Monday, 24 September

"You Have to Live Here to Understand What Boredom Is"

Not much has changed over the last two years in the life of Arthur Avalyan, who occupies one of the wooden shacks in the Janjanots district in the center of Berd. The poverty his family lives in is not as flagrant as it used to be for a simple reason - three of his eight children are in the Army and, thus, the spending for food has decreased.

The mother of his children, Emma Shahnazaryan, is mentally ill. She had just come home after undergoing medical treatment and was calmer as she talker than when we first met two years ago (See also: In the center of Berd, poverty has settled in).

The family's 20-square-meter shack is furnished with four metallic beds, one broken wardrobe, a furnace, and an old Soviet-made TV set that doesn't work.

The allowance the family gets - 28,000 Drams (about $ 62) a month-is barely enough to make ends meet. "My husband doesn't have a permanent job. If someone goes to Yerevan to bring goods my husband goes with him - drives the car and helps out. We spend the money he makes and our government allowance on buying food only. We don't buy clothes or shoes - I can't spend money on that. We wear clothes that my sister and my husband's sister give us. They collect their old clothes for us. The last time I bought shoes for myself was during Soviet times," Emma Shahnazaryan says.

It is impossible to find a job in Berd. The Avalyan's family's oldest daughter- 23-years-old Lusine-attended computer classes in the hopes of finding a job. She knows several computer programs, but there are no jobs in Berd.

"I have computer skills but I can't find a job. I wanted to continue my education after school, but we couldn't afford it," Lusine said, blushing.

In a town of 10,000 people, you can the number of computers on one hand. Taciturn at first, Lusine eventually spoke up about how hard it was to live in such conditions: "I wish I could get out of here. That we had a normal house. That my parents were healthy. My mother is ill."

Lusine cooks for the family-her mother too often has to be hospitalized. And she bakes their bread in the oven. "There is absolutely nothing to do in the evening, the TV set hasn't been working for a year now. People speak badly about this area. It has bad reputation. There are three divorced women here-they have ruined the reputation of the district. And people treat us as they treat those women," Lusine said.

People who live in these shacks have no running water or toilets. There is no toilet outside either. They bring water from a spring a hundred meters away. As for the toilet - they manage however they can.

"I'm very ashamed of living here, but I'm getting used to it. What can I do?" Lusine said.

There is a café near this area with very loud music. Strange as it may sound, the café doesn't have a toilet either.

"The toilet collapsed few years ago. The clients of the café drink there and then use the area next to our shacks as a toilet. In the evening we go into our homes and don't come out. My father has complained to the café owner hundreds of times but it is useless," she went on.

Three of Arthur and Emma's sons are serving in the Army now; two other sons and three daughters are still living with them. Siranush is the youngest in the family; she is a first grader now and her eyes are not as sad as they used to be.

They have lived in this wooden shack for fourteen years now. I asked Lusine if boredom wasn't a problem. "Boredom? You have to live here to understand what boredom is," she replied bitterly.

The worst problem in Berd

The Janjanots district, or rather ten wooden shacks, was founded after the 1988 earthquake. The authorities used these temporary shelters to hold classes since the school had collapsed. And in 1991 when the students moved to another building, refugee families expelled from Azerbaijan, people from the border areas, and the homeless began settling here. The residents have changed over the years. On April 19, 2006 the local council of Berd passed a decision to clear this area and to accommodate the residents in other places. It is not clear yet where.

"In the past this used to be the grounds of the athletic school. We will vacate it. The local council has decided to allocate the territory to these people, 300-400 square meters of land to each family. We will give these shacks to them and help them move," said Andranik Sharyan, the mayor of Berd.

"They say that they will disassemble these houses and assemble them again in another place, but we don't know where. But these houses are rotting-they won't survive being dismantled," Arthur Avalyan said.

"We will repair the ones that collapse; we'll arrange this matter with the Forestry Department. It will be good for them to get out of here. They'll have plots of land, cultivate them, solve some problems. 2,500 families out of 3,000 families in Berd get their potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers from their own land. They too can have gardens if they have their own land. Here in these shacks they have no such opportunity," the mayor added.

It is clear from the appearance of the shacks that it will be impossible to move them, they will collapse. The floors and the walls are rotting.

"It is possible to move five shacks out of ten. And one is metallic and it is possible to move it," the mayor insisted.

Janjanots has a bad reputation in Berd. Two prostitutes and two former convicts live here.

"There are two normal families here. The rest do absolutely nothing except get drunk. There are cases of theft and hooliganism as well. This is the worst problem in Berd. All the members of the local council agreed that these houses should be moved out of here. We don't have homeless people. We solved that problem. There are no beggars in town. We will not throw them out on the streets, we will provide homes for them," the mayor assured us.

From the editorial staff: Our readers have always responded to our articles by reaching out to families in extreme poverty. If any of our readers wish to help the Avalyans, please contact us. The most welcome gift at the moment would be a TV set.

Photos by Onnik Krikorian

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