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The Ghostchaser

Armenia's History Is Hidden in the Hills and Forests of Samvel Karapetian's War-Torn Land, and He's Made It His Mission to Find It. But to What End?

July 22, 2001|THOMAS DE WAAL | Thomas de Waal is a freelance international correspondent based in London. He is working on a book on the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, which will be published by New York University Press next year

Night falls over the monastery of Yeghishe Arakyal as a bonfire crackles in a 17th century fireplace. Far below, a river surges. An owl hoots. Then, something else: a faint patter of Armenian voices.

* In the darkness, the pale shapes of the seven monastery chapels press against one another like the hulls of ships. Three figures stand above a low stone doorway into one of the chapels, their faces close to the upper arch. One of the women holds a flashlight, and its beam falls onto the inscription above the door. Another stands with pen poised above a pad of paper. A tall man with a big, bald forehead capped by a navy-blue-and-orange wool hat reads aloud the Armenian letters, one by one.

* By all rights, Samvel Karapetian should have been exhausted. He'd spent the day hiking through a timeless forest wilderness in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region high in the Caucasus, far from the peace talks between Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders going on half a world away. Two local guides led the way, carrying double-barreled hunting-rifles. They passed beneath the silver shafts of beech trees, picking their way over great rotting timbers. Karapetian kept pace.

As his bare head darted along, he sometimes seemed less a human being than some strange marine creature flitting through the green.

Finally they'd found the monastery: a tiny splash of pale stone standing on a rocky outcrop above a gorge, with the foaming Terter River below. But after an already punishing day, ending with a meager dinner of bread, cheese and herbs, Karapetian is still working well after dark. He is deciphering inscriptions as quickly as he can, as if time is slipping through his fingers.

And in fact, one lifetime may not be enough to accomplish the goal that Karapetian has set for himself: to document every Armenian monument--every church, tomb, tower and bridge--outside the Republic of Armenia and preserve them from destruction. For the last 23 years, he has been coming to the remote hills of the Caucasus every year, traveling only on foot. There are no unnecessary breaks, no late starts, no time for dawdling. "I count every minute," Karapetian says.

The clock is ticking loudly this April night because, in Key West, Fla., U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and an international negotiating team are talking compromise. This small, mountainous region in the southern Caucasus region is situated on an ancient fault line between Europe and Asia, the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, Christianity and Islam. To the north are the mighty Caucasus Mountains and the troubled region of Chechnya and Russia, to the south is Iran and the Middle East. Nagorno-Karabakh is populated by Armenians and occupied by Armenian troops, but the international community recognizes it as part of Azerbaijan.

Violence first broke out in Nagorno-Karabakh in 1988, when it was a tiny southern province in the Soviet Union covering just 1,700 square miles. When the U.S.S.R. broke up, the dispute escalated into full-scale war. An estimated 20,000 people were dead by the time an armistice was signed in 1994, with the Armenians victorious and occupying not only Nagorno-Karabakh, but a wide swath of land surrounding it.

Although the fighting has stopped, the dispute goes on. Neither the Armenians nor the Azerbaijanis will back down from their claims to the land, and the deadlock has paralyzed the whole Caucasus region. The potential benefits of a U.S.-brokered peace deal are vast. If the Americans can unlock this conflict, it would allow hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijani refugees to go home to areas currently occupied by the Armenians. It would open up a new transport corridor for oil and gas running from Asia to Europe, through Azerbaijan and Armenia. That would be welcome news for American oil companies, including ExxonMobil Corp. and Chevron, which have invested heavily in Caspian Sea oil and fear that more fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh could hurt their investments in Azerbaijan. An agreement also would please many of the million or so Armenian Americans (almost half of them in California) who want Armenia to emerge from a desperate economic slump.

But there won't be a peace deal if Karapetian--and many other Armenians--have anything to do with it. For them, compromise is anathema. It means sharing what they regard as ancient Christian Armenian land with the Azerbaijanis, who are Muslim and closely related to the Turks. "I hope there won't be a solution," Karapetian says. "I don't even want to think about it." In his view the negotiators at Key West are simply trying to steal monasteries such as Yeghishe Arakyal from the rightful owners.

*

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