By Vahan Ishkhanyan
As the gate squeaked, the door opened and a pregnant woman came out with a man in a military uniform following her. The smile spread over his face as if we had been old friends, and he invited us inside: “Come in! Come in!”, though it was the first time we met. Poverty and cold inside, faded walls with huge holes, a balcony with broken glasses, beds and a table with meager food, pickles and a half empty bottle of vodka… “Sit down! Sit down!” said the home master gladly. Had we started to drink with him, he would never ask who we were and why did we arrive. So I had to ask him: “Don’t you want to know who we are?” Replied the home owner: “Its of no importance”.
Armen Avetisyan, a soldier known for his feat in the village of Achajur, has been defending the border near to the village of Vazashen, since 1988 when the Karabakh War started. He took part in the fights in Lachin corridor, on the Karabakh front.
He was wounded twice. Fragments in his back still remind. He has no intention of having the shrapnel removed, unless: “I’ll wait till iron gets higher in price to sell,” said Armen laughing. Doesn’t it hurt? “Not any more. Let it stay in me as a memory of the war. We are all mortal; let me take this with me from this world.”
Armen, 44, is on a military service day and night in arms for 14 days a month, and spends the rest of the days in the military unit. He rarely sees his family. With our visit, he had taken a leave to see his third son Andranik off to the army.
The price for the 20 years of service to the fatherland for, a father of 6, is this extreme poverty. A seventh child is due any day. His wife Mariam underwent surgery a year ago; doctors said she couldn’t get pregnant again. They were wrong.
Mariam wanted to end the pregnancy, but the doctor stopped her saying ‘you are all torn into pieces inside, it may be dangerous’. She was to spend the last two months of her complicated pregnancy in bed. But how could she, when her husband is on service and the family chores are on her shoulders? Their 4th son Aram, 11, suffers sharp kidney pains, the other two, Artur,7 and Amalia, 2 are too young and need care. Their elder son Ararat is in prison for stabbing a person in an army brawl between Armenians from the Republic of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. The injured had survived, but Ararat was sentenced to 4.5 years. He now still has 18 months to serve.
A family member last visited Ararat several months ago. It was one of their sons who went to see him, because Armen was on duty, and Mariam could not leave the children alone. The parents have not seen the son for a year, and the visits became absolutely impossible when Ararat was moved from the Nubarashen prison in Yerevan to Artik. The family has no means to get to the new place of his confinement.
They will wait before he is released. Mariam worries over Ararat’s kidney problems. He takes pills, but needs care. Ararat used to be a football player, a wing. He had applied to the military academy, but failed the entrance exams.
The medical check-up at military conscription had found spots on his lungs. He was taken to the hospital, but Armen says he appealed to the military commission to take his son to the army: “I told my son, people served for you to sleep peacefully, now you go serve, let them peacefully sleep.”
His other son Anushavan, 21, has also served in the army with his unit located in Karabakh and is already demobilized.
Where will Andranik be taken, to Karabakh again, where the service is believed to be the hardest? “Wherever he gets, it’s his destiny. He is a man, he has to serve. I am so happy I can see off a son [to the army],” says Armen gladly. The 7th will be a boy again. They have not decided the name, but definitely it will start with ‘A’ like his and his children’s names – their first and last names, all starting with ‘A’.
This was the first year Armen started to renovate the house, to make it larger to have his son married, so that the family had space to live. But he did not manage to finish it. The home remained trapped in the cold winds, because there was no means for repair. They will spend the winter months in the lower story now resembling a shed with a dirt floor, broken window panes and pealing walls.
A gas pipe stretches above their gate, but there is no money to have it connected, so they will be forced again to somehow find wood to heat the house this winter.
Armen’s salary including an employee incentive pay is 163,000 drams per month (about $525). Nothing more, no help comes from anywhere. They buy 3 sacks of flour a month that makes 36,000 drams (about $115). A box of detergent lasts just two days.
Armen used to be a company commander before 1998, and his salary then was four times less. Poverty forced him to abandon the service and leave for Russia to work. He returned six months later with plenty of debts: “I wanted to try, but failed and returned, I had a cow that I sold to pay the interests on my debts. I can’t be a labor migrant, man, mine is the weapon, and killing Turks, and keeping the fatherland. Well, that’s what God gave me. He gives wealth, cars to others, and gave me this patriotic fever. I like weapons. If I have to choose between a jeep car and a TT pistol, I will take the TT. They say, do you know how many TTs you can buy for that jeep, and I say I get seduced when I see weapons and don’t care what’s next to it.”
When the situation on the border complicated in 2003, Armen took up a contract service. He has lost 6 friends-in-arms in the 4 years spent on the border – the snipers are on the alert to shoot as soon as they see a soldier.
They have neither place nor time to cultivate soil or tend animals. Besides, their property is liable to landslide, so is impossible to cultivate. “It has collapsed, we can’t use a tractor to dig, or else we will be buried with it,” sadly says Mariam, who does not have Armen’s optimism.
On the way to Ijevan the driver heard us talking about Armen and continued: “Armen? He is a great guy, there is no one like him around, he has been fighting from the very first day, but there is no one to value that.”