Today, across Armenia and Artsakh, pupils are returning to school after the summer vacation.
The same holds true for the community of Aknaberd in Artsakh’s northern Martakert District.
But unlike the schools in the capital Stepanakert, students in Aknaberd will be returning to a school in need of serious and immediate repair.
Before the Karabakh War, Aknaberd (formerly Oumoudlu) was an Azeri village. The school building now being used by the 111 Armenian pupils was built in 1974.
Many of Aknaberd’s current residents hail from communities in Shahoumyan now under Azerbaijani military control.
School principal Narineh Osipyan supervises a staff of 26 teachers and 10 technical workers.
Osipyan boasts that no one is leaving Aknaberd and that there’s someone working in almost every household.
While the school principal paints the community as on the way up, the school faces a number of problems.
Many of the classroom walls are derelict and must be reinforced with wooden beams. Nevertheless, the school hasn’t been classified as a dangerous structure by the local authorities.
Principal Osipyan says that a team came to investigate and took photos of the walls. The government later confessed that it didn’t have the funds to fix the problem.
Osipyan still hopes that the Artsakh prime minister will make good on his promise to completely overhaul the building in 2015.
But the government is assisting in other ways, she says. The government allocates 20,000 AMD (Around US$50) to each pupil entering first grade. This year, that number is nine.
The government has also outfitted the school with new tables and chairs.
Businessman Hayk Khachatryan, an area native now, has funded the opening of a computer classroom in the school.
The Yerkrapah Union (an organization of former Armenian war volunteers) has donated school bags to all the pupils.
This year, the All Armenian Fund has donated the school recreation room with ping-pong tables and other equipment.
But gym teacher Aleksei Khachatryan has to keep it all locked away in another room because the gym is in such poor shape.
The windows in the rec room have no glass; they’re just wooden frames.
When I visited the school, I was surprised to see a plaque over the gym door extolling the assistance provided by the All Armenian Fund.
By the way, the school has no central heating system. Come winter, wood will once again be burned to keep the pupils and staff from freezing. That’s going to be hard given that the windows in the hallways have no glass and are covered in plastic sheeting. When I toured the school, the sheeting had been ripped in many windows.
But what good are school bags and ping-pong tables if basic conditions at the school are such that it’s a difficult environment in which to learn.
To get a drink of water or go to the bathroom, pupils have to go outside, quite away from the school.
The school is named after Shahen Meghryan, who fought in the Artsakh War and served as the former Shahoumyan District Leader.
I was somewhat disheartened to see that the school’s memorial to Meghryan and other Artsakh heroes doesn’t greet pupils and visitors at the main entrance, but is tucked away on the second floor.
There, you’ll see a small bust of Meghryan adorned with plastic flowers. Wouldn’t it be more fitting to have Meghryan’s photo and at least a short biography of the man, extolling his many contributions to Artsakh and Armenians in general, right at the main entrance?
On the first day of school the pupils at Aknaberd were reminded of the bravery of Meghryn and others who fought in the war.
In the case of Aknaberd, a flourishing community just a stone’s throw away from the border with Azerbaijan, this school isn’t merely a center of learning but an important institution to keep residents anchored to the land.
These are people who cling to the hope of one day returning to their native villages now across the border in Shahoumyan now under Azerbaijani control.
It is said that the homeland starts at the border. As such, Aknaberd should be at the top of the list in terms of government care and attention.