Wednesday, 26 September

Villagers in the frontier zone are on their own

"The war broke the village's back."

Eighty percent of the houses in the village of Nerkin Karmraghbiur in the Tavush Marz were destroyed during military operations. Entering the village, one is struck by abandoned houses with tumbledown walls and broken windows-the war has left its mark. The government paid compensations to the villagers to restore their houses, but many families have been unable to do so-building materials are expensive, the houses are big, and the money allocated is not enough to overhaul the roofs, the windows, and the walls. The Norwegian Refugee Council is now looking into how to rebuild the village houses. The Council's representatives visit house by house, assessing the damage and the families' social conditions.

"There are 350 houses in the village. Eighty percent of them are destroyed. Some people were able to repair their houses with the money allocated by the state, but others couldn't, because there are such big houses that were in such unsafe conditions that it was impossible to repair them with this money," explains Hrair Avagyan, the village construction engineer. "The abandoned houses will be restored as well. About $2,000 will be spent on each house."

"This house is in an unsafe condition as a result of bombing during the Karabakh war," Julietta Ghahramanyan tells us, standing in front of her dilapidated house. "Some people came, assessed the damage, counted the household, and promised to repair it. Seven people live here - my two sons, my daughter-in-law, my husband, and my two grandchildren. My youngest son is in the Army. We cultivate grain and barley, grow grapes on homestead. We don't have any other income; we support ourselves with this plot of land. We sell very little, and it's hardly enough for our needs. We don't receive a penny [from the government], not even for the children. We pay for electricity and water from our yield. We don't have any livestock-during the war my husband was standing sentinel over the village and was unable to take care of the stock, so we sold it. And now we can't afford to buy cattle. We would like to, we are trying to save money, but we can't. It's just a ruined, decayed village. The war broke the village's back."

Vaghinak Vardanyan managed to buy a house for his daughter-in-law and grandchildren with government money. But he and his wife continue to live in his dilapidated house. "I am grateful to the state, it gave me money and I bought a house," says the 77-year-old man. "I have a field, I will mow it, and if everything goes right I will have a good harvest. This year we have a shortage of fruit. My grandson wants to continue his studies; we have a cow, we'll sell it to pay tuition fees."

"What about your second grandson?" I ask.

"God is great, something will turn out while we are alive, it will be better for the other boy," the grandfather replies.

During the war, the village Cultural Center was bombed and burned to the ground. "My house was burned to the ground, too. We couldn't save anything. Now my wife and I live in a shack," Artak Adamyan joins in the conversation in the village center.

1,186 people live in the village, 186 of them schoolchildren. During the war, eight villagers were killed and nine were wounded. Compared to neighboring villages, not many people moved away. According to the village administration, only fifteen people left the village to earn money.

Nerkin Karmraghbiur is two kilometers away from the Azerbaijani border, and its arable land touches the land of Azerbaijani villages. Forty percent-the best arable land-is mined. It is located in between the two sentry posts, and the villagers can't use it. "We can't even cultivate our land," Adamyan complains. "Fuel is very expensive here. You don't know whether to pay for fuel, or to pay the mechanic. It just doesn't work. Twenty liters of gas cost 7,200 drams (about $11) now. They come from the capital city and dictate the prices. They pay whatever they want and take goods from the needy villagers. They take a lamb and give us sack of sugar. They pay 700 drams for a kilogram of beef, and 900 drams for a kilogram of pork, and resell it for 1,900 drams a kilogram. The villagers can't even transport manure to their fields."

"We are cut from the city, we don't have a market for our goods," Hrair Avagyan adds. "Even when a villager produces goods, he can't sell them. The transportation costs are too high. No one wants to invest here, they say that our roads are bad and pass through the frontier zone. They say that they can't even make enough to cover the depreciation of their trucks."

In 1988 the village had 82 hectares of vineyards. In those years, the village of Nerkin Karmraghbiur used to supply the winery in the village of Aigepar with 1,300 tons of grapes annually. Now there are 30 hectares of vineyards and 70 percent of them, according to the villagers, are old. "We need to plant new vineyards. But the villagers have no resources," Avagyan continues.

"Aren't there any lending projects?" I ask.

"We only hear about them on television," he replies. "There are many young people in our village who want to set up cattle farms or agricultural farms, but they don't have the resources. They ask me for advice, since I work in the village administration. But we can't help. If we were able to take a loan for five years, we would be in a position to recover. If not, the situation will only deteriorate. Our parents lived much better. We had 40 hectares of orchards; now there are no trees. This is the result of the war. People haven't done anything for ten years. The have been guarding the village with sub-machine-guns," explains Hrair Avagyan, who was demobilized from the Army in 1994.

"Everything is going to be just fine"

When we visited the village, there were people from the Yerevan Brandy Factory there as well. Pernod Ricard (the French company that owns the factory) had brought mineral and chemical fertilizers for the vineyards. "The grape-growing was under the threat of extinction, and this French company is doing very important work, because at this time of year, the villagers don't have money to buy fertilizers, so they provide them now, and after the villagers deliver the harvest these sums are reimbursed," Henrik Galstyan, a school history teacher who has joined the conversation, says, and adds, "It is the school that keeps the village alive; it didn't close even during the war. For several years after the war, we didn't have university entrants. But in the last three years, five of our graduates have entered university. We have two history students from this dilapidated village. I have prepared my replacement and am at peace now."

I ask whether Hovik Abovyan, who represents this district in parliament, concerns himself with local problems. It turns out that he showed up here during the parliamentary elections, made some promises, and disappeared. No one has seen him in Nerkin Karmraghbiur since the elections.

The village has a kindergarten, which accommodates twenty-five children. Svetlana Manucharyan, the director, says that there are some international organizations that help the kindergarten with food. The parents pay 1,000 drams a month per child; the rest is paid for by the village administration. "Sometimes parents can't pay, and they send food instead. There are other children, but their parents can't afford to pay, and don't bring them to kindergarten."

Grandma Satenik is ninety-nine years old. On September 1, 2004, her relatives will celebrate her 100 th birthday. She is very active and remembers everything. "I have two daughters, six grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren, and two great- great-grandchildren, and there are more to come. They take good care of me," she says.

I ask whether she ever takes a drink. "Yes I drink mulberry vodka, but lately when I drink, I am not steady on my legs. I fall down," she laughs.

"So, Grandma," I ask, "You have so much experience-what is going to happen to us?"

"Don't worry," she says. "Everything is going to be just fine."

Photos by Onnik Krikorian

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