Village Life in Armenia
Village Life in Armenia


by Vahan Ishkhanyan

Administrative Center: Kapan (population 45,700) Population: 153,000 (33 percent in villages)
Education: 129 schools, including three special schools, attended by 22,907. 27 schools have Internet facilities. Five institutes of higher education include three private universities. Total enrollment in higher education: 1,425 (of whom 426 enrolled in 1994).
Healthcare: 9 hospitals and 18 doctors per 10,000 residents, province-wide.
Industry: Mining, metallurgy, food processing.
Agriculture: 187,792 hectares of which 46,757 are under cultivation.

When Vova entered the village of Moreni, he carried only a suitcase. In it were a dozen spoons and forks. It was 1989 and, with his mother and brother, he had fled Baku, Azerbaijan for Armenia.

In Moreni (also known as Torunik), he used money he'd saved as a welder in Baku to buy a cow and a beehive. The beehive grew to 100 and today he has 20 cows and 100 chickens and turkeys. Each year he sows 15 hectares of wheat and sells the harvest.

Fifteen years after taking refuge far from the big city, Vova bought his first new car last year, a Ural, for which he paid $6,000.

With an annual income of more than $4,000, he is considered "rich" and most of the 150 people in his village owe him money.

In many ways, he is an exception to the rural life of Armenian provinces. In Moreni, the exception is even more extreme.

While Armenians were fleeing Azerbaijan in the late 1980s, Azeris were also fleeing Armenia. Moreni, about five kilometers from the current border, was then part of Nakhijevan. By 1989, it had been abandoned. But families such as Vova's repopulated it like others. (Most of Syunik's 61 villages are near the border of Azerbaijan. Moreni is about one-third the size of the average Syunik village.)

Moreni is on the list of the poorest villages in all of Armenia and is a constant recipient of special programs geared toward reducing poverty.

Vladimir "Vova" Isoyan, 45, has amassed his wealth owing to a tortuous devotion to hard work. Fellow villagers say Vova works 24 hours a day.

In 1994 Vova married Heghine and they are raising Mariam, 10, Alexander, 8, and Stepan, 4.

Vova feels the weight of responsibility and says that if he stops work for even one day the family will suffer loss. Despite having a damaged lung, the only work Vova hires out is cutting hay; the rest is on him.

"It is a torture," he says. "Once I was taken ill and 50 of my bees died. It was good in Baku. I would work for eight hours and then come home. Now I work day and night."

The Aghajanians, another family of refugees, are the contrast of Vova's family. Gegham and Zaruhi Aghajanians are from Verishen village in Azerbaijan's Shahumian region. They have seven children—one son and six daughters.

Zaruhi uses a meat grinder for preparing potatoes; they rarely have meat.

Gegham is one of the village's shepherds who takes turns minding the flocks. He works 10 days a month and gets 1,000 drams a day—a total of about $20 a month. He has a blood clot in his legs which he can't afford to have treated (a cost of about $300), so some days he is too ill to tend the herd. On those days his daughters become shepherds.

The family had two cows, but sold one to cover debts. The remaining cow is the sole source of food, except for a small potato crop in their 2,000 square meter garden—one of the smallest in the village.

"It was good before," Gegham says. "We used to receive aid such as flour and butter. We would work (a food for work program was implemented in the village). They (an international agency) were providing seeds and canned fish. Now it's all over."

With little resource, poor health and the demands of a large family, living conditions in the household have declined.

Other villagers, however, say life is getting better.

"The earth feeds us"

"There was a time we had no electricity for a whole year. It's better now, the energy supply is constant," says 60-year-old Yuri Ananian, also a refugee. Two years ago his family bought a TV, their first since fleeing Baku.

"Better" is a relative term.

Like Vova, Yuri Ananian has the reputation as one of Moreni's hardest workers. He works 15 hectares of land from which he produces only hay. He doesn't have money for wheat seed and, though he used to grow potatoes, now there is no buyer.

For many years villagers supported themselves selling potatoes to the Republic of Armenia Army for supplying its troops in the strategic border areas adjacent to Karabakh and, on the western side, (Azeri held) Nakhijevan.

