by Arpi Harutyunyan
Administrative center: Ijevan (population 20,200)
Education: 82 schools of general education, 14 schools of music and art, 3 institutes of higher education (1 private).
Healthcare: 13 out-patient polyclinics, 3 health centers and 7 hospitals.
Industry: Carpet making, woodworking, mining (limestone, clay, lithographic stone, dolomite).
Agriculture: 93,754 hectares, mostly producing grains.
In Ijevan, the governor of Tavush is asked a question about living conditions in her province.
"I can't say the situation is very bad in our marz (the Armenian word for 'province')," Svetlana Davtian says. "The government pays a lot of attention to us. Besides, our villagers are hardworking folks or, as people say, they squeeze bread from stone.
"The same problems are everywhere."
Maybe Tavush's problems are seen as common in the interior of the province, where Ijevan is situated 35 kilometers west of the border. But most of Tavush's villages are located on the border with Azerbaijan.
There, in places such as Berkaber, folks tell a different story. The causes of their complaints are by no means common—unless the threat of being shot is considered to be so.
Until several years ago, it was called Dzhokhk, a Persian word meaning "hell". Many Berkaberians say the village should have kept its old name.
"Berkaber is like a military base, the shooting from the Azerbaijani border doesn't cease, and people are afraid even to go out of their houses," says Radik Harutiunian, 42, who was born and raised here.
The village school is sometimes closed for days at a time, for fear that one of the 85 schoolchildren will be caught in gunfire exchanges between Armenian and Azeri soldiers.
Official records say there are 560 residents. But those figures (including voting registration) don't reflect the 100 or so who have left the village since independence. Most have gone to Russia, in hopes of finding work. It is the one situation that is indeed common throughout rural Armenia.
"None of our family members has a job," says 45-year-old Rita Harutiunian, Radik's sister. "My son works as a dentist in the neighboring village but his expenses are more than he earns. Our relatives living in Russia support us. If it were not for them, we would hardly be able to keep our four children."
In the absence of work, many villagers throughout Armenia turn to raising cattle as a source of sustenance. Across the republic countryside sheep and cattle graze in open fields.
In places like Berkaber, however, a grazing cow or, worse, the shepherd, becomes a slow-moving target.
During the Karabakh war, Azeri forces overtook and have held 900 of Berkaber's 1,100 hectares. And half of the 200 left is either not suitable for planting or is too close to the border to be safe for farming.
"Our village suffered most of all in the wartime," says 55-year-old Mish Budaghikian. "If we retained our lands, each resident would have at least one hectare. That is to say, if I sowed only wheat and cultivated it I would have a normal income. Besides, I would breed cattle, gather the harvest and I wouldn't be discontented with life, for sure."
As it is, villagers rely on income from cultivating small crofts, where gardens are protected by hills. The Tavush region is fertile and Berkaber has produced abundant crops of cherries, grapes, figs, nuts, etc.
But, apart from worrying about bullets falling from the sky, nature's own attack has recently spoiled harvest hopes. Over the past few years, hail and frost have destroyed fruit before it had a chance to mature.
"There were times when the village was a hot marketplace," says village head Vladimir Tamrazian. "Plenty of fruits were taken to Russia; 2-3,000 tons of harvest was gathered from the gardens of the village. All the villagers lived a desirable life. But now there are people who remain hungry for several days."
"Independence"? Who needs it?
Nothing is in order in the three-room house where 73-year-old Anahit Abazian lives with her adopted son, Armen, age 22. It is perpetually damp. Oil-cloths substitute for windowpanes and the wind always finds its way in.
Armen has a nervous disorder that Anahit says is the result of a childhood spent during wartime. He is unable to work, but, because he is an adult, Anahit gets no extra assistance normally allotted for children. They exist on Anahit's pension of about $14 a month.
This is not a household in which to find apologists for "independence".
"I save my pension to buy flour and bake lavash, lest we should starve for a couple of weeks. I'm an economizing woman but now there is nothing I could economize on," says Anahit.
"Why should I care for this independence if I have nothing to eat? Those (Soviet) years were good. We were all well-to-do. Ours was the richest village of Tavush."
Good memories of the Berkaber people are connected only with the years preceding the war. Today, they are deprived of even the most indispensable conditions: they have no reliable telephone connection (it goes out during rain or snow), no transportation, gas, irrigation or even drinking water.
Bad roads and poor water service are a worn-out complaint of Armenian village life. But in Berkaber, the lack of water service is especially confounding. Not far from the village a reservoir was built during Soviet times to deliver water for the entire province. But the pumping station was shelled during the war, and the water has been stagnating ever since.
"Now, we don't even have drinking water; worms flow out of the tap," says resident Vazgen Gevorgian. "We have to go far away to get some water from a spring.
"If somebody dies here we will not even be able to let his relatives know. And when winter comes, it's as if we are wiped off the face of the earth."
Villagers complain that the border settlements like Berkaber are ignored.
"Nobody pays attention to our village," says Radik Harutiunian. "And the regional administration remembers us only during the elections. They come here, give promises, and leave."
Then he adds with an ironic smile: "We are ignored so much that no election bribes are even offered to us. We are deprived of that, too."
Lost and last generation?
There is little for the youth of Berkaber to do, except wait to be old enough to leave. Some of the 150 or so youth manage a trip to Ijevan for recreation. But here, noticeably, the young can be seen playing nardi (backgammon), a game usually reserved for old men.
Few young men here say they want to marry; they can't imagine how they would maintain a family. They prefer to find a means for leaving.
"There was a time when people would come with their families and settle here, as it used to be a rich village," says 78-year-old Zhora Harutiunian. "Now people run away from here.
"I won't, I will die here. But if it goes on like this, there will be no generation change in our village."