MINELRES: IWPR Caucasus Reporting Service No.284: Slow Demise of Karabach Greeks

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WELCOME TO IWPR'S CAUCASUS REPORTING SERVICE, No. 284, April 27, 2005

CAUCASUS NEWS UPDATE APRIL 27

BLACK SEA DAMS ANGER GEORGIA
Environmentalists claim flooding caused by Turkish dams is threatening
Ajaria.
By Giorgy Kupatadze in Adlia

AZERI JOURNALISTS BOYCOTT NEW CHANNEL
A new state-funded television station is under attack before it has even
started broadcasting.
By Emil Guliev in Baku

SLOW DEMISE OF KARABAKH GREEKS
Can a tiny community survive to celebrate its third centenary?
By Ashot Beglarian in Mehmana

CHECHNYA'S MOBILE SCRAMBLE
SIM cards are changing hands on the black market as demand for mobile
phones outstrips supply in the war-torn republic.
By Kazbek Vakhayev in Grozny

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SLOW DEMISE OF KARABAKH GREEKS

Can a tiny community survive to celebrate its third centenary?

By Ashot Beglarian in Mehmana

Mehmana is a small village hidden in the wooden hills of the northern
part of Nagorny Karabakh. There is an abundance of fruit orchards and
the villagers store up dried fruits for the winter. 

There are other villages like this, but Mehmana is remarkable for
another reason - uniquely, in this overwhelmingly Armenian territory, it
is still home to a small community of Greeks, who founded the village
almost 300 hundred years ago.

However, this beautifully situated village is going through hard times,
and many wonder whether it can survive.

At the moment, just 14 families live in the village, of mixed Armenian
and Greek ethnicity. Almost all the inhabitants are elderly, and the
young people can be counted on the fingers of one hand. 

Yelena Lavasidis, 86, is one of the last surviving Greeks. A war veteran
with a number of Soviet-era medals, she was keen to demonstrate that she
is in good health and that she can "thread a needle without spectacles".

"My parents moved to Mehmana from Turkey at the beginning of the last
century," she said. "Then there were 25 families living in the village,
mostly mixed Armenian and Greek."

As a child, Yelena studied in Greek in the first three classes of
primary school, then went to the next-door village of Kusapat to study
in Armenian. 

"We kept closely to our national customs," she said. "We kept the
religious traditions very carefully. My father Nikolaos Lavasidis was a
priest and a very educated man. At home we followed a strict regime -
everything had its place, you should never ever contradict an older
person, or talk while eating." 

The village still has a big stone oven called a "katamaya" where
housewives used to bake bread that stayed fresh for ten days.

Yelena's husband, Avanes Arzumanian, an ethnic Armenian, is a well-known
journalist in Karabakh. "The Greeks are welcoming, hospitable people,"
he said.. "They will always slaughter a calf or a bull for a guest.
Armenians and Greeks have a lot of traditions, customs and holidays in
common. One of them is an obligation to help the poor. On holidays,
people who are better off send the poor bags of food or invite them to
dine at their houses."

One reason the Greeks were drawn to Mehmana in the 19th century was the
precious metals in the hills around it. The mining of metals such as
silver predated their arrival. In Soviet times, lead was extracted here
- which contaminated the water supply and led to a high incidence of
disease.

Another group of Greeks arrived in the village following the massacres
of Armenians and Pontic Greeks in Anatolia in 1915-18. 

Tragedy struck the people of Mehmana again during the Karabakh war of
1991-94 when the Mardakert region where the village is located suffered
heavily from the fighting. 

Mehmana passed from one side to the other and was virtually levelled to
the ground. Most of the residents were forced to flee for their lives,
and many landmines were left in the ground. Many ethnic Greeks left for
Greece.

"Today there are 21 Armenian-Greek families registered as living in
Nagorny Karabakh, although there are actually more Greeks than that in
the republic" said Sofi Ivanidis, a representative of the Centre for
Armenian-Greek Friendship.

Ivanidis said celebrations were planned to mark the forthcoming 300th
anniversary of the founding of the village, and they hoped to invite
guests from abroad.

The Greeks of Mehmana used to maintain contacts with Greece and receive
aid consignments from there. Now that has practically come to a halt.

A small humanitarian aid shipment from Greece provided the village with
its only tractor several years ago, but it was blown up on a mine and
now the villagers are forced to work their fields by hand. Two years ago
an Australian Greek, Nick Dallas, a manager in the book trade, visited
Mehmana and promised to organise charitable donations to the village.
But locals say they are getting virtually no aid.

The Karabakh government has offered modest help. Just six houses have
been built here since the end of the war. Telephone, radio and
television connections are poor, there are problems with the water
supply and the road is in poor condition. Residents say that in winter
it is practically impossible for them to leave the village.

One non-government organisation in Stepanakert, the Society for Cultural
Links with Foreign Countries, is trying to organise help for the
beleaguered village. Its co-chairman Irina Agajanian is arranging
cultural events such as concerts and wants to collect money for Mehmana.

"We are trying to unite around the idea of getting help from Greeks and
Armenians from different countries in the world," she said.

Time is running out for this quiet isolated village where so few young
people are left, and there is a danger that this unique Greek community
will cease to exist.

Ashot Beglarian is a freelance journalist and regular IWPR contributor
in Nagorny Karabakh.

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CAUCASUS REPORTING SERVICE No. 284