86. Veradardz Avetyats Yerkir (Return to the Promised Land)
Written by Avet Terteryan
From the film Veradardz Avetyats Yerkir (Return to the Promised Land)
Directed by Harutyun Khachatryan (Armenia, 1991)



About Avet Terteryan


Avet Terteryan was born into a family enthusiastic about music. In 1948 Avet Terteryan enrolled at the Music Academy in Baku. In 1951 he continued his studies at the Romanos Melikyan Music Academy. From 1952 he studied composition with Eduard Mirsoyan at the State Komitas Conservatory in Yerevan.

Alongside his activity as a free-lance composer, he occupied a number of official offices. From 1960 to 1963 he was Executive Secretary of the Armenian Composers’ Union. Between 1970 and 1974 Terteryan served as Chairman of the Music Department at the Armenian Cultural Ministry. In 1985 he accepted a professorship at the Yerevan Conservatory. In 1994 he received a stipend of the Province of Brandenburg and worked in Wiepersdorf for six months.

His compositions, most of which were composed in the isolation of Sevan Lake, are noted for their very personal mixture of modern Western compositional currents (e.g. dodecaphony and aleatory techniques) and Armenian folk traditions, especially emphasising instrumentation and tone colours in a unique and inimitable way. Terteryan became known in the West primarily for his Kleist opera ‘The Earthquake’ and for his extensive symphonic production.’

Source: Avet Terteryan 29.06.1929 – 11.12.1994, by Sikorski Music Publishers


About Harutyun Khachatryan


Harutyun Khachatryan was born in Georgia in 1955 where he completed his film studies. He worked as director and directing assistant and is now head of the documentary department of the Hayfilm/Armenfilm Studios. Previous films include Voices from our Neighbourhood (1981, short), Chronicles of an Event (1985, short), A Visit With the Commander (1986), Three Rounds in Yengibarian’s Life (1986, short), Kond (1987, short), White Town (1989, short), The Wind of Emptiness (1990), Return to the Promised Land (1992), Verchin Gayan / The Last Station (1994), Documentarist (2003), Poeti Veradrdze/Return of the Poet (2005).

Shohreh – You have made about 10 documentary and fiction films. Which type of filmmaking do you prefer most?

Harutyun – I prefer pure cinema language no matter it is documentary or fiction. I don’t like dialogue-based films, and I let the picture tell the story itself.’

Source: Harutyun Khachatryan, One of the foremost filmmakers Armenia, by Shohreh Jandaghian


About Veradardz Avetyats Yerkir (Return to the Promised Land)

Voted ‘Best Film of the 90s’ in Armenia, Return to the Promised Land (1991) is an intense portrayal of the newly independent country, devastated by earthquake, engaged in a bloody war and flooded with refugees.’

Source: 2007 Prince Claus Award – Harutyun Khachatryan, Armenia


For many ages the Armenian nation, having no statehood, has concentrated all its values in the family and made it the centre of the national spirit. The main characters of the film arrived in northern Armenia and not from paradise. They are refugees who escaped from violence. Both of them are young. The woman is pregnant. They create a world around themselves, and thus create themselves.’

Source: Veradardz Avetyats Yerkir (Return to the Promised Land)


From the film, a series of intertitles…


In keeping with Harutyun Khachatryan’s commitment to pure cinema language, Veradardz Avetyats Yerkir (Return to the Promised Land) tells its story with neither dialogue nor commentary, but with images – and a little bit of text, a series of intertitles that preface and punctuate the film’s brief opening sequence of archival news clips.

We’ve traced the historical events compressed in these intertitles, via international news and NGO reports. There is also a time code on one of the archive clips which has the date, February 1988. Many of the events of the film’s intertitles take place during this period. Here is what we found:


Intertitle: ‘Yeveran, 27 February 1988’


20 February 1988


An estimated 120,000 Armenians rallied today to protest the loss of part of their homeland, the second such gathering in recent days and one of the biggest unofficial demonstrations ever reported in the Soviet Union.

Moscow dissidents Alexander Ogorodnikov and Tamara Grigoryants said the streets around the Opera House in Yerevan, capital of Soviet Armenia, were mobbed with people demanding reattachment of a small mountainous region to the Armenian republic.

Grigoryants said the region in the Caucasus Mountains, named Nagorno-Karabakhskaya, was deeded to the neighbouring Soviet republic of Azerbaijan in the 1920s, even though the majority of its inhabitants are Armenians.

A woman who said she lives on the outskirts of Yerevan, about 1,100 miles south of Moscow, said by telephone that demonstrations also occurred in Nagorno-Karabakhskaya itself during the week-end.

In a highly unusual step, the government acknowledged the earlier protest today by noting that a ‘breaching of public order’ occurred and that the demonstrators ‘contradict the interests of the working people.’

