Nisbat Yeganyan nods approvingly as her husband of 50-plus years, Shahen, tells the story of how they met.
In 1957, when Armenia and Azerbaijan were neighboring Soviet republics rather than nations technically at war, Shahen, an Armenian, was sent to Baku for treatment of a back problem. From there he went to a rest home in the nearby town of Shamakhi, where Nisbat worked in the kitchen.
“She couldn’t cope with her work, so I started to help her. That was how we met,” Shahen recalls. “One day I told her, ‘Let’s run away from here.’ A few days later she came to work with her things packed.”
Nisbat’s family did not approve of her marrying an Armenian, so they eloped. In 1960 they settled in the village of Veliky Taglar in the Hadrut district of Nagorno-Karabakh. And there they have remained – through the collapse of the Soviet Union, the bloody conflict that left the disputed territory under ethnic Armenian control, the flight of hundreds of thousands of Azeris, and the uneasy cease-fire in place since 1994.
Officially, six people of Azeri descent still live in Nagorno-Karabakh, according to the agency of the unrecognized but effectively autonomous republic that deals with minority affairs. Unofficially, the number is believed to be much higher, but few Karabakh Azeris make an issue of their nationality. Ask 75-year-old Nisbat Yeganyan, or the longtime neighbors who know her affectionately as “Auntie Lyusa,” and they talk about similarities rather than differences.
“They supported and fed me, offered me water to drink, invited me to be their guest,” Nisbat says. “They supported me during the war. No one ever offended me; even if someone tries to say something to me, others say, ‘Stop it!’ God bless the Armenians. My homeland is here.”
Much the same is true in the nearby village of Tumi, where anyone you can ask give directions to the home of “Auntie Lida.” Lidiya Abdullah Takhmazova has lived here since 1981, when she came with her second husband, an Armenian.
Though her husband died of a stroke in 1991, Takhmazova remained. Like Nisbat Yeganyan, she says her neighbors closed ranks around her during the Karabakh war – all the more so because her son, the product of her first marriage to a Russian man, enlisted and fought for the Armenian side.
“I told my son, ‘Get away from this place, you’re Russian, all roads are open for you.’ He said, ‘No mother, I have friends here, I’ve broken bread with them.’ [He] volunteered for the army in 1992 and perished in 1994. He was only 18.”
“I can say on behalf of the village that everyone respects this woman in a special way,” says Vardan, a villager who led the unit in which Takhmazova’s son fought. “Her son died during the war. He was a young man at the time. We didn’t call him with us, but he volunteered and perished. Not a single person in our village will ever look askance at this woman.”