By Sara Khojoyan
Bread is the children’s best treat.
Snow cuts the village off the rest of the world.
“I am lucky, my children don’t complain… ” says the mother of 11.
There is a tray full of apples, pears and quince, a saucer full of nuts. They treat a guest from Yerevan to coffee, though it is four days that the 13 members of this family had no bread.
“I have eleven children – Razmik, Hermine, Hayastan, Heghine, Hayarpi, Sirarpi, Kristine, Vazgen, Tatul, Lusine, Mikael. My eldest child is Razmik, who is 22, the second one — my daughter Hermine – is married in Vanadzor, six are schoolchildren,” Anahit Sargsyan, a sickly skinny woman with a small body, says about her children in a low voice. Her eyes, however, exude vigor for living and struggling.
It is 25 years that Anahit, 43, has lived in Jiliza, a small Armenian village near the Georgian border. Before that she lived in Georgia’s Armenian-populated village of Akhkyorpi, and there she met her future husband Robert Sargsyan. Everything was like a romance novel; they fell in love with each other and got married . . . and are still waiting for the “happily ever after” ending.
The road from borderline Jiliza to the town of Alaverdi closes with the first snow – the village becomes isolated, left to its own. Enjoying nature’s charms an unsuspecting visitor will get stuck in the snow-covered mountains of Lalvar next to bears and wolves until a tractor to clean the road is dispatched from Alaverdi. This village about 200 kilometers from Yerevan that wages its own daily survival struggle needs outside assistance badly. This is the Sargsyans’ “homeland”.
Because of 13 beds placed side to side, the Sargsyans’ only room, three meters wide and five meters long, resembles a barracks. The village’s largest family – with most children — gathers near the heater in the evenings.
Elder son, Razmik, took up a temporary job on road construction in the village. The work stopped with the first snow, but Razmik’s hands bear the severe traces of the cold; the young man had frozen his fingers and now they are all covered with sores. The children of school age are particularly put off by the snow because they don’t have shoes to wear. The Sargsyan children do not meet the New Year with joy.
“When it snowed, only two of the six schoolchildren went to school,” Anahit says. “And those wore shoes borrowed from others.” There is never money to buy clothes for the children. They wear what they get from others, the better ones for school, the older ones for home.
The Sargsyans have little financial means for their large family. They receive 61,000 drams (about $200) in social allowance from the state, which they immediately spend to repay the debt for the foodstuffs they purchased from the local store on credit.
The children eat once a day, in the afternoon, when the six schoolchildren return home from classes. “I am lucky that my children are not those who always complain, they are restrained. If they don’t eat bread for days, they won’t say anything, the neighbor won’t know,” Anahit comforts herself. “To satisfy hunger every time we eat six loaves of bread are needed, but it happened that we didn’t have even a single loaf. Once we did not have bread for 25 days on end. But I understand, they are children, they may get sick because of malnutrition, I don’t know what I’ll do if that happens…”
Before she could finish the sentence, her husband, tall and thin Robert, comes in. He is an electrician in the village, but since they get electricity from Georgia, the Armenian electricity network does not give them wages, the Georgians also refuse to pay. He gets pennies for an electrician’s work he does privately for fellow villagers.
“When their lights go off, they come to me and tell me to fix it. The lampposts are decayed, God forbid if I fall down. Who will look after me then?” Robert says, wiping sweat off his face with his hat.
They have a plot of land which they cultivate. They have all sorts of fruits, which is typical of nature in those parts. But they cannot sell them in the village which is 30 kilometers away from Alaverdi. The reason is again roads.
Keeping Jiliza in the center of attention is a matter of state concern. This village which has 180 residents is growing older, young families leave it. In the past three years, seven families, 56 people all in all, abandoned the village. No child has been born here for four years; the last Sargsyan child.
“When we came to this house, I put an egg under a hen and a chicken was born, I said that was fortune. We bought pigs, had chickens, when I saw them I was so happy, and that plague (swine fever) took them, they say it is not allowed to keep swine for five years,” Anahit says.
African swine fever ravished Armenia this year and the family’s optimism disappeared after its pigs died out.
“I wanted to sell pigs and register the house to my name, I had done it for a year, gave money, but could not register, the village head says I have to pay 60-70,000 drams ($200-250),” Robert adds. The prospect of repaying the debt was postponed indefinitely.
Anahit says they want to work, they do not shun work, but there is no job for them to do. The children understand the situation of their parents; they try not to embarrass them any further and try to get something to do themselves. In August, for example, all of the children went to pick blackberries. On the money they received from selling it they bought stationery for school this year. The children living a hard life in a “hard” village find it natural.
“We went, picked berries, sold them, went again,” Heghine, a 10th grade student, says. Her hands betray the hard work she did in summer.
Girls with bright eyes are sitting on a sofa not far from the table, second-former Vazgen is standing next to them. Feeling shy, the children say in an almost inaudible voice what they would want Santa to give them for the New Year.
“I want a big thing, a computer, but perhaps you won’t bring it,” says Heghine. Lusine, 5, and Cristine, who is in the sixth grade, want dolls, four-year-old Mikael wants a toy car, Vazgen wants an excavator to build the village’s road. Hayarpi wants a telephone, Sirarpi – a camera, she likes shooting with the school’s camera.
“It wouldn’t be bad if we got that much,” Heghine says, hanging two New Year toys on the bunch of artificial roses in the flowerpot. With that the New Year starts and ends in the Sargsyan family.