Grigoryants said that earlier this month, the local government council asked that the disputed region become part of Armenia. The request was rejected by the Communist Party Central Committee, she said.

[...] Grigoryants and Ogorodnikov said in separate telephone interviews that protest demonstrations in Yerevan’s centre had lasted from late Monday night through today.

Ogorodnikov, a former political prisoner, said 70,000 people marched through the streets late Monday to demand that Nagorno-Karabakhskaya become part of Armenia.

[...] Both dissidents said the police behaved with restraint.

Since the 1915 Turkish invasion of Armenia in which at least 1.5 million Armenians are said to have been killed, there have been more Armenians living abroad and in other parts of the Soviet Union than in their historic homeland south of the Caucasus.

Yerevan is home to about one-third of Armenia’s 3.3 million people, 90% of whom are ethnic Armenians.

Source: Los Angeles Times, 23 February 1988


26 February 1988


News account of events in Yerevan at the height of demonstrations.

Despite Kremlin efforts to halt them, massive demonstrations continued Thursday in Soviet Armenia over a disputed region in the neighbouring republic of Azerbaijan. According to some reports, as many as one million people have taken to the streets in an unprecedented show of defiance.

Moscow sent three members of the Politburo to Armenia, the smallest of the Soviet republics, along with a Communist Party secretary in an effort to stop the demonstrations.

The Associated Press quoted sources in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, as saying that troops had been alerted and tanks moved to the outskirts of the city. Foreign correspondents were prohibited from travelling to Armenia. [...] Reports from Yerevan indicate that the number of demonstrators is far greater than earlier in the week.’

Source: Los Angeles Times. 26 February 1988


27 February 1988


Armenian activists, responding to a second appeal for calm from Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, called for a month-long suspension of street protests in the Armenian capital of Yerevan today, according to Armenian dissident sources.

Gorbachev, who held a meeting in Moscow yesterday with two leaders of the protests, urged them to calm the demonstrators and promised to do what he could to respond to their concerns, according to one of the sources who maintains close contacts with the key organisers of the protests.

[...] The original protests in Nagorno-Karabakh had resulted in some casualties, Vladimir Dolghikh, a non-voting member of the ruling Politburo, indicated in an article in the Wednesday issue of the Armenian Communist Party daily, Komunist. ‘The affair in Nagorno-Karabagh has gone as far as clashes between groups of Armenians and Azerbaijanis, and there have been victims,’ Dolghikh was quoted by the newspaper as saying. Dolghikh’s comments, published in the magazine’s issue that reached Moscow by mail today, were the first official report of deaths involved in the dispute.

Source: Washington Post. 28 February  1988


Intertitle: ‘Nagorny Karabakh’

February 13 1988


The first demonstration took place in Stepanakert, the centre of the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast [region] (NKAO), demanding the re-unification of Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast with the Armenian SSR.’

Source: ‘Chronology of Key Events February 1988 – June 2003’. Published by the Office of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic, Washington DC


Question: Where is Nagorno Karabakh?

Answer: Nagorno Karabakh is a fertile, mountainous area of 4,400 square kilometres in the southern Caucasus situated inside what is internationally recognized as Azerbaijan. The name itself, a Russian-Turkish-Persian compound, is proof of the region’s complex history and means ‘Mountainous Black Garden.’ The Karabakh Armenians call the region Artsakh or ‘Strong Forest.’

Q: Who lives there?

Answer: In 1989 the population was 192,000 of whom three quarters were Armenians and the rest Azerbaijanis. In 1921, when the region was allocated to Azerbaijan, the Armenian population was 94%. The numbers have been depleted by the war. Both sides passionately dispute the history of the region, but it is clear that for hundreds of years it has been ethnically mixed. The Armenians have left more physical evidence behind them in the form of dozens of medieval churches, but the Azeris also built two mosques in the town of Shusha, where famous musicians and poets lived.’

Source: ‘Q & A: Why does Nagorno Karabakh matter?’, By Tom de Waal, BBC News, 31 March 1998


‘The conflict over Nagorny Karabakh is one of several minority-majority conflicts contesting sovereignty between former federal units of the Soviet Union. Known in the Soviet Union as the Nagorny Karabakh Autonomous Region, Nagorny Karabakh was populated by a local Armenian majority within Soviet Azerbaijan. With the onset of political liberalization in the late 1980s, the Armenians of Nagorny Karabakh began to campaign for separation from Azerbaijan and union with Armenia. The conflict escalated into a full-scale war in 1991 […]’

Source: Amnesty International Press Release AI Index: EUR 55/012/2007 28 June 2007. Posted on Human Rights Education Associates, 28 June 2007


Ethnic Armenians in Azerbaijan and ethnic Azeris in Armenia were both subject to discrimination and intimidation during the conflict [of]1988-1992, often accompanied by violence intended to force them out of the country.

