Armenia’s Border Villages
“We do not live on the border, we protect the border”, said the Karmraghbyur intellectual, a teacher of the Armenian language.
When the cameraman opened the kindergarten door, a three-year-old boy cried out in fear “Don’t shoot”. He had mistaken the black camera propped on the cameraman’s shoulder for a gun; everyone else present, including veterans of the war, reacted the same way and failed to mask their confusion. This is war’s greatest horror – its consequences, reflected here in a child’s cry.
The village of Nerkin Karmraghbyur is being abandoned, for the simple reason that its people want to stay alive. They want nothing more than a simple life. For example, when asked how we can help, a woman replied, “Can you help me sleep peacefully at night”? This is a simple wish, and all these people want are conditions under which they can work, eat and dress themselves. They do not dream of vacations in Antalya or Spain; they simply want to live.
Three days ago, there was shooting in Nerkin Karmraghyur. The village only has 125 school children. The men are either soldiers or unemployed, and many people have already left.
Different kinds of people live in the village, yet many do not like the Armenian teacher’s intellectual stance. Speaking in exceptionally eloquent and beautiful Armenian, she produces sentences that sound like the titles of articles. But her diction was a small thing compared to the subject of discussion, which portrayed stark reality.
She states, “My dear, one cannot only think about the border when there is shooting”, and goes on to explain; “in order to maintain the border, it should not just be a political competition. Every child in our village who stutters from fear is a hero, and should be honored as such. Once, a man who sentenced to death row was asked what he wanted for his last wish. He said he wanted beer, and when it was given to him, he blew off the foam. When asked about his curious act, he replied that it’s not good for his health. We are like this man. Everything is senseless for us, since we live with the imminent threat of death.”
I asked a store clerk whether she’d leave Katnaghbyur if she could find somewhere else to live. She said, “My dear sister, we are almost the same age. This year, I bought my first couch…so how can I leave this village? I’ve been sitting on it for a month now.” I continued by telling her she could take it with her, to which she replied, “How can I take my newly-painted white walls”? This woman, whose name is Nargiz, then told me how she covers her children’s ears at night with thick blankets, so they won’t be able to hear gunshots in their sleep. Content with her own resourcefulness, she similarly raises the volume of the television during the day.
However, Nargiz was unaware of the speech that President Sargsyan delivered in Yerevan on May 4th, at the “Moscow” movie theatre, where he met with capital’s intellectuals. He stated, “I do not see any major problem in the mountain villages…I am talking about the villages that are being abandoned. I am not sure how important this problem is, because whether people live in a town or a village, they seek favorable living conditions. If there is a village in a lowland area with five to six thousand residents, that has irrigation, drinking water, gas, internet access, renovated schools, a kindergarten – then I would suggest that ten to twelve families living in the nearby village move there, until we can supply them with gas as well. There are so many problems that it is too soon to think about this problem. If villages near Yerevan do not even have heating, how can we provide such conditions in border villages? First, we need to think about living conditions”. This president has experienced war and now the fate of the country, as well as its people and borders, are in his hands.
I entered the main store, and posed a frank question; “If things are as you described them, then how do people shop?” Nargiz showed me the notebook where they keep track of customer’s debt. On the first page, the word “vayenik” was printed in capital letters, referring to the village’s paid soldiers. This showed how much they owe, which the shopkeeper tries to justify and overlook. She explains, “They only buy food…and not shoes or clothes”. Fortunately, these soldiers who purchase food with small loans have not seen their general’s summer villa.
The owner of the store pleads with the sales clerk, ”My dear, do whatever you can, beg them to give back my money, my daughter is getting married, I need money”. This is how relations play out in these border villages, where people live under severe conditions and the ubiquitous presence of death.
As I stood in the village talking to people, a lady mentioned; ”Three days ago, right where you are standing now, there were shots fired. The bullet hit right here”. A palpable terror grew inside me. This is a shameful thing to say since I had only been in the village for a few hours, whereas these people sleep in fear every night. However, one of the Karmiraghbyur villagers joked, “Don’t be frightened, the Turks would never shoot guests”. What the hell (ay qez ban)… once again we hear jokes about death, just like we did twenty years ago.
The atmosphere in Movses was melancholy, filled with more reluctance, and perhaps even desperation. The village leader did not have the heart for particularly long conversations; he was concerned, serious and thoughtful. He knows the way to save the village, but nobody will listen to him. He urges former wealthy residents of Moses either to pay taxes, since it would not be an issue for them, or to renounce their lands – however they do neither. The village leader says that neighboring Azerbaijani villages that were once far from each other, have become so prosperous that their residents have quadrupled in number, to the point where the villages have almost merged together. The village leader says that the Azerbaijani government does everything possible for the country’s border villages. Its residents do not pay for gas and use diesel engines for their irrigation system, which is provided free of charge; in Soviet times they did not even have water.
