Agence France Presse April 25, 2009 Saturday 2:44 AM GMT

Crossing the torrent of bitterness on the Turkey-Armenia border

Nicolas Cheviron
HALIKISLAK, Turkey, April 25 2009


There is more than the River Araxe separating the villages of
Halikislak in Turkey and Bagaran in Armenia -- a sealed border and a
torrent of animosity divides their countries.

The 300 people in Halikislak and 700 in Bagaran are never allowed to
meet. But hopes of an end to the isolation have been raised on both
sides by an accord announced this week by the governments of Armenia
and Turkey to move to end their century of hostility.

Memories of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Armenians under the
Ottoman Empire run deep between the countries even though the villages
either side of the river have much in common.

On both sides, the peasants cultivate tomatoes, cucumbers, aubergines
and water melons. Their apricot and peach trees bloom at the same
time. In Halikislak there is a mosque minaret looking over the
river. The tall chimney of a Soviet-era communal house in Bagaran
casts its own shadow.

Border guards block any communication but there is no evident
hostility between the villages.

Once a month, leaders from Halikislak and Bagaran take a
manually-operated chair lift running over the river for talks.

"We discuss issues about water sharing and the maintenance of border
stones and then we eat and drink," said Kiyas Karadag, 56, the village
elder of Halikislak.

"They offer us vodka and we give them cigarettes and sugar. They are
very poor," he added.

On the opposite bank, Aslan Sahakian, an irrigation technician, said
their common problems dominate the monthly chat.

"We talk mostly about work, about how expensive life is and how badly
we are paid. We talk about the kids," he told an AFP reporter.

History rears its ugly head when villagers are asked about government
efforts to establish diplomatic relations, re-open the border and
settle a bitter dispute on whether the mass killings of Armenians by
Ottoman Turks during World War I was "genocide".

-- We have no problem with the new generation of Turks --

The two governments are acting to heal the wounds.

Turkey and Armenia announced this week that they have agreed a
"roadmap" to normalising ties at reconciliation talks which Turkey
said have produced "concrete progress and mutual understanding".

Impetus has been building since President Abdullah Gul became the
first modern Turkish leader to visit Yerevan in September.

In the villages, neither side blames the other for the hostility.

"We don't have a problem with the new generation of Turks. It was
Talat Pasha who did wrong," said Slavik Piloyan, 55, referring to the
Ottoman general who was in charge of the 1915-1917 deportations of
Armenians.

Armenians say 1.5 million people were killed during the turmoil. The
Turks say the deportations were ordered after Armenian militants
started fighting for independence in eastern Anatolia and backed
Russian troops invading the crumbling empire.

For the people of Bagaran, looking across the frontier means getting a
glimpse of their own roots.

"This is not the real Bagaran. The real one is four kilometers (2.5
miles) away, in Turkish territory," said Sahakian.

"In 1915, the people fled the genocide and resettled here. Except for
some women who came by marriage, all the inhabitants came from there,"
he explained. "I want to go there to see the old Bagaran. I even know
where my grandfather's house is."

In Halikislak, different passions are stirred by the prospect of
re-opening the border shut by Turkey in 1993.

Turkey acted then in a show of solidarity with Azerbaijan over the
conflict in Nagorny-Karabakh, an Armenian-majority enclave inside
Azerbaijan that Armenia occupied two years earlier.

The hamlet's inhabitants are all Azeri Turks, who moved to Turkey over
the years, and family ties still link many to the enclave.

"I want very much to go to Nagorny-Karabakh because my family lived
there. My grandfather came from there," said Karadag, the Halikislak
elderman. "Going to Armenia? That does not interest me at all."