- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
 December 26 , 2003 

Black life: "I'm neither sick nor alive"

Editor's note: On a recent assignment, veteran photojournalist Ruben Mangasaryan encountered the family portrayed here. Ruben and ArmeniaNow's Vahan Ishkhanyan returned to document the family (and to offer help for repairing a stove pipe).

It is a disquieting glance at survival on the edge . . .

From the streets Lida collects whatever she can find to burn in her stove. And, as plastic bags are most of all scattered in the streets of Bagratashen, polyethylene becomes the main fuel.

Lida Gadyan, 39, is a refugee from Baku, where she worked as a dishwasher in a canteen. This year she has moved from a wagon, where she used to live, to an apartment recently built in the Bagratashen's district constructed especially for refugees. She can't remember when she moved to that apartment like she can't remember when she escaped from Baku, when she found herself in Stepanakert, when she got married, when she bore children and when she moved to Bagratashen. She doesn't suffer from amnesia, she's just lost the sense of time.

She knows for sure, however, that she gave birth to eight children.

In the '90s Lida's husband left her and together with her son and mother she came to this village. Across the river, Georgia can be seen from Bagratashen. The Azeri village Sadakhlo is located there and the popular Sadakhlo market, which functions on both sides of the border. Traders from both countries sell everything from food products to car tires. Prostitutes sell their bodies as well.

Until recently Lida was prostituting. As a result of her work she gave birth to seven children in Armenia. She says her second child was by her husband. Two children were left by her in hospital. Two others died - one at birth and one at age five months from hunger. She also wanted to leave her two younger children in a maternity hospital, however as she says doctors didn't wish to keep them and told her to take the children to an orphanage. But when she brought the children home she decided to keep them.

"I can't send them anywhere as they are already a part of my heart," Lida says. "I was scared and never aborted, plus, I didn't have money for that."

Today her family consists of herself, four children and her mother, 75 year old Asya. They live in the only house (of 12), with no electricity. The reason is that debts were not paid for their former place of residence. None of the houses has water or indoor toilets.

Lida can't afford firewood. She could pick sticks to burn, but it's easier to collect garbage in the market. She collects garbage for her stove mainly in an area known as the "Turkish Rim". Smoke produced by the plastic is very heavy and consequently it soon choked the stovepipe. Black smoke fills the apartment and paints everything. It is hard to find any color in the house except black. Walls, curtains in the corridor, bed linen and people living there are black. Nobody tries to clean up the stovepipe. Neighbors say that their former residence, the wagon, didn't differ much from this one in color. In fact the pipes have only a decorative role. Instead of leaving the house through the chimney, smoke penetrating through the holes in pipes fills the rooms.

Anyone who comes in for a minute will start coughing, smoke burns the eyes, and any place you touch will leave soot on your clothes. Upon leaving the house, clothes carry the smell of burnt plastic.

Lida and Asya always cough. But they say they are not sick and coughing is the result of smoke.

"I'm neither sick nor alive," says Asya.

The children don't cough. And they don't wash. "It's useless for them to wash up as they will immediately get dirty again," explains Lida.

The older son, Armen is 12 and doesn't like washing. But Mariam, 10, washes away the soot from her face.

At first view the youngest, five month old Mariam, who sits on Armen's knees, looks like a doll. The brother cradles the child and tells her sweet words: "I will slaaaughter you, I will buuurn you and my burden will be lightened." Lida bathes the baby everyday, however, after being bathed in sooty water the baby is still smoke covered. The water in the pan is blackened, but it's still warm, so now three year old Artur will be bathed there.

The girls are Mariam and Maria, named for the Blessed Virgin. There are three pictures hung on the wall in the room, but it is hard to see what they portray. There is the Blessed Virgin Mary holding newborn Jesus and two wooden crucifixes.

Lida wears a cross around her neck. In this dirt and smoke the children don't fall sick. "God saves poor people," says Lida.

Armen and Mariam never attended school. Lida says she hasn't got money to buy clothes for them to send them to school. "It isn't worth going to school," she says, throwing another plastic bag into the stove.

Armen has mainly one answer to all questions, "I have nooo idea." He says it in an odd singing accent as if he mocks the one who talks to him. He "has no idea" about his last name, father's name, birth date and other things. He knows that yesterday he ate and when he is asked what he ate he answers, "diiiner". Neighbors say that he has peculiar ways.

Mariam had been imitating her elder brother so long that she has finally acquired the same habit of speaking in an odd manner and when she is asked about school she answers in the same manner, "I dooon't want." The children almost never leave the house. Sometimes Mariam together with her grandma goes to bring water from the spring located 20 meters away from the house. Neighbors say that children are rabbit-hearted and not sociable. "That's why they became wild."

Lida has no passport and never got allowance for her children because she is not officially registered with the State. Asya only recently lost her passport, however she never got a pension during her 12 or 13 years in Armenia.

"Many people have no husbands, but Lida has no idea that she make a claim and get the money that officially belongs to her," says a neighbor, Mariam.

Before moving to the new apartment Lida was able to earn some money. For every sexual service she used to get 2,000-2,500 drams (about $3 or $4). However: "Sometimes it happened when they didn't pay me."

Now she realizes that prostitution was not a good way of life. "How can you keep a family if you know that in the end it will only be worse. When you do that you can easily stay," says Lida, meaning pregnancy.

She decided not "to do that" ever, not to prostitute anymore.

"I cannot do that anymore, I decided to have no relations with men anymore. That's it. I haven't been doing that for a long time, for more than five months."

Now Lida makes a small business. She passes the border, buys cigarettes in Sadakhlo and then brings them to Bagratashen and resells them. However, the money she earns isn't even enough for bread. The whole family is hungry.

"They have no money. They boil water and drink it without anything," says neighbor Mariam. From time to time neighbors help them. They are also refugees and have many difficulties in their life.

"We also live bad. But when you pity someone you give at least a slice of bread to them. It doesn't matter whether they are Armenians or Turks, if someone wishes to help them from the heart then he will help," says neighbor Rita. "It is good that she doesn't take her children to the scrap-heap and leave them there. It happens sometimes when a mother cannot take care of her child and she chokes it to death and kills her child saying that he died."

All neighbors think that the only thing that would save children is that if they are taken to orphanage, as the neighbor Mariam says: "She cannot take care of them. It will be good if they are taken to a boarding school. They are children."

Black Life

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