Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Unluckiest Village in Armenia

Surviving in 21st century Armenia’s “Stone Age” village.
By Lana Mshetsian

The New Year will not be a cheerful one in Vanand. Outside it may be the 21st century, but the villagers will be celebrating the arrival of 2005 as they have done for centuries – in the dark without electricity, gas or running water.

Vanand is located in the Armavir district of western Armenia right on the border with Turkey. It has a population of 500, with the same number having left over the past decade, mainly for Russia.

Like nowhere else, this place feels the impact of the seasons, being very hot in summer and bitterly cold in winter. In cold weather they use whatever comes to hand to heat their houses, mainly timber and dry dung.

Winter can be easier than summer. Karine Hakopian, a mother of three, said, “Maybe nature will take pity on us and we will get a snowy winter. Then we can melt the snow and there will be water for us and our animals.”

Drinking water is worth more than gold here. Ohanes Margarian, a 40-year-old villager, told IWPR that water is brought into the village once or twice a week in churns. “We can’t even drink an extra cup of coffee, let alone have a hot meal,” he said. “Because of lack of water we often have to eat dried food. I believe that the local authorities are to blame that we live in such primitive conditions. They couldn’t care less about us. This is a border village and they can’t be bothered with it.”

That makes the hot season especially hard. Javan Manukian, the head of the community, said that last summer they had been given irrigation water on just three occasions, even though temperatures at that time of year in the Ararat valley, where Vanand is located, can rise to 50 degrees centigrade.

When the villagers asked the local authorities for help, they were told they had to pay for the water. “And where can people get money from?” Manukian asked. “There’s no work and no harvest. Take a look yourself, all the trees in the peasants’ plots have withered. The peaches, apples and grapes have gone because of the lack of water.

“We have only just managed to collect a meagre vegetable harvest and that’s hardly enough to feed our own families. The villagers have no strength left. Ten children have died in the village from intestinal infections caused by bad sanitation.”

Health care costs money and the locals often resort to traditional medicine to cope with ailments. Narine Sukiasian, a mother of two, said, “Only the names are left of our clinic and chemist. No one minds having a cold, but if you get a serious illness, especially if a child falls ill, we have to go to the regional town for medicine and help.”

“We believe no one,” said farmer Petros Khachatrian. “Officials love to give promises and write programmes, but when it comes to carrying them out, unexpected problems crop up and everything stays just the same.”

In 2003, the Armenian government adopted a programme on improving the socio-economic condition of border villages with plans to provide them with gas and water. Parandzem Karapetian, head of administration in the Armavir mayor’s office, said, “We do what we can but our capacities are limited.”

Meri Harutiunian, head of the Armenian government’s press office, said that Vanand was on a list of border villages which were entitled to government investment in a special programme due to begin next year. But details of the plan are still sketchy.

The villagers say they have never had gas, but before independence in 1991 they at least did not have the mass unemployment they have now. The bread factory worked properly and there were farms that employed local people. Nowadays the bread factory works at five per cent of its capacity and the farms are just memories.

A gas supply is just a distant dream. Shushan Sardarian, press secretary of the gas company ArmRosgazprom, told IWPR, “Today we are laying gas pipes in the towns and big villages of Armenia. Only when that is completed can we begin to talk about gas supplies for outlying villages.”

Karine Hakopian’s two school-age children, Arevik and Araik, go to school ten kilometres away in the next village of Artamet on foot. If the road is blocked by snow, they do not make it to school at all. And even when they get there, it is hard to call it a school at all. It is a collection of railway carriages, each holding a class, some with as little as two pupils.

Some children in Vanand and Artamet do not go to school at all because their parents can’t afford to clothe them. “My son hasn’t been going to school since September,” said Ripsime Danielian. “My husband recently went to work in Russia and he can’t help us at the moment. And the boy is ashamed of going in old clothes. Never mind, he can help me round the house for the time being and next year if things get better in our family he can start his studies again.”

The Danielian family is, like most households in this village, headed by the mother because the father is away in Russia, sending home occasional remittances.

They get electricity once a day and sometimes less than that. “We’re used to it,” said Ripsime. “We use wood-burning stoves. Though wood costs money too, it’s hard for us to get it. Some people get help from relatives, others get by somehow. We pass the long winter evenings by kerosene lamps. It’s not so bad for us adults but I feel sorry for the children who have to live in the dark. I don’t know who should answer for the way we live in the Stone Age.”

Despite all the hardships of living in Vanand, IWPR found that people are still planning to stay here. “Those who wanted to leave have already done so. As for me, I’m not going anywhere,” said Seiran Muradian.

“A few times people have given my family the chance to move to the town and offered them help with moving and finding a flat. But I can’t leave the land where my ancestors are buried. And after all our village is right on the border with Turkey. It’s like a wall and we are the defenders of our country.”

“Our young men went off to war from here,” said a young woman named Srbui. “Many of them didn’t come back. We put up memorials to them. We are poor but at least the cemetery is well looked after. I love my village and my neighbours and I hope that life will sort itself out here. There ought to be a party one day on our street too.”

Lana Mshetsian and Tigran Mirzoyan are freelance journalists in Armenia.