By Vahan Ishkhanyan
“I already can walk, I am no longer disabled,” says Lernuhi, who for the first time puts artificial limbs on what is left from her legs and right arm and starts walking.
Lernuhi Isoyan was born in 1968. She was reborn in Kashatagh (formerly called Lachin) where she was given new legs and an arm in 2000. And, she was given a job – a school librarian.
In the dark and cold winter of 1995 in the village of Hagvi, Lernuhi, her husband Samvel and two and four year old sons lived in a house with no electricity. Lernuhi put a candle in the mouth of a champagne bottle. She didn’t know that her husband had put ammonal in the bottle. It exploded.
Realizing the explosion, Lernuhi threw herself over the bottle to protect her children. She could not protect herself. As a result of the blast, she lost both her legs and her right arm.
And she lost her husband. He left her.
“When I was in hospital I asked him at least to take care of our kids until I recuperated,” Lernuhi says. “He told me he was not a nurse.”
Three nightmare years passed on the ninth floor of one of the identical unpleasant blocks of flats in Yerevan’s Erebuni district: “I was looking at myself in the mirror so my eyes could adapt to my own reflection. After all, I am a woman in such a desperate situation. Being introduced to someone was depressing for me.
“My children needed my care. I knew I was a human being. I had to overcome that difficulty, but how? I hadn’t seen a person for three years. I wouldn’t even go to the balcony fearing I should be seen by anyone. In all my life I had always felt sorry for disabled people and now I didn’t want to be felt sorry for myself. Even prisoners have a hope that they will be free one day, but I was desperately attached to my prison.”
The four-member family (including her mother, Roza) relied only on Lernuhi’s disability pension of 2,500 drams (about $5), not enough even to pay the electricity bill. The children needed to be taken care of, and she was wheelchair-bound, helpless. Either she had to throw her children to the street to beg money or give them to a children’s home so they at least did not starve. Lernuhi understands parents who send children to beg money because of their deadlocked situations. But she didn’t pass that limit.
With effort, she was doing housework, sweeping the apartment in the wheelchair, cooking with one hand.
She asked many for help, but her appeals remained without reply. And the Yerevan doctors killed her last hope to walk. They told her it was senseless to have prosthetic appliances in such a situation: “The doctor was saying ‘You can’t walk, why do you need artificial legs on the ninth floor, a wheelchair will do.” Then they hinted that, for a bribe, she could get the limbs. She had no bribe to pay.
In 1998 Lernuhi followed her sister’s advice and moved to Berdzor, where her sister had moved earlier. She wanted to save her family and was attracted by the privileges given to new settlers in the new place. (The Government of Karabakh gives special payment and allowances to Armenians who move into areas previously held by the Azeris.)
“We’d read a tale, I think it was “Hansel and Gretel”. The main characters were saying ‘Let’s go, it will be better than dying’. But it turned out to be much better. We were saved,” Lernuhi says.
She is no longer ashamed of her appearance. In the new environment, she didn’t encounter people who’d known her before the accident. From the fallout of war, her new surroundings are familiar with the disabled . . .
“I was going out to the balcony, hanging out my washing,” Lernuhi realls. “Let them think I am a veteran freedom-fighter.”
Head of the region’s medical service Artsakh Buniatyan assured her that she would walk, that in a corresponding center in Stepanakert she would be given artificial limbs.
“When they were taking me to Stepanakert, I thought that it was impossible to put artificial limbs, that they would say it was hopeless the way they’d told me in Yerevan. But it wasn’t so, they looked and said ‘You will walk’.” Buniatyan made sure that the limbs reached Lernuhi on March 8 as a present, almost exactly five years since the March 2 accident.
She remembers the first day: “I could not imagine that the one standing on the feet was me. I understood that life would go on . . . A little dog was playing around me. I couldn’t bear the joy alone, I was ringing up my relatives, they were coming to share my joy.”
Doctors had said that she would need two walking canes, but Lernuhi made an effort and forced herself to walk with only one.
Lernuhi threw her wheelchair in a shed not to see it again: “I don’t want to hear the name ‘wheelchair’. They offered me a new one. No, what wheelchair? I’ve barely gotten rid of one. . .”
Her second dream came true in Vakunis, a village in the south of Lachin where she was resettled, and was given the librarian job. But: There were no books, until the villagers of Berdzor took 500 from personal collections and gave them to the library.
Lernuhi’s sons no longer went without breakfast. The family was secure on Lernuhi $26 salary and $14 pension.
But mere survival was not enough for the ambitious, “disabled”, single mother. She decided to take up needlework and knitting.
“The person who taught me told me I couldn’t do it with one hand, but I wouldn’t listen,” she says. “I decided to learn and I did learn.”
Now in the houses of her friends in Berdzor, Vakunis and Kovsakan there are Lernuhi’s handicrafts – tablecloths, socks, sweaters, vests.
“Others make an item within one week. I’ll do it within two weeks.”
She presses the threads with her right arm, and works with the left. Lernuhi was originally right-handed, but gradually the strength of the right hand was shifted to her left.
She dreams of weaving a carpet, but she doesn’t have a loom.
While professional carpet-weavers make the work within one year, Lernuhi figures it will take her three. She does housework equally with her mother, cooks, makes jams and preserves for winter.
Last spring, authorities of Kashatagh moved Lernuhi to Kovsakan where there is a hospital where she can be under necessary care for occasional blood-sugar related ailments.
Her job was also transferred, with books, and Lernuhi became a school librarian, and her mother got a job at the hospital as a dishwasher.
In one room of Lernuhi’s home there is a library, beds, a kitchen. The school is too far away to house the library there.
Doctor Vladimir Lalayan is among those glad to have a librarian in Kovsakan. He has read a third of the books, and has started writing poetry from their influence.
“There were a couple of families that had books in Kovsakan, I had read them all,” he says. “There was nothing left for me to read. It’s good that Lernuhi’s library came to us. It will be very good if new books become available.”
Now Lernuhi constantly speaks of the library. If someone asks what she needs, she will say “only books”.
Lernuhi does not want to remember the past.
“I loved Yerevan so much, but when I was transported there as a disabled I didn’t love it. I looked outside, the trees were cut, just like myself . . .”
Kashatagh, itself recovering from the wounds of war, has become Lernuhi and her sons’ home.
“They treat me like a healthy person here,” Lernuhi says. “In Yerevan even relatives can be unfamiliar to each other, but here even people who do not know each other want to help each other out. Many want to visit me, and take the library as a pretext.
“My wounds healed up here, it is from here that I must send my children to the army and here shall I die.”
In there homes there is no television, no radio. The family is cut off from any outside world beyond the village. Still, Lernuhi says with two dreams (legs and a job) fulfilled, a third one would “be beyond all measure.”