By Sara Khojoyan
The village of Byurakan is situated on the south-eastern side of Mount Aragats, among the hills and canyons of the Aragatsotn region. The area became known in 1947, when a scientific observatory was built there, 1,500 meters above sea level.
People of Byurakan, though, have more earthly concerns than the luxury of star-gazing. Instead they are focused on grappling with nature.
Artavazd Soghomonyan knows the struggle of life here. He is short, with bulging cheeks, and hardly the vision of a warrior, yet he defended Armenia’s border near Ijevan during the war with Azerbaijan for Karabakh.
It was there that he met his second wife, Tamara. His first marriage produced no children, but with Tamara, he has four sons.
Raising four children is a struggle considerably harder, even, than raising crops here on the rocky highlands.
“When the children were small, it was easy. Now they’ve grown up, and their needs have grown as well,” Aratvazd says.
Three of the boys attend school, where Artavazd was asked to pay about $30. Artavazd managed to come up with about $18, and the school provided free textbooks for one of the boys.
He is unemployed. There is no job for 50-year-old skinny Artavazd in Byurakan’s quarry. There is no job for a cattle-breeder in the village, it is by shifts, and everyone keeps cattle for themselves.
It wasn’t always like this: in Soviet years he used to work as an agricultural mechanization specialist in Byurakan, in charge of tractors. He himself operated a heavy truck: “It was good at that time.”
In the first years of independence, 1993-95, he was a water distributor in the village, paid according to generosity of his fellow villagers. “People gave me as much as their heart felt – 150, 200, 500 drams.”
He says that it was a thankless job, as there is little irrigation water in Byurakan. “I gave it to one, and another would be offended; to another one, another would take offense. The quarrels became too much, so I quit.”
The agriculturalists shows his 800 square-meter garden. “It is land, but look; rocks are everywhere,” he says.
They have pear, nut and quince trees, and sow beans and potato for domestic use. Selling is not an option. “If it satisfies the four children, I will sell the rest, but it doesn’t,” the father of the house says.
People appear to have invented their winged words only for the poor. The expression “hail hits the beaten place” is for Artavazd: it is not enough that his garden is more rocks that produce; this year the family cow went dry and was barren.
“The income of today is one cow, which hasn’t given milk this year, and did not give offspring,” Artavazd says.
“Now this year my children will miss cheese and milk,” Tamar says.
Due in part to the cow’s failure, the Soghomonyans have debt to the local store of 80,000 drams (about $215), which they’ve run up buying food staples.
Tamar says they pay as they can, when they get their monthly hardship stipend of about $78.
“We buy two sacks of flour a month for 7,500 drams (about $20) per sack. We pay our electricity bill, depending on the month – 6,000 or 7,000 drams, because we have an electric heater, we have no money for installing gas, we spend the rest to repay our debts,” Tamar says, faltering.
“But for the Paros fund, they would remain hungry,” Artavazd’s sister-in-law Anahit says.
“I get clothing and shoes from my relatives to provide them at least with second-hand clothes. What’s to be done? There’s nothing to be ashamed of, they went to school this year with second-hand clothes,” she says.
David, 14, is a eighth grader. He is already grownup, and a help to his father. His duty is gathering grass from the field for feeding the cow.
Hayk, 12, is in the sixth form, 11-year-old brisk and lively Avag is in the fourth.
Avag is bold, he wants from life “an album, a pencil, and also a soft-tip pen and a bag”, nothing else, and promises to study well after that.
Tigran, 4, is still little, does not understand many things yet. He doesn’t see, for example, that at their house, the TV-set that became a toy for him is old and out of order.
For Tigran it is not important that there is old furniture in their dilapidated house, nor is it important for him that he sleeps on an old bed. The innocent boy seems content, rather, that his is together with his family.