Near the epicentre of a devastating earthquake in 1988 Gyumri is a town that at first glance appears to have recovered fairly well: most buildings have been rebuilt, very few are still abandoned and some display minor damage, which if you didn’t know the history you could have put down to neglect. The graveyard, however told a different story.
With a profusion of stones, monuments and graves packed tightly together, in what was hardly a small area, it obliged visitors to clamber over the dead to get to much of it. But it was the neglect of much of it that said there were far too few families left to tender the plots, those which were cared for showed touching signs of regular visits: spotlessly clean; recently wilted flowers and dedicated weeding despite being surrounded by overgrown neighbours.
Fences and corroded, ornate cages enclosed many plots, some bursting with plant life, having not been touched for years. Some had simple sets of chairs and a table by the graveside, a visit to a deceased relative in Armenia is obviously no five-minute affair. Few in the UK would consider such a commitment to the departed to share a picnic with them or sit long enough to truly contemplate their passing.
A common feature throughout the country are photo etched images of the deceased, which I had initially viewed as a bit tacky, but here with the date 1988 appearing again and again, pictures of mothers and daughters, husbands and wives took on a new and grim significance.
It was only here that I realised that it was that personal element which was missing in the ruins of Agdam. ( https://insideotherplaces.com/2013/10/30/nagorno-karabakh-the-land-that-doesnt-exist/ ) Here were individual stories of loss and tragedy, the survivors of splintered families never returning to watch over the graves of their loved ones. Graveyards are normally either just a tranquil or intriguing experience, a little bit of cultural history but here I was touched by an awful sadness from the moment I walked in, which only gradually faded on leaving.
It is a sadness I have only had equalled at my own parent’s grave but here was a town I knew no one and couldn’t even speak their language to explain its profundity.