Armenia: Twelve Years After Independence
Armenia: Twelve Years After Independence


by Vahan Ishkhanyan, Special from

It has been said that there are two Armenias —Yerevan, and then everything else.

Never is the sentiment more realized than when going outside the capital to regions where settlements from a forgotten era are sustained as they have been for centuries, far from the influence and even farther from the image of Yerevan.

Life there is as rugged as the landscape into which it is carved and endured by a people just as tough as their circumstances, for whom surviving is thriving.

This is a look at one of those many villages.

Eighty-three year old Nvard is the same age as her village, Irind. The year she was born, 1920, eight families fled the village of Semal in the Sasun region of Western Armenia (Ottoman Turkey), to found the only home she has ever known.

Irind was inhabited by Turks. But when the Turks chased the Armenians from their homes in 1918, former residents of Mush and Sasun rallied to retaliate, by taking Irind. For two years, those forced from Western Armenia lived as vagabonds, hopeful of returning to their homes. But when hope faded, they settled to start new lives.

"It was hard, very hard," says Irind resident Andranik Karapetyan. "People who lost everything became filled with revenge and were destroying all Turkish villages they met on their way."

They made Irind their home. And although it is only 65 kilometers from Yerevan, the cultural difference is practically worlds apart.

Nvard's husband was the last of the original residents born in Sasun. He died in 1991, leaving Nvard as the final connection to Irind's roots.

Nvard has never cut her hair. It was tradition, she says, that scissors should never touch an Armenian woman's head. Only she maintains the tradition.

Her hair has thinned with age, but her grandchildren recall her sitting in the yard at dawn braiding her hair as it reached the ground and glistened in the sunlight.

"My hair is from my mother's womb," Nvard says. "I like combing my hair, but others don't. And these days, you can't tell who is a boy and who is a girl."

Andranik's older sister had been born in Sasun and was among the first residents of Irind, in the mountainous region of Talin, where Andranik was born in 1926.

"When they came to this village they still hoped that they would return to Sasun," says Razmik Kotanyan, whose father and uncles, survivals of the Kotoy family, were among founders of the village. "If they had known that they would never return to their land they would have settled in the Ararat Valley and not among these rocks."

There is a partially-destroyed seventh-century church in the village, however, emigrants from Semal came to Irind attracted by the water and not by the church.

"Following the stream my uncle climbed mountains and when he had realized that the water was flowing from springs he decided to settle there," Razmik says. "Then he brought a literate man from a neighboring village and told him to write 'This Village is Reserved' on a signboard and hung it on a wall so that no one else could try to come there."

The original settlers were later joined by artisans from 27 villages of Sasun.

Writer Mushegh Glashoyan described Irind as "brought by the stream" as when you look at the village from the surrounding hills it seems that water drove those houses like stones from Aragats Mountain to the slope.

Today there are 820 villagers in Irind. It is about the same population as in Soviet times. The number doesn't fluctuate, as those who have left have been replaced by children of others. Four of Nvard's seven children live in the village. She lives with the youngest child Mko, who has three children.

Young families cannot afford to build houses to live separately from their parents and brothers. There are 282 families in Irind, but only 170 houses. Mko's brother was the last who tried to build a house. He didn't manage to finish, and left to look for work in the town of Hoktemberyan.

Residents Martiros and Larisa have 14 children, the largest family in the region. The youngest is a first-grader.

"It was hard when the children were little," Larisa says. "Now they have grown up. Of course, they want more things now but they also help me."

The family gets a 15,000 drams (about $25) monthly government allowance for the children. The husband teaches natural science part-time at the village school, where he earns 1,500 drams (about $2.50) a month. (Full-time teachers earn about 15,000 drams a month).

The family has 10 cows and 12 sheep.

"We work the land and breed livestock. We live by our sweat but this is not a good life," Larisa says.

Three of their children study in Yerevan. What they will do in the village after graduating is not clear. "If you've got education you are rusting here and you can do nothing," the mother says.

Martiros wants to move the family to Lachin, the corridor linking Armenia with Karabakh, where the government of Karabakh is offering subsidies for families who'll re-settle territory taken from Azerbaijan.

Larisa isn't eager. "If we are going again to live a hard life then it's better to do that in our village," she says.

Like in all communities of Armenia, Irind's budget is created from a property tax and land tax—a total of about one million drams (about $1,725). This year the government will have provided the village with a grant of 1.6 million drams, allocated for mountainous villages. That sum will be spent for reconstruction of the roads and repair of pipelines for drinking water. Needy people will be allowed to pay 10 percent less of the tax. Salaries from the budget are mainly paid to six workers of the office of the head of the village including head of the House of Culture and a nurse, who gives vaccinations and renders first aid. For more serious medical services, including giving birth, villagers go to the town of Talin, about 10 kilometers away.

The secondary school of Irind has 170 students. In 1979, the school grew from a seven-year to a 10-year program when a new building was constructed.

