Saturday, 21 October

Armenian Mountain Village in Peril: Only One Pupil to Enter First Grade in Artavan This Fall


Yeranuhi Soghoyan

In the village of Artavan, the new is built alongside the old.

New edifices appear alongside the post office, the school, and the mayor’s office, all built a century ago.

Artavan, a village in Armenia’s Vayots Dzor province, sits 1,880 meters above sea level. Despite the harsh climate, strangers get a warm reception, as is the tradition in all tiny mountainous villages in Armenia. 

The road leading to Artavan is in poor condition. Snow covers the potholes in places. Two story homes, all looking the same, are the first thing one sees when entering the village. Built during the Soviet era, they were designed to accommodate two families. Only fifteen homes were built. When the Soviet Union collapsed, further construction was halted. Plans to expand and beautify the village remained on paper.

In mountain villages, it’s hard to discern where the center lies. Flat areas are few. One is always climbing or descending. The village school, with an enrollment of 29, sits on the only expanse of flat land.

School principal Gravik Hovhannisyan points to a low birth rate and migration for the small number of pupils. Young people, Hovhannisyan says, aren’t in a rush to marry. There’s no permanent source of income. Those that do marry only have one or two children.

The school was designed to accommodate 160 pupils. “In the past, it went up to the eighth grade and had two shifts”, says the principal. “It became a high school in 1996. Over the years, the number of children attending has gone down.”

Last year, three pupils entered first grade. Five will graduate this year. A few of the twelve teachers also teach subjects outside their field. There’s a lack of teachers for Armenian history, foreign language (English) and mathematics. Principal Hovhannisyan, with a degree in geography, pulls his weight, teaching chess and Armenian church history.

The current school building dates to 1974. Remnants of the old school, a century-old, can be seen in the yard. The Hayastan All-Armenian Fund made minor repairs to the school in 2008. Even those repairs are coming undone. Plaster is peeling inside. Electric heaters are used during the winter. Hovhannisyan says that a central heating system was installed nine years ago, but that a boiler was never built. The furnishings are old and worn, and the floor is buckling.

The school lacks a functioning gym. The original one is in poor shape. Students exercise outside in the spring and fall. “The sports minister has promised that village school gyms must be renovated. I hope our school will be one of those selected. But who knows when it will happen?” Hovhannisyan says.

The principal fears the school might be overlooked due to its tiny enrollment. “A child is a child. Is it the fault of a child in Artavan that he or she was born in a mountain village with so few students?” Hovhannisyan asks.

Five-year-old Gor Avetyan will enter first grade this September. Gor knows he’ll be the only one in class. When I ask if he’s ready to go to school and learn, the boy tilts his head up and down in affirmation.

The only fear Gor’s grandma has is that the boy is mischievous and will get into fights with other pupils. “Who will I fight with?” Gor asks his grandmother.

77-year-old Emma Zatikyan has taught at the school for 44 years. There’s talk that the school will eventually close and she cannot accept such an eventuality. She says the village will empty out if it happens.

“They gave me the first grade in 1968-69. I had 22 pupils. People had jobs in the Soviet era. They weren’t all that concerned about the days ahead. Young people married and had several children. Now, they either don’t want to marry or have more than two children. There’s talk of closing the school. If they do, they should place a big lock on the village as well. It will empty out,” says Zatikyan.

The school lacks a functioning gym. The original one is in poor shape. Students exercise outside in the spring and fall. “The sports minister has promised that village school gyms must be renovated. I hope our school will be one of those selected. But who knows when it will happen?” Hovhannisyan says.

The principal fears the school might be overlooked due to its tiny enrollment. “A child is a child. Is it the fault of a child in Artavan that he or she was born in a mountain village with so few students?” Hovhannisyan asks.

Zatikyan believes that the program to consolidate mountain villages has nothing beneficial to offer. She says it’s the most direct route to emptying them. In October 2016, Artavan and eight other villages in Vayots Dzor were consolidated. Artavan residents are still waiting to see the positive results officials promised.

Artavan municipal employee Manvel Gevorgyan says the eight-kilometer road leading to the village from the state highway will be totally rebuilt as part of the five-year development program. Natural gas will also be brought to the village. He can’t say when the work will commence.

“The village lacks street lights. As part of its program in the border villages, VivaCell will install a three-kilometer network of lights in the village,” Gevorgyan says.

With an official population of 300, Artavan has 240 permanent residents. Some leave in the winter, only to return in the early summer when its more bearable. Most work raising animals and working the fields.

The village has no church. A few ancient stone crosses, remnants of an earlier place or worship, have been arranged in a cluster.

“Perhaps one day we’ll have a church,” a resident says. “When our ancestors migrated to these parts in the 1830s from Khoy and Salmast, the first thing they did was erect a church, then a school. The Armenian community grew around these things. Now, we have no church. That’s fine. But if they close the school, rest assured that the village will close down as well.”

Top photo: Artavan’s old post office


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