By Gayane Abrahamyan

Mikayel, five months old, lies in an old metal cradle. His clothes and blankets are worn and he greedily sucks on a pacifier as if it might answer the question of whether there’ll be food today.

This question bothers also Mikayel’s four brothers and six sisters, but they are a bit older and can stand the hunger that the baby cannot.

The day’s food is hard to come by for the Sargsyan family. They divide what they have among themselves – first to Mikayel, then to Alina who is 17 months; to Hakob who is 3; Marina, 5; Margarita, 7; Vagharshak, 8, Varduhi, 9 ; Andranik 11; Naira, 16; Irina, 18 and Sasha, 20.

Eleven children. Little means.

“My children stay hungry for days, but they do not show it, because they are ashamed a neighbor could learn about it,” says 38-year old mother, Sona. “They wait patiently until we find a piece of bread from somewhere.

“The older ones can take it, but you can’t explain it to the young one that there is no job, the allowances are late; he will cry.”

The Sargsyans, who live in the Gegharkunik province village of Tsovinar, receive a poverty allowance of 40,000 drams (about $86) a month. It pays some bills and buys two sacks of flour; and the bread made from the flour is enough for two weeks at best.

“We are glad when there is even only lavash,” Sona says. “We have a piece of land that brings us some potatoes, but the children are still suffering from malnutrition. My youngest don’t get milk for months.”

The youngest boy and girl show evidence of malnutrition. Alina weighs about 5 kilograms, half of a normal size. Though 17 months old, she still does not walk. Andranik, the 11-year old, looses his teeth; his gums are swelled and inflamed.

“In Soviet times this woman would get a hero’s title, a house, a car,” says Nvard Kocharyan, a neighbor. “The authorities worry about the number of the population and calls on families to have more children. Do they care for these ones to have more? Eleven children starve, have no clothes, they do not go to school for months because they do not have shoes. Is this a life?”

The biggest problem is unemployment. The father of the family Soghomon Sargsyan was once a driver, but has remained jobless since the disappearance of collective farms.

“There is no job. I can do whatever comes up: but there is nothing,” he says. “The only thing to do in the village is keeping animals and cultivating land. If you don’t have it you are totally helpless, just like me.

“I stayed in Russia for a year, worked like a slave; they deceived me and did not pay for the one year’s work. I had no money to go back. How can I leave my 11 children on my ill wife’s shoulders; what if I can’t come back?”

Besides the problems of providing for minimum living, the Sargsyans live with a fear of being homeless. Ten years ago, after the birth of their second son, the dirt roof of their house collapsed totally, and the family hurried to move to Soghomon’s brother’s house with the hope of building a new one; but they do not own a home today.

“We are guests in this home,” says Sona. “We don’t have our corner. We are in constant quarrels. My husband’s brother tells us to move out so that he can marry. It is not his fault; he is 40 but he delays marrying because of us.”

The children have dreams. Naira and Irina dream of getting an education. Varduhi wants a beautiful school bag and a doll.

For little Hakob with big eyes and cheeks red of cold the biggest dream is “the big-big chocolate bar so that I eat it all the time and it is not over, so that I can share it with my sisters, brothers, but it does not end…”

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