Teacher Roza Safaryan recalls how pupils used to take off their shoes and put on slippers before entering the new building. "See what happened with the parquet," she says pointing at the worn-out and semi-dilapidated floor. "Those days there was no school like ours with new laboratories and furniture. And see what happened now. It turned into a typical village school. We haven't even got a map of Armenia."

Last year Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, who has family ties with Irind, gave three used computers to the school. It got another from a state lottery. None of the computers, however, is in use. Teachers don't know how to operate them.

Some of the students say they have heard about Internet. One described it as a computer connection with the entire world, but none knows how it works.

There aren't teachers for all subjects at the Irind school. Geography, for example, is not covered. But dreaming of distant lands is still part of the students' curriculum. Some say they dream of France, others of Argentina.

After a strict hint from a teacher that children want to visit foreign countries but not move there, the pupils correct any misimpression:

"We just want to go there, and take a look and come back again," they say. "There is no better place in the world than Armenia."

Television is Irind's connection with the world. The village receives four channels. No newspapers are brought to the village. The only exception during the last few years was one issue of "Yerkir" weekly which the Armenian Revolutionary Federation party distributed among villagers free of charge during parliamentary elections.

Last May, her son asked Nvard if she planned to vote. She said no. Why?

"Why should I? They are (fornicating) each other there," the old woman said.

To reach Yerevan costs 500 drams (about 90 cents) by minibus, and is an exotic visit to paradise for village children who are wide-eyed to see cafes and cinemas, Western-styled boutiques and streets lined with Mercedes and BMWs and SUVs.

Most in Irind can't afford visits to the city; neither the bus fare nor the inflated city prices.

Not so long ago, things were different.

During Soviet times villagers' main income was a "khopan", when villagers would be taken to Russia for summertime construction and return in the fall with 10,000-15,000 rubles ($2000-3,000), maybe 10 times more than they could earn in Armenia. Some say they earned as much as a million rubles during "khopan".

They'd go, work, and come back with money to last until the next summer. Now those who leave have no intention of returning. Those who have stayed can't afford to leave and have turned to agriculture as their only resource.

Andranik says that 1940 to 1953, when Stalin died, were the hardest years for the village. Those years villagers were forced to give meat, oil and wool to the State.

"Once they came but we had no wool. They took the wool from our mattresses. Besides, they used to charge income taxes," he says. "We were often hungry. However, comparing with neighboring villages, we were in better condition as there is no other village located on higher levels and the whole upper water was ours. In 1951, sixty percent of our water was taken to Talin and we started to face problems with irrigation."

These days, Irind's small reservoir is not enough to irrigate its farms. During Soviet times a plan was afoot to reconstruct the reservoir, making it three meters higher. The plan was never realized and the $120,000 needed for the construction is an impossible dream.

When spring passes and there is no more water from the mountains' melting icecaps, Irind faces shortages. And when those days come, about 20 men from the village climb the mountain to fight with neighboring villages for water.

"The strongest possess the mountain," says head of the village Alexander Kotanyan, Razmik's son. "There are no rules concerning who will use the water from the mountains. Fighting and struggling, people do everything to create streams to their villages. Then they appoint men to guard the streams at night so that nobody can turn them towards their village."

By each June, Irind's head leader says, "the war starts."

Each family of Irind has less than one hectare of land, with pieces spread like patchwork on the mountain slopes. Each inch is cultivated by hand to grow wheat, rye, potatoes and hay for the livestock.

"If we harvest one ton of the crop then we break even," Alexander says. "Years happen when there is a drought and we take less than a ton. But sometimes it's different. Last year, for instance, I took three tons of crops. The year before I couldn't even make 150 kilograms. There are a lot of expenses and the crop I take is little."

Livestock breeding is a primary source of support for the villagers. An average family owns 10 sheep and four cows. Villagers take turns shepherding the livestock to graze in fields located seven kilometers up the mountain. The routine grazing trips take a toll, as the weight of the animals decreases and milk production lessens. But it is too expensive to build barns near the pasture, so this is the Irind farmer's option.

Villagers estimate that, at most, a family can make about $800 a year from tending livestock, including milk and cheese production. Usually, the money is spent by the time it is earned, on expenses incurred to keep the animals healthy during winter.

The men of Irind are deep red from long days under a high sun. The women are pale, as their roles are more limited to housework or inside a milking barn.

For either gender, it is hard work with little but survival as a reward.

Mko's wife, for example, works until midday teaching Armenian language at the school. The second half of the day she is milking cows and sheep.

"We have no money on hand. In autumn you must sell a calf to buy clothes for children and send them to school," says Mko, who is a painter by trade, but hasn't had a professional job for years. "You are laboring from morning till late night and almost no result can be achieved.

"People cannot afford to go to the city. If they could, if they had at least one small room, they would be there for sure. This is not a life."

Originally published in the November 2003 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. Archived content may appear distorted on your screen. end character

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