Source: ‘International protection considerations regarding Armenian Asylum-seekers and Refugees’, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Geneva September 2003 unhcr.no/SE/Protect_refugees/pdf/ARMENIA.PDF


Intertitle: ‘Sumgait February 28 1988’

February 27-29 1988


Azerbaijani mobs organize premeditated anti-Armenian pogroms in Sumgait, Azerbaijan, an industrial city on the shores of the Caspian Sea. Hundreds are killed. Nearly all of the remaining Armenian inhabitants hastily flee.


February 1988


On 20 February 1988, the Oblast Soviet of the NKAO weighed up the results of an unofficial referendum on the reattachment of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, held in the form of a petition signed by 80,000 people. In 1979, the entire population of the NKAO was 162,000, with 123,000 Armenians and 37,000 Azeris. On the basis of that referendum, the session of the Oblast Soviet of Nagorno-Karabakh adopted the appeals to the Supreme Soviets of the USSR, Azerbaijan and Armenia, asking them to authorize the secession of Karabakh from Azerbaijan and its attachment to Armenia. Baku rejected the NKAO Oblast Soviet’s decision.

The line taken by the Centre seemed to be to wait and see, giving the Azerbaijani authorities the opportunity to resolve the crisis as they saw fit.

After the first direct clash between an Azeri crowd and Armenian residents, near Askeran, in which about 50 Armenians were wounded and two Azeri attackers killed, Deputy USSR Procurator-General A. Katusev, speaking on central TV on 27 February, told the audience about the killing of two young Azeris, specifically naming the nationality of those killed. This announcement may have acted as a catalyst. Within hours, a pogrom against Armenian residents began in the city of Sumgait, 25 km from Baku.

The pogrom, obviously prepared months in advance and marked by forms of extreme cruelty, lasted for three days, with the Azeri police nowhere to be seen. Phone calls to the police or the ambulance service went unanswered. Leading AzCP functionaries took part in the meetings which preceded mob violence, and a local Party boss even led the crowds. Moreover, in 1988 the KGB machine with its network of informers was still functioning, from which it may be presumed that Baku, if not the KGB in Moscow, had known about the preparations for the pogrom. Soviet (Russian) troops, including those in Sumgait itself, apparently had strict orders not to shoot.

It was not until the third day of the killings that Soviet troops finally intervened, arresting some small fry, mostly youngsters. On orders from Moscow, the Sumgait affair was judicially covered up and the press largely silenced.

The failure of Soviet leaders to use force to protect civilians was to have important repercussions in subsequent ethnic conflicts in the Caucasus and Central Asia: by making it appear that violence paid, it unleashed a cycle of violence. It was clear that there would be no punishment for ejecting a national minority under the threat of terror. For the Armenians, Sumgait conjured up memories of the genocide by Young Turks in 1915, ever present in the Armenian psyche. Gorbachev’s failure to act, though apparently intended to prevent a wider outbreak of violence in Azerbaijan, was viewed as a betrayal by the Armenians, for it was he who had inspired the hope that democracy would prevail on the national question as well.’

Source: Sumgait. 27-29 February 1988 http://www.armenians.com/genocide/Sumgait/index.html


Intertitle: ‘Armenia 1988 – 1990 Three hundred thousand refugees six hundred thousand homeless’

A key feature of the conflict was forced population movement. It is estimated that over 400,000 Armenians became either refugees from Azerbaijan to Armenia or were internally displaced in border regions. Over 200,000 Azeris became refugees from Armenia to Azerbaijan, while there are over 600,000 internally displaced persons in Azerbaijan today.

Source: Amnesty International Press Release AI Index: EUR 55/012/2007
28 June 2007. Posted on Human Rights Education Associates 28 June 2007


The US Department of State states that some 185,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis living in Armenia in 1988 fled to Azerbaijan, while out of 400,000 ethnic Armenians living in Azerbaijan, some 330,000 sought refuge in Armenia, and a significant number fled to Russia. A small number remain in Azerbaijan.’

Source: ‘International protection considerations regarding Armenian Asylum-seekers and Refugees’, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Geneva September 2003 unhcr.no/SE/Protect_refugees/pdf/ARMENIA.PDF


Intertitle: ‘Leninakan December 7 1988’


Credit: U.S. Geological Survey (C.J. Langer)

On December 7, 1988, at 11:41 a.m. local time a magnitude 6.9 earthquake shook northwestern Armenia and was followed four minutes later by a magnitude 5.8 aftershock. Swarms of aftershocks, some as large as magnitude 5.0, continued for months in the area around Spitak. The earthquakes hit an area 80 km in diameter comprising the towns of Leninakan, Spitak, Stepanavan, and Kirovakan in the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic.