But since last year, however, Yerevan businessman and National Assembly Deputy Gagik "Gerzo" Tsarukian has held a deal for exclusive supply of potatoes to the army (in Syunik and Gegharkunik).

"Before they would come to my house and buy potatoes for 60 drams a kilo, now I can't sell them even at 50 (about 10 cents)," says Ananian, who has land capable of producing four tons.

Ananian has two sons. One is married and has a child. At first he moved his family to the city of Sisian, about 18 kilometers north of Moreni, but came back to the village to help support the family.

"I haven't regretted that I have come to the village," their son says. "The earth feeds us. But I hoped for prosperity, and failed."

Like most villagers, the Ananians do not go hungry, but neither are they able to improve their conditions.

Daughter-in-law, Karine, and Yuri's wife are teachers and together earn about $120 a month, a stable income for village life.

Karine had to be operated on twice while giving birth (their first child died during delivery) and the medical bill was $400. To cover it, they sold their only cow and $200 worth of hay. The Ananians owe land tax of about $850, but haven't made a payment in years.

From two apartments, to no bath

In Baku, Yuri was also a teacher, living well enough to have two apartments which he was forced to leave behind.

Six years ago the Ananians were granted three sheep from the French agency Action Le Faim. The flock is now 30 and Yuri usually sells several sheep a year.

But Levon Mkrtchian, a representative of the agency, says the sheep program proved ineffective, as many people had to sell their sheep during hard times, before they could multiply.

In 2003, the agency launched another program divided into two groups. One group got sheep (a total of 70 given to 12 families), the other got beehives. In the two years since, the number of sheep has remained nearly the same and the number of beehives increased by only five (from 48 to 53).

Hambartsum Poghosian, a school teacher from Yerevan (who works in border villages in exchange for military service) has written a thesis on poverty in border villages. Aid, he says, causes villagers to be lazy.

Programs come and go, but, with few exceptions, conditions don't change.

Transportation and irrigation are the major stumbling blocks.

The most part of the 18-kilometer road from Moreni to the nearest town, Sisian, is barely passable.

About 90 percent of Moreni's households have no water; people bring it from a spring in the center of the village.

"For 15 years, I haven't taken a bath with both hands," says Yuri Ananian. "We have a bath once in two-to-three weeks. And in winter we don't take a bath for two months or so."

Conditions in the village should have improved; money from the government and international aid was made available for construction of water pipes.

But: Soon after being elected village head in 2001, Armen Harutiunian, previously as poor as his fellow villagers, bought a car and showed other signs of "conspicuous consumption".

Harutiunian's misappropriation of money was revealed. He avoided jail by paying bribes to the court from money made on selling his property and his herd of 20 cows to "come out scot free," he says.

But the money never made its way back into the village. There has been no telephone connection for six years. The former village head owed 600,000 drams ($1,200) for Moreni's telephone service and left the village without paying it off.

The French agency says it will assist the village in the problems with water and communication.

But for Yuri Ananian there are two more problems.

The first is to get a loan. If he could get a loan for wheat seed, he says he could return it a year later.

The banks ask for a car or gold as collateral. "From where," Yuri asks.

The second problem is the market where he would sell his products. They exchange the food with the traders from Sisian. Mainly potato is offered in exchange for clothes and shoes, as well as for vegetables that do not grow in these areas.

"They bring things we don't need. My wife says 'let's exchange', just so that the potatoes don't spoil," Ananian says.

The village has 1,200 hectares of land (192 hectares arable), but 90 percent produce only hay. There are no financial means to sow grain. Machines for cultivation are rented from the neighboring villages.

A small cheese processing unit recently opened in the village is new progress for the villagers. The processor receives 400 liters of milk a day in summer and early fall. Milk is received also from the neighboring villages. Vova now provides 40 liters of milk a day.

"Formerly I would give milk to the animals," says Vova. "Well, it's all right, though cheap (80 drams, about 19 cents a liter), but, still, it solves problems."

Moreni's school was once in good condition. Now it has become ruined, with the windows covered in polyethylene. Everything was robbed after the Azeris left the village.

