“We don’t want to leave, but we’re going to have to whether we like it or not,” Tsaghik Tsaturyan said.
Tsaturyan, 57, lives in the village of Dzyunashogh, close to Armenia’s northern border with Georgia, which is fast losing its population as people opt for an easier life elsewhere. Only 56 of the 300 houses are still lived in – a total of 169 people.
“The school will close. Children are not being born, and there aren’t many young people here,” Tsaturyan said. “The roads are in very bad shape. The gas pipeline has been shut down so we have to use dried manure to heat our homes in winter. For vegetables, only potatoes, beans and cabbage grow here, and as for fruit, we only have apples.”
Tsaturyan has to travel to a neighbouring village five kilometres away to get medical treatment. There is no public transport, and few people own cars, so she has to take a taxi there, costing her 5,000 drams, about 12 US dollars.
Yana Mamikonyan, head of the village administration, said residents had to sell their milk cheap but pay high prices for vegetables they bought from other villages, because the poor roads made transport expensive.
One of the worst problems, Mamikonyan said, was the ageing water supply network.
“There are only a few streets where the houses have mains water. I head the village administration, but I don’t have water at home, and I have to go to a spring 250 metres away every day. The pipes haven’t been replaced [in two decades],” she said. “It’s very tough living here, and that’s why people are leaving.”
She added, “We don’t expect to get any support from the state. I have gone to them with our problems on many occasions. It’s only at election times that the candidates turn up here, dish out two kilograms of sugar to everyone, and then leave again.”
During campaigning for the May 2012 parliamentary election, Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan indicated that fixing villages like Dzyunashogh was not a high priority.
“If there’s another village in the same valley that has drinking and irrigation water, gas and internet, and a school and kindergarten in good repair, then I’d rather the ten or 12 families… moved there and put their children into a decent school until we can get to their villages, provide gas and build a school,” he said.
The particular irony in Dzyunashogh is that this is the second time it has been depopulated. Until 1989, it was inhabited by ethnic Azerbaijanis, who left en masse as tensions grew over the Nagorny Karabakh dispute.
In this case, the departing villagers carried out a wholesale swap with Kerkenj, an ethnic Armenian settlement in northwest Azerbaijan, whose former residents moved into Dzyunashogh. It was part of a two-way exodus involving hundreds of thousands of people on both sides.
“I was ten when we moved to Dzyunashogh, but I do remember Kerkenj,” Norayr Tsaturyan, now 35 with three children, said. “Initially, when we’d only just moved, it was hard for the grown-ups. But this is like home for me. I can remember bringing my dog here from Kerkenj.”
Relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan remain poor, and there is sporadic gunfire across the border and around Karabakh.
In a rare example of cooperation, people from the two villages pledged to maintain the graveyards they left behind in the exchange – Armenian Christian in Kerkenj and Muslim in Dzyunashogh. When IWPR visited several years ago, the villagers were still in contact with each other. (See Armenia: Home From Home.)
Norayr Tsaturyan recalls, “We took pictures of the graves and sent them there so they could be sure we’d left them intact and undisturbed. They did the same for us…. Why would we destroy their graves? We aren’t barbarians.”
He added that people from Kerkenj used to be able to visit Dzyunashogh by taking a circuitous trip through Georgia, but that was no longer possible.
Dzyushanogh’s future as a community looks increasingly uncertain.
“Those who leave the village do not return,” Svetlana Sarkisova, the former head of the local school, said. “Some people just knock down their houses and sell them as construction material, and leave to go to Russia or Ukraine.”
Most young people marry and start work immediately after school, as their parents cannot afford to fund further education.
The village school still has 43 children and eight teachers, but the year-one intake is falling year by year. The building is in poor condition, with damp classrooms and broken floorboards and windows.
Sarkisova, who came originally from Baku rather than Kerkenj, lost her job as school principal because she was not fluent enough in Armenian to satisfy the education authorities.
“My problem is that I’m a specialist in Russian. I only learned the Armenian script here in Armenia, and I taught myself to read and write it. My poor knowledge of Armenian made it hard to get the certificate I needed to head a school,” she said. “I taught the refugee children at this school for two decades, throughout the years of cold. It was I who personally obtained all the books in the school… and now no one needs me.”
Sarkisova’s eldest son moved his family to Ukraine three years ago. Her younger son still lives in Dzyunashogh, and is a PE teacher at the school.
Sarkisov says she will never leave Dzyunashogh, come what may.
“Do you know how many times I’ve lost my home? I simply won’t risk moving again,” she said. “We left our home and all we had in Baku, without even selling our house to get some money. They were very difficult times. Our only thought was to get our children out of there alive and unharmed.”
Lilit Arakelyan is a journalist who writes for the Medialab website.