The region is part of a broad seismic zone stretching from Turkey to the Arabian Sea near India. Here, the Arabian land mass is slowly colliding with the Eurasian plate and thrusting up the Caucasus Mountains in the north. The earthquake occurred along a fairly small thrust fault running northwest-southeast, apparently right under Spitak. During the earthquake, the Spitak section to the northeast of the fault rode up over the southwest side.

Geologists have located a 1.6 meter-high, 8-km long scarp just southeast of Spitak where fault movement broke the surface.

The earthquake epicentre was located in the Lesser Caucasus highlands, 80 km south of the main range of the Caucasus Mountains. Historically, this area has experienced damaging earthquakes. In 1899 and 1940 damaging earthquakes occurred within 100 km of the 1988 epicentre. These events had magnitudes of 5.3 and 6.0 respectively. In 1920 a 6.2 magnitude earthquake that killed forty people occurred north of Spitak. In 1926 an earthquake of about magnitude 5.6 occurred 20 km southwest of Leninakan and reportedly caused more than 300 deaths and extensive damage.

Despite its moderate size, the deaths and damage that the December 1988 earthquake caused made it the largest earthquake disaster since the 1976 magnitude 7.8 earthquake in Tangshan, China that killed more than 240,000 people. The Town of Spitak (population 25,000) was nearly levelled and more than half of the structures in the City of Leninakan (population 250,000) were damaged or destroyed. Damage also occurred in Stepanavan and Kirovakan and other smaller cities. Direct economic losses were put at $14.2 billion (U.S.) at the United Nations official exchange rate.

Twenty-five thousand were killed and 15,000 were injured by the earthquake. In addition 517,000 people were made homeless. However, 15,000 people were rescued. Most of these rescues were made within the first few hours following the disaster.’

Source: ‘The Great Quake – A National Tragedy’http://www2.armenians.com/gyumri/history.html


Intertitle: ‘Armenian refugees settled in the empty villages’


And here, after this intertitle, is where the story of Return to the Promised Land begins.

We were wondering whether the Promised Land in question, the ‘newly independent country’ was Artsakh/Nagorno Karabakh – it declared its independence from Soviet Azerbaijan in 1991.

On the subject of the film’s theme of families and the rebuilding of communities, we thought you might be interested in a report written in 2010, almost twenty years after the film was made. Refugee Draft Exemption Controversy – Armenian refugees’ children struggle to assert their right not to serve in the army, by Sara Khojoyan, gives an account of what happened to the children of these real counterparts of the film’s refugees in independent Nagorno/ Nagorny Karabakh. Here’s an extract:

Exactly 20 years have passed since Soviet troops moved into Azerbaijan to halt bloody attacks on ethnic Armenians, yet the children of those Armenians displaced by the violence still have problems enforcing their one right – to avoid serving in the army.

In the late 1980s, Armenia demanded that Nagorny Karabakh – mainly populated by Armenians, but part of Soviet Azerbaijan – be joined to Armenia. That angered Azeris and caused the pogroms, leading more than 300,000 Armenians to flee Azerbaijan at the end of the communist period. Karabakh is now run by Armenians, who have unilaterally proclaimed independence, but is claimed by Baku. The issue has poisoned ties between Azerbaijan and Armenia and stopped refugees from both sides going home.

Until February 2009, when Armenia adopted new refugee legislation, children could receive refugee status providing one of their refugee parents applied for it before the child turned 14. That meant the children did not have to serve in the army.

Although the new law removed that right, the country still has a group of young men registered previously who are entitled to the exemption from military service but who say they are having trouble exercising the right.

Many refugees, often those in rural areas, did not even know they had the right to be exempted and were called up like any normal young Armenian man.

Martin Babajanyan, 19, has served in the army for more than a year and a half. He lives with his refugee mother in the village of Kasakh near Yerevan. But even living close to the capital, he did not know he could avoid military service. ‘I did not know I had the right to receive a refugee’s card and not serve in the army, which is why I am now serving in the Hadrout region of Nagorny Karabakh. In the recruiting office they told me I am a resident of Yerevan and cannot refuse to serve,’ he said. ‘In a sense I feel betrayed, because I had that right. It is terrible that they do not inform us of our rights. I am glad, however, to serve my homeland.’

By law, refugees in Armenia can vote only in local elections – not in those for parliament of the president – and they cannot own land. The only advantage they do get, therefore, is their sons’ right to avoid military service, since humanitarian aid was stopped years ago.’

Source: Refugee Draft Exemption Controversy – Armenian refugees’ children struggle to assert their right not to serve in the army. By Sara Khojoyan. Published by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Armenia, CRS No. 528, 21 January 2010


In 2010 Nagorno Karabakh exists as a republic. It is unrecognised by any state, including Armenia.



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