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Taking Time Out from War for Shopping

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Skirmishes continue between the warring former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia. Their common border remains closed and soldiers frequently fire at each other from trenches on both sides. But Lawrence Sheets reports that, despite hostilities, citizens of both countries continue to meet and trade at a Georgian flea market on the border.


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

For almost 15 years, the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia have been at war. Thirty thousand people have died and a million more are refugees. But even though at war, some unofficial trade between the two countries thrives. NPR's Lawrence Sheets reports from the Georgian border village of Sodoklo(ph).


Not far from here begins a front line that extends for hundreds of miles. Azerbaijani and Armenian soldiers exchange gunfire over trenches on a regular basis, despite a formal truce.

(Soundbite of people speaking in foreign language)

SHEETS: But here, things are different. This jam-packed muddy bazaar is just inside Georgia at a wedge of land near where Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia meet. Officially, the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia is closed. It's not even possible to make a telephone call between the two countries. But at this chaotic market of makeshift wooden stalls, the countries are still connected. Most of the buyers here are from Armenia. The sellers are usually ethnic Azerbaijanis, like Elchean Mogamettiv(ph). He sells tools, like pliers and screwdrivers, to Armenians here.

(Soundbite of voices)

Mr. ELCHEAN MOGAMETTIV (Seller): (Through Translator) Some people don't like trading with someone they are at war with. But what can you do? You have to put bread on the table.

SHEETS: Mogamettiv says relations between the ethnic Azerbaijanis and Armenians here are fine, despite the hostility between the two countries. He shakes hands with one of his longtime customers, Armenian Arshallis Merchanyan(ph). Merchanyan buys goods wholesale here every week. He then takes them back to Armenia's capital, Yerevan, where he deals them to retailers.

Mr. ARSHALLIS MERCHANYAN (Buyer): (Through Translator) People bring all sorts of stuff--clothing, tea, everything you can possibly imagine. Everything is cheaper here than in Armenia.

SHEETS: Here in this Georgian border village, you can find Armenian brandy generally unavailable in Azerbaijan, or Azerbaijani tea, still coveted in Armenia. Middlemen here can also arrange deliveries of small amounts of smuggled Azerbaijani gasoline. Ethnic Georgian Amar Sakharalidze(ph) is one of the directors of the outdoor market. Sakharalidze says the Azerbaijanis tried to crack down, but they gave up.

Mr. AMAR SAKHARALIDZE (Outdoor Market Director): (Through Translator) The Azerbaijanis were angry about the trade of oil and stuff like that, but they got over it. Politics are politics, but what does that have to do with ordinary people?

SHEETS: Thomas Goltz, an American expert who's written extensively about the Caucasus region, says deep poverty in rural Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia has forced potential foes into business.

Mr. THOMAS GOLTZ (Writer): There is enmity on a macro-political level, but at the same time, the human need and the urge to trade and just curiosity create some very interesting situations, and this just happens to be one of them.

(Soundbite of activity at bazaar)

SHEETS: The sellers and buyers here communicate in a mixture of languages: Russian, Georgian, Azerbaijani and Armenian. One trade stall does a booming business selling Turkish pop music to Armenian clients.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Singer: (Singing in foreign language)

SHEETS: Anoush Anyan(ph), a 43-year-old woman from Armenia, has been coming to this market and trading with ethnic Azerbaijanis for 12 years. Today she's buying cheap plastic flowers brought in from Azerbaijan. She'll resell them in Armenia.

Ms. ANOUSH ANYAN (Armenia): (Foreign language spoken)

SHEETS: Anyan says she has lots of Azerbaijani friends here to do business with, even though her son now serves in the Armenian army, which Azerbaijan is fighting. She said that because of unofficial trade like this, there's now less mistrust of Azerbaijanis in her native village, regardless of what the politicians think. Lawrence Sheets, NPR News, in the Georgian village of Sodoklo, near the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

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