Ancient enmities thaw during the night-train ride out of Armenia: The company of Armenian Christians and Muslim Turks enlivened a trip to eastern Turkey for Hugh Pope

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The Independent Online
SNOW LAY all around the station in the Armenian town of Leninakan. A crowd of Armenian travellers, waiting in the freezing waiting room since the night before, pulled their coats around them tightly as they guarded their hillocks of cheap bags and overstuffed bundles.

They were preparing for one of the town's main events of the week, the suitcase-traders' night journey to the eastern Turkish town of Kars. Yervant Atoyan, the well-heeled chief of customs, gave a deep sigh after a night of exhausting duty.

'There are even professors and doctors who do it to survive. Armenia is cut off from all sides,' Mr Atoyan said. 'We have nothing against the Turks. We will soon have football matches between Kars and Leninakan. We never discuss (the Armenian genocide). We must not forget history. But first we must have relations with our neighbour.'

For all the discomfort of the train - a stop-start, 50-mile marathon that can take 24 hours - it was a barometer of how ordinary Muslim Turks and Christian Armenians seemed to welcome a hesitant thaw between their two governments.

Out from Kars, young local Turkish men won the first seats in our carriage. But an Armenian schoolteacher in her forties brushed aside their vigorous defence of the last spare seat. 'Boys, I can see one place free,' she said, in perfect Turkish. 'Didn't they teach you to be polite at school?' The Turkish resistance melted.

Before the train creaked forth into the snow-bound landscape, we were joined by three Armenian women and a vodka-swilling, Turkish-speaking, Armenian black-marketeer who called himself Ali or Levon, depending on whose knees he was sitting on at the time.

There were no inhibitions about talk of genocides here, and a marked lack of animosity. A Turkish man, drawing his finger across his throat, demanded to know why Armenians had massacred so many Turks in the fighting. Armenians threw the accusations back, adding territorial grievances for good measure. 'This Kars is our motherland, our land,' said Mary Demirjiyan, the schoolteacher, many of whose relatives were involved in the 1915-18 massacres and deportations. 'When we arrived I had tears in my eyes.'

Kars was under Russian rule from 1878 to 1918 and has a square street plan and ornate grey stone barracks and buildings to prove it. But of its pre-First World War Armenian population, only one or two are thought to remain.

'These Armenians are incredible, they come here as our guests and then demand our land,' said one of the Turks, as the discussion moved on to the friendlier territory of Turkish chocolate and bread, scarce commodities in blockaded Armenia. 'Everyone needs to make some money. Kars needs something to make it alive, to stop people leaving,' said Bulent Komak, an 18-year-old Turkish Azeri pharmacist from Kars.

The Armenians can sell almost any remnants of Soviet production to the Turks in return for dollars or cheap Turkish jeans, cooking oil and sweets. The Armenian government of President Levon Ter Petrosian is keen to open diplomatic relations with Turkey. Diplomats say formulas have been found to gloss over territorial claims and the First World War massacres - attempted genocide, according to the Armenians.

The last and most formidable barrier remains the conflict over the Armenian enclave of Nagorny Karabakh in Azerbaijan, but diplomats hope the momentum is towards compromise, not more conflict.

One reason is the weakening influence of the viscerally anti- Turkish Armenian diaspora, many of them descendants of western Armenian massacre survivors. Most people in the newly independent Armenian republic are 'eastern Armenians', more ready to come to a compromise with their region.

Beside us on the railway line, trucks carried Turkish wheat to Armenia, paid for by the European Community. Pylons beside the tracks stood ready to transmit Turkish power once the Karabakh fighting dies down.

Armenians used to travel to Turkey in bus tours via Georgia to disguise the fact that they came from Armenia. Now the direct train is preferred, partly because brigands and thieves have made Georgia too dangerous.

Few Turks see much reason yet to go to Leninakan. Apart from Syrian and Iranian Armenians bringing food for their relatives, even fewer foreigners pass this once sensitive Cold War border. On the return journey, only a noble midnight intervention by the foreign ministry in Ankara persuaded Turkish border police to take us back into the country. 'You're the first English people I've ever seen crossing here, you know,' said one harassed official.

A secret-police-like Turkish 'customs agent' asked heavy questions about our trip, concentrating on relations between the Armenia and Kurdish guerrillas fighting for an independent state in eastern Turkey. Mr Ter Petrosian's government has rejected a flirtation between his opponents in Armenia and Kurdish nationalists. But suspicions remain. 'On our visit to Turkey we saw many Kurds, they made sign language that we were together against the Turks,' said an Armenian visitor. 'But we were quite comfortable. We told everyone we were Armenian and never had any problems.'

(Photograph omitted)