explosives. This led to the evacuation of the village; leaving only a 16th century church that still stands on the precipice of the open-pit mine. The Soviet planned settlement ceremonially adopted the disappeared village’s name, housing Armenian, Azeri and Russian mineworkers and specialists, as well as, predominantly Azeri railroad workers near the old Karchivan Railway Station on the banks of the river. Following the post-Soviet hostilities of the Nagorno-Karabakh War and the railway’s collapse, the region witnessed a period of population transfers and ethnic cleansing on both sides of the border. Subsequently, the Azeri enclaves adjacent to the former Karchivan Railway Station were abandoned. In the following decade, as a symbolic gesture of the intransigent position of both governments, the railroad tracks were removed and sold to Iran as scrap metal.
Alongside the collapse of the railway infrastructure, the region’s only airport, which serviced the entire Syunik region, discontinued operations after threats of anti-aircraft attacks from the nearby border. The runway and the passenger halls have remained derelict for the past decade; inhabited only by a single security guard and a herd of wild horses who graze in the
adjacent mountains. In the coming years it has been rumored, the airport will be retrofitted as the forward command of Russia’s Middle Eastern operations as part of the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) of which Armenia is a signatory.
Light filters through the almond branches and traces a collective of shadows on a table laid for a feast. Heavy breath is heard as lines are drawn in parallel to form a perimeter. Vacuous halls make ready for the coming bounty.
Jabrayil!” The choir cries out.
“My father was working these gardens since Agarak was established. They were given the land to grow food to supplement the meager rations that were provided to the mineworkers. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rights to this land were transferred to my father. The same for our neighbors. […] I’ve built this homestay on this land after retiring as a customs officer. The low pensions are insufficient, especially as prices of energy and food have gone up in the past few years. […] The garden provides much of our food but I need savings to send my kids to good schools in Canada or Europe.
We’ve been having issues with the water pressure recently, which is obviously unpleasant for my guests and also detrimental for the garden. The water pipelines entering my property run through the Russian military base over there. [points to the base meters away that shares a fence with his land]. The commanding officer arbitrarily shuts off the water. […] To me it seems like a power game… It feels like the occupation has never ended. You see, I am installing that water tank on the roof to avoid the daily confrontations. The Russians patrol this border and the one with Turkey. Armenia foots the bill! I don’t know why they waste their time on this border when we have good relations with Iran. Why not patrol the frontlines with Nakhchivan where our soldiers are dying. [points towards the mountains west of his land]
I have hope for the future though. There are plans to develop a Free Trade Zone in the area between the river’s bank and the hills behind us. It’ll bring much more investment and tourists from Iran and will increase the value of my property.” – V. S.
Agarak’s urban morphology is expected to undergo many changes in the near future. Its location at the intersection of three international borders has made it particularly sensitive from a geopolitical standpoint. The southern borders with Iran are patrolled by the Russian Army, who is contracted to securitize the area under an agreement associated with the CSTO. The western borders with Nakhchivan (with whom Armenia is still in a state of war) are patrolled by Armenian troops. The presence of multiple actors tasked with patrolling the area, coupled with the security mechanisms employed to screen the border for the passage of illegal goods has manifested in multi-layered spatial divisions. These conditions make it difficult for individuals to travel in proximity to the border zone without being interrogated by Russian border officials. The impeded mobility of bodies exists in stark contrast to the expected liquidity of capital under the auspices of the new economic forces that are re-shaping these geographies.
The neoliberal strategy recently adopted by the Armenian state centers on establishing a Free Economic Zone in Agarak. The project involves major infrastructural upgrades that will help reconnect the mountainous region to Yerevan through a series of highway and rail systems, facilitating the movement of goods and capital from Armenia and other international markets to the existing Aras Free Economic Zone on the Iranian side of the border. The purpose of the
proposed FEZ is to service both the markets of the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) by providing for the fluid movement of goods, services and capital between these markets and the Middle East. Meanwhile, Agarak is gradually changing to accommodate the logistical needs of an international Economic Zone through the expansion of its tourist/hospitality sectors with increasing numbers of hotels and homestays appearing in proximity to the militarized border zone.
A halfway moon, the hush of between possibility. Shrouded in Velvet the city begs the mountain for a breeze. Eruptions of steel and skin, these roads are not roads but a passage.
Baku!” The choir murmurs.
“I was trying to reach you via half-occupied roads. Walking along the sidewalk I saw crowds begin to spill into the road. They gradually formed a chain linked together by chanting and placards. The cars slowed behind them. A black car suddenly swerved, forming a perpendicular with the road. A cheer broke out. A blockade was established. More people flooded into the street and another truck followed suite. Car horns blared out filling the street with reverberations. Azatutyan, the street that merges out of the city into the Tbilisi highway was effectively shut down. I wish you could have seen it. Two minutes later, the crowd began to move towards the city center and traffic resumed.” – A. G.
On April 13th 2018, massive demonstrations broke out across Armenia in response to the reconsolidation of Serzh Sargsyan’s power as the newly appointed Prime Minister. During the subsequent confrontations between government forces and the opposition protestors, both sides tactically employed infrastructural blockades. The protestors blocked major urban roads to stall the undisrupted flow of state and economic functions within the city, all the while occupying the streets, making visible their demands. Simultaneously, local and regional police forces instituted a series of road closures, preventing entry to Yerevan from surrounding regions and a further influx of protestors. Undeterred, protestors further decentralized their movement to all reaches of the city by forming temporary blockades, which once disbanded, mushroomed into adjacent streets stretching the resources of the police to a point of ineffectuality. After several days of protests Yerevan ground to a halt, shutting down the city’s economic and political functions. By the 11th day Sargsyan resigned. These overlapping tactics of infrastructural disruption make clear the central role of mobility and mobilization for contemporary states and their dissenters. Through these narratives one can observe how infrastructure, power, political agency and life itself are sites of contestation.
The names associated with testimonies in this article have been abbreviated in order to protects individuals from retaliation. This text was developed from research for an upcoming film, Make Breeze.