We are walking along the road in the Ararat Province village of Yeraskh.
We pass through the yard of a villager’s house. Green grass is on both sides. In the grass are dried thorns resembling bushes. The homes are dilapidated one story structures.
A woman in a pink jacket is pushing a car. Her husband, one foot outside the other inside the car, tries to move the car. We have a video camera in our hands but something prevents us from filming the scene. We don’t know why.
You understand that everything is fit to print. When you imagine that someone with painted fingernails will press the computer button, will raise a cup of coffee, and watch this tragic affair with gusto, and then will write down some comment, either compassionate, funny, or derisive, you think twice and step back.
Suddenly, the car stops before us. A dark skinned, feeble man approaches us. “Why have you come to the village?” he asks. We remain silent. He continues, “Have you come to film people in need? If so, let me show you my house and how my 77 year old mother sleeps under the rain.”
We follow him. It’s a one story house. We enter and, to put it mildly, the damp smell hits us. There are two small rooms in the house – a few beds, a china cabinet purchased from the neighbors, and a television bought on credit.
A bit later an elderly woman enters. She appears cautious of us. Her son explains that we are reporters. Everything is happening so quickly that I only have time to look and digest what I see. I ask no questions. I just listen. And when they too are silent, one hears the drops of rain falling from the ceiling. There are deep traces on water on the floor. “This is where I stay. My mother sleeps under the umbrella,” the man says.
I ponder the extent to which socio-economic conditions have strangled this man for him to speak up. There is no displeasure or sniveling in his voice. He speaks decisively and sometimes drops his eyes to the cement floor.
He then sits on the edge of the bed and I on the small couch. He tells me his name, Sergey Stepanyan. He’s 51 and there’s irritation written up and down his face. Mr. Stepanyan took out a loan and bought the house three years ago. He says it used to be a construction unit. But the family is large. He has three sons and a daughter. All are married. His daughter lives in Russia but the sons live with him.
At the back of the house there’s another house, in the same shape as this one. Presently three of the sons are in Russia. They just left. But there’s no work there and they’ll be returning. Their wives and their five children now live with their in-laws. A few years ago they purchased a house in the village for one of the boys. Mr. Stepanyan says there’s still work to be done. He has to feed his five grandchildren. His sons call and tell him to look after the kids. “What can I do? Which one should I take care of? Don’t I know enough that I must take care of the kids, their moms, my wife and mother? I just came from the fields. I planted watermelon. They paid my 5,000 dram,” he tells me.
His mother, 77 year-old Roza Khachatryan interrupts the conversation. She is standing by the entryway. Her voice is weak. I approach her. She’s from Vayk and says that they took her to an orphanage when she was young. They then moved to Vedi and later Gyumri. Mrs. Khachatryan says she fled Gyumri for Yerevan. Her memory is going and she can’t remember all the details.
“Dear child, I started to do some construction work in Vayk. I’ve led a wandering life. I got married but wasn’t lucky,” she says before her voice break off. She begins to cry. “I can’t go on,” she mutters. Her bony hand brushes away the tears. I don’t know what to do, what to say.
I ask her how many grandkids she has. A smile immediately comes to her face and she starts counting, “7, 8. Yes I have 8.” One of her great-grandkids is standing by the door watching her. The great-grandmother smiles.
Sergey says his mom’s sister is now in an old age home. “I’m a son who respects his parents. Whatever happens I’ll never put my mother in one of those places,” he tells me.
Sergey says that he doesn’t want anything from anybody, just a few slates so that he can fix the house.
Things have gotten so bad that he doesn’t even have money to buy watermelon seeds to sow. He has one hectare and plants mostly watermelons and cantaloupes. He says it takes a 5-6,000 dram investment per hectare to get a decent crop. When I ask if the crop covers his costs, he answers in the affirmative. The village mayor’s office gave him some green cantaloupe seeds to sow, but he hasn’t. He says he doesn’t like the color.
During our conversation Sergey takes a piece of paper from the dresser. It’s a letter of commendation given to him from the Liberation Battle Veterans Union on the 19th anniversary of the liberation of Shoushi. He then removes his union ID card.
“I was one of the guys who fought. I’m a member of the veteran’s union.” Sergey says that during the Artsakh War he went to Vayk, fought there, and then went on to Goris, Khndzoretsk and Shoushi. He was twice wounded and still has fragments in his body. The words don’t come easily.
“I didn’t go for the money or to plunder. Nothing really happened to me. I went to defend my children,” he notes. When I asked what dreams he had at the time, he sighs and says, “All that should stay within us. We won and finished. But that should stay within us. We should have gone forward to shed blood. It was shed. We should have taken this too (pointing to Nakhijevan).”
He no longer wants to talk about the war. “Yesterday the kids were going to Karabakh. I was very happy. Three buses were waiting. They were playing music. I asked where they were going and they answered, Shoushi. Tomorrow is Shoushi Liberation Day. Tears filled my eyes,” he says, this time with a smile. A bit later he says, “Gee whiz, today is my day.” We fall silent again.
We say goodbye to the Stepanyan family. From the window of the bus going back to town, I count the expensive cars on their way to Artsakh.
My thoughts go back to the war vet, tanned by working in the fields, looking for a few slates. All he wants is that his mom not be forced to sleep under an umbrella.