Words: Kate Leahy / Photos: John Lee
On May 2, 2018, we woke up in Stepanakert, the capital of the Republic of Artsakh, packed up our Airbnb, and headed to a nearby bakery to meet the bakers and buy a few rounds of tonir hats (bread baked in a tonir). This is a cookbook research trip after all, and we figured that we'd be on the road for a long time and would need some fuel. We were right about the road fatigue, but not for the reasons we had expected.
Several hours later, we passed the Artsakh/Armenia border near Vardenis and drove straight into a political protest, one of many taking place across Armenia. The night before, the ruling Republican party decided to forego voting for a prime minister because they didn’t want the opposition leader, Nikol Pashinyan, to be voted into office.
Pashinyan has become a hero of the Armenian people, standing for everything the ruling (and notoriously corrupt) Republican party does not. Since we arrived in Armenia, we've seen protesters supporting Pashinyan expand from students to nearly everyone we've come across, young and old. The no-vote decision on May 1 had unleashed a wave of fresh protests.
When we hit the roadblock, we figured that the best thing to do was to get out of the car and start reporting. John has a background in photo journalism, and he jumped back into the role, getting shots of the chaos. With the help of Christine, our translator, and Raffi, our friend who also speaks Eastern Armenian, we started asking questions and documenting what was happening.
Some were yelling that they wanted to get through the blockade while others yelled “those who are with us are with us. Those who aren’t with us are garbage.”
"Let me through! I have to visit friends. I have a plane to catch! Why can't you do this somewhere else?" asked one woman. Her story kept changing.
"You will be the last person I let through!" yelled the new leader, a guy in a bright red sweater who showed no intension of letting us through, either. No one would give us their real names.
After two hours, we were finally let through, only to encounter another group of protesters in the village of Mets Masrik. This time, we immediately jumped out of the car and got our reporting faces on. This village had a more heartfelt protest message, telling us that their hope is to see an Armenia free from corruption, a country where their kids can stay here rather than emigrating to find good jobs. Like those from the earlier protest, they also planned to drive to Yerevan, a trip that would take at least a couple of hours.
“We stand with Nikol. We want complete reform of the system and we want to establish justice,” explained Barseghyan Serob, a leader of the protest group. Unlike the group of protesters earlier in the day, he gave his real name “because I have nothing to hide.”
Since most roads were still closed, we took a deserted, bumpy backroad along Lake Sevan to Dilijan and pulled into town after 5 PM. By 7:30, we got the news that the Republican party was going to allow a prime minister vote after all. The expectation now is that Pashinyan will be voted in as prime minister on May 8, a hope that felt completely out of reach a couple of weeks ago when he was briefly imprisoned.
Sometimes cookbook writing can take you in many unexpected directions.