After the village leader sent a letter to the Armenian president, he received a reply stating, “In response to your letter, referring to the request for a wheat tractor, I hereby declare that according to the Ministry of Agriculture’s letter #172624, issued on 23.05.2012, the government is now taking measures to import these tractors into the country”. This letter is the only source of hope for the villagers.
The village once had 1090 school children; today there are only 160 left. Furthermore, of 3000 residents, 1300 remain. No, of course there is no migration at all…but nevertheless…
In all three villages, people talked about someone with the last name “Babayan”. I asked about this man, and it turned out that he had always been with us, but was always silent. They spoke about this man, a spy during the war, whom all Azerbaijanis knew by name. The village leader said that someone like Babayan should be praised as a hero. They say that he left the armed forces as a volunteer since he had some problems. I approached him and asked him about this, to which he replied shyly, in a soft voice “I had no problems.” Then I asked why he is not appreciated, and he said, “I am appreciated, I have been given awards, I have received medals, I am pleased, and they even cultivate my land for me.” They say you’re a colonel, and he states “No, I’m only a major.” Instead of being afraid to talk, he does not complain. Although he is the bravest person in these valleys, he does not praise himself and remains modest about how many people he has killed. Nor does he encourage other people to glorify him.
The sky clouded over Movses, as the village lay silent and empty. There were some lovely children – but they stuttered.
The village of Chinari had been under constant attack for five consecutive hours. People were tense and alert; yet there was even humor, which arose from the tension. We gathered near the village shop that bore a sign in Russian saying “Manufactured goods”. A few days ago, the store was ordered to pay a preliminary tax payment of 150,000 AMD on the grounds that there was a budget deficit. This is like robbing a corpse – demanding this amount from a poor shop in a village nestled directly across from the enemy’s military positions, with a sign that reads in rusty letters, “the meeting place cannot be changed”, for a budget that has been split due to supposedly unknown reasons.
The village leader, Samvel Saghoyan, took part in the fighting and was wounded in the arm. He does not mince his words but outlines his views and demands with precision. He said he would come to Yerevan to speak in the National Assembly, detailing what specific measures the government should take. This outspoken man says he still bathes in a washtub with his wife pouring water over him.
It occurred to me that the money the oligarchs have invested in expensive restaurants and hundreds of saunas would go long way in Chinari , Movses and
The border villages are being abandoned. Chinari once had 1860 inhabitants, but today there are only one thousand . The remaining inhabitants other border villages too want to leave. The children suffer from anxiety disorders and many other health problems. The villagers are hungry, poorly dressed, and live in conditions that are more similar to those of centuries ago. These border villages are the entrance to the country. A country’s heroes are not to be found in the casinos on the road to Azavand, because they are the people who live in the villages near the border. If they retreat, it won’t be long before you are living in a border village. The Aygedzor villagers say that prior to the parliamentary elections, they were promised a wheat tractor, gas supply and 33 million AMD in compensation if they cast 800 votes in favor of the Republic party. This is true patriotism, without make-up, ties or sparkle.
However, the village leader of Chinari has specific demands.
There must be benefits for villagers on the border: instead of paying taxes, they should receive financial compensation. They need a canning/packaging factory, so produce from the village is not rotten by the time it arrives reaches and is therefore sold much cheaper. The villages should not have to pay for water and gas. This is how we should treat our army and the villages on the border. Only then can we produce patriotic films, advertise (them?), write songs about the army and celebrate holidays.
Outspoken patriots, water flows freely for the Azerbaijanis, they have established good living conditions for themselves, yet Armenians do not benefit from the water flowing through their own village, due to unfavorable conditions. There are no facts that are more explicit, foolish and proven, outspoken patriots.
The village leader was probably unaware of president’s speech about border villages. The residents of Chinari, Movses and Nerkin Karmraghbyur must relocate to nearby villages until the government can provide decent living conditions for them.
Yet, the village leader of Chinari is prepared to come to the National Assembly to deliver a speech on genuine patriotism. The Republican majority, which had promised a wheat tractor and gas in return for 800 votes, would listen to him attentively.
If border villages don’t receive the necessary help and support, villages in the interior of the country will in turn become border villages.
And one day, the Argavand casinos too will become border establishments as the border comes ever closer…