Armenians bid 'painful' farewell to monastery ceded in peace deal

Dadivank (Azerbaïdjan) (AFP) –


Mourners drift through the monastery nestled in a deep mountain gorge by the dozens with loss, disbelief and sometimes tears marking their faces.

The Dadivank church complex in the rugged and elevated Kalbajar region is due to be returned to Azerbaijan on Sunday by Armenian separatists who suffered a humiliating defeat after more than six weeks of intense fighting over the disputed province of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The combat ended earlier this week after Armenia agreed to cede swathes of territory it had held since a war in the 1990s as part of a Russian-brokered peace deal.

With its high mountain peaks, steep and forested slopes, the Kalbajar district home to the Dadivank church complex beloved by Armenians is emptying before it is returned to Azerbaijan's control.

Believed to be founded around the 12th century, Dadivank has outlived centuries of unrest and remains a majestic complex of stone and a pride of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

"It's very hard, very painful. We have come to say goodbye," a 40-year-old visitor told AFP, hiding tears behind large sunglasses.

The clusters of people who have come to see the hillside monastery for possibly the last time wander in contemplation through the central stone clearing and between the basilica and the chapel.

Several wilting roses lie on the tomb of Saint Dadi who is recorded as having founded the monastery.

A small kiosk inside the church is already packing up unsold candles and carrying out final transactions.

The scenes at the monastery, including the rush of cars packing the small road to its base, resemble a flood of tourists on vacation except for the palpable sense of sadness and bewilderment.

- 'I can't leave' -

"I can't believe this is the last time I'll be here," said Miasnik Simonyan, 28, from Vardenis in northern Armenia.

"This is the land of our grandparents. These stones are 800 years old," he said, gesturing to two intricately engraved traditional Armenian crosses.

Inna Tumanyan, who just graduated from university in the Armenian capital Yerevan, had hoped for months to be baptised at the monastery.

"But there was corona, then the war," she told AFP.

"When I heard we were going to have to give up Dadivank, I called the priest. He told me to come," Tumanyan said.

She is among 12 young women to be hastily baptised on Friday in the small Holy Mother of God church.

Standing beneath two 13th century frescoes Father Hovhannes speaks bitterly of Azerbaijan, a majority-Muslim country and longstanding rival of Armenia, which he said "does not have the same values as us".

On Wednesday, the Armenian government said it was "extremely concerned" about the fate of this unique heritage, despite assurances from Baku which promises to preserve all historical and spiritual places.

"People have lost loved ones, their homes. They do not want to lose Dadivank," Father Hovhannes, with a long grey bread and a silver crucifix around his neck, told AFP.

"We must pray for the protection of our monastery," he added, noting the authorities in Yerevan have yet to give instructions on how best safeguard the site and its artefacts.

"This monastery belongs to us. I can't leave," he says.

Asked whether he planned to organise the return of the precious carved crosses to Yerevan, he says: "who am I to remove stones that have been here for over 800 years."