- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
 December 12 , 2003 

Smiling Through Tragedy: A teenager adapts to a handicap from war

Where there's a will . . .

The bright-faced teenager uses her toes to bring a fire starter to the gas stove. Then she uses her toes to open the gas and light a flame for making coffee, which she serves with a smile.

Mary Mezhlumyan is 18, and for the past 10 years has had to find ways of daily existence far different from others. Almost everyone in her town of Kapan (about 320 kilometers south of Yerevan) knows something about survival. Mary knows more than most.

Kapan is near the border of Azerbaijan, and in 1993, with the Karabakh war at a peak, it was not a safe place. It was particularly unsafe for eight-year old Mary one morning . . .

"Everything happened in a second," she recalls. "Together with my uncle's children I was at my father's and uncle's work place. There was a dog there I liked very much. I was playing with the dog, when the military plane suddenly began bombing with the cassette bombs. Somebody fell in front of me, and for some time I didn't feel or recollect anything".

When she regained consciousness, Mary awoke to a life that would forever be different.

"When I put my hands on the ground they momentarily melted. There was no blood, my hands were burned and the wound closed. It was pretty terrifying. We didn't find my hands, and my leg was also injured. My dog was killed, everybody around was injured, but I was injured more than anybody else. Everybody began running around in horror. My father lifted me up and ran to the car. Even the doctors at the hospital were scared at the sight, and for some time nobody came close to me and helped me. I had my first operation in Kapan, afterwards I was moved to Yerevan."

Mary has learned to operate the TV remote with her cheek, chin and shoulder.

Mary has had several operations since, and twice she has been sent for treatment in the United States. Five years ago she was given prosthetics.

"They were given to me when I was 13," she says, "and now they are too small on me. They only have three fingers but still were a great help to me. I was at least able to get dressed by myself."

"I have been trying to live like others," she says, with cheerfulness and optimism that offers no hint of the girl's horrifying past.

"She is still a child," says her father, 46-year old Karo who, himself, has struggled to accept his daughter's injury and can't look at her calmly.

"There are still going to be many difficulties. Nevertheless today, when Mary does something by herself, it's a great thing for us. If only everything had been the way we wanted . . ."

Despite her father's and brothers' sad eyes, Mary's cheerfulness doesn't go away.

"How can you look at a person and not smile," she says.

Mary has finished school, but still hasn't decided on her future profession. Sometimes she wants to be a variety performer and sometimes a computer specialist, it depends on her mood. Like others her age, she likes to go to clubs, listen to music, sing, dance and follow the latest fashions.

She lights the stove using her toes, then spoons the coffee in like this . . .

"Everybody knows me in our city," she says. "Sometimes I am being carefully watched, but I don't feel bad about that. Sometimes, when a boy looks at me, I smile at him, so that he won't be sad. I very often go to clubs, I like the atmosphere and the walls, but most of all I like tango. Tango is both a sad and an intimate dance".

Her best friend is a cousin, Karine, 21, who was wounded in the leg by the bombing that took Mary's arms. The cousins have become especially close since Mary's mother, Nina, died of leukemia two years ago. Since then, Karine has devoted herself to helping take care of Mary. She helps her bathe, cook and get dressed up for the disco.

Mary has learned some routine work on her own.

"I didn't do any house chores before," she says, looking at her mother's picture and small crosses attached to the wall next to her bed. "But after my mom's death I tried to take over some chores and help my family".

After two years of practice Mary can sweep, using her head and shoulders, and manipulates the stove with her toes.

She could do more with properly-fitted prosthetics.

Using her mouth and toes, Mary writes, paints, eats, changes TV channels, switches on and off the room lights, and turns on the tape-recorder.

And she dreams of living a "normal" life. It is a dream that includes having prosthetics that fit, and a dog.

"I will love that dog very much, and with the help of my hands I can do a lot of things. I can even wear rings," Mary says, still smiling.

The non governmental organization, Luysi Shogh has helped cases such as Mary (though not her, specifically). For information about Luysi Shogh: Call (374 1) 23.34.90. To make a donation to Mary through ArmeniaNow's HyeSanta project, click here.


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