Twenty-seven children study at the school. None of them does very well.

"The families don't care about education much," says Hambartsum Poghosian. "I ask the child 'Why don't you study'. He says 'I had no time, I was gathering potatoes.'"

Another reason is that there's no perspective of continuing education after finishing primary school. Studying becomes senseless.

In the history of the village people remember only two young men who left the village to continue their education. One of them is the village head's son.

"No one learns at school, and seeing that my daughter also grows reluctant to study," says Yuri's wife, Heghiné.

Only four of 10 teachers at the school have a higher education.

The credit life

In the village of Artsvanik, on a mountainside 13 kilometers from the Syunik province administrative center of Kapan, residents exist on a pension economy and trust.

It is a lifestyle that finds expression in a village shop where Marieta Gevorgian commonly extends credit in exchange for necessities.

"They buy only food: sugar, flour, vermicelli and rarely butter," the saleswoman says.

As many as 10 customers a day buying on credit have left the shop owed two million drams ($4,000). Much of the credit is extended in spring, when villagers hope the summer fruit season will provide money for paying off their grocery bills. But last year a late spring freeze killed the fruit and the expectations of settling accounts.

About 730 villagers make up 225 households in Artsvanik, a settlement that dates at least to the 7th century, so dated by the village church that was once a center for bishops. Tombs in the village cemetery go back to the 9th century.

Ashot Baghdasarian, head of the village council in the 1960s, and Arevhat, his wife, now buy food only on credit in the shop.

"All we have is the pension, nothing more," says Arevhat.

Together they get 21,000 drams (about $42). They grow wheat on their 1.4 hectare plot. It yields about half a ton a year, hardly enough for a year's supply of bread for the couple, whose four children left the village.

In Soviet times Artsvanik was incomparably well-off. There was a small factory that produced clothes and a sandpit in the village. A bus ran three times a day taking villagers to Kapan for work.

Now Artsvanik has to survive through agriculture—a special challenge on the side of a rocky mountain.

Kamo Stepanian is one of the rare people of the village who has an income other than pension. In summer, he cuts the villagers' hay, for which he earns around $300, enough to buy clothes and food for his children.

Whatever the residents of Artsvanik have is what nature gives. And even nature is starting to suffer. Each family cuts about 10-15 cubic meters of trees annually for firewood and the forest is shrinking as a result.

The Stepanians have three cows and four calves. They produce enough cheese and butter for their own use. They'd like to raise more cattle, but the cowshed is too small and there isn't enough hay for more animals.

Kamo and his brother Karo together have three hectares of land. They can't even dream about more land as there is none. Moreover, "khvost" devours their lands. "Khvost" (Russian for "tail") is the runoff repository of a copper mill from Kapan. The factory has bought land from the villagers for that purpose. The villagers don't object.

A third brother has gone to Russia for work. Last year he sent money home to help buy a tombstone for their father.

The land is arid. Irrigation is of paramount importance, but practically unthinkable at a cost of around $200,000. In 2000 an international agency built a water channel that provides drinking water for half the village. The other half uses a common spring. Another program envisages having water for all the village, but only after several years.

Nevertheless, the village has its "rich" men. Seven families that breed cattle in the "torks" (the name given to areas formerly belonging to the Azeris) have 50 cattle each.

Harutiun Harutiunian, 37, is one of them. He's been breeding cattle in the "torks" for 10 years—since the ceasefire.

Harutiunian has rented 50 hectares of arable land that he sows and mows with his personal tractor. His annual income amounts to $10,000.

"If they (the army) don't return the lands I will solve the problem of my children's education," he says.

The school in Artsvanik was established in 1872. Since 1993, its enrollment has dropped from 131 to 94.

During Soviet times, most of its graduates would continue their education, many entering universities in Yerevan. Last year the school graduated 11 students. Only five went on to university in Goris or Kapan. None went to Yerevan.

Last year the school won a competition offered by World Vision and received six computers. Now, students who likely will not go 13 kilometers to continue their education, have Internet access to a world inconceivably different than their own.

Originally published in the April 2005 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. Archived content may appear distorted on your screen. end character

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