When the snow melts, the village of Geghakar restores its connection with the world.
Geghakar comes out when the snow goes away.
A nearly impassable road is the only link with the outside, and when nature closes it, Geghakar about 75 miles northeast of Yerevan hibernates until spring.
Until 1989, the village – formerly called Yenikend – was one of the richest cattle breeding areas of the Gegharkunik region. It was an Azeri settlement until then. But its population and its livestock industry and a lot of other things changed when Azeris were no longer welcomed across the nearby border, and vice versa.
Today Geghakar, like many villages around this part of Lake Sevan, is populated by refugees from Azerbaijan.
Ruben Karapetyan is 25. In 1990, when he was 11, his family escaped from the big-city (but dangerous for Armenians) life in Baku, and became villagers. Other refugees came for Kirovabad, and the former Azeri village became home to families like Ruben's.
“It’s very strange how this village was put on a map,” Ruben says.
Ten years ago there was a telephone line connecting Geghakar. But residents of the village remember that one day someone came to the village from Vardenis and cut all telephone lines taking them away saying that nobody can lay a complaint against him. Refugees, who had no support, couldn’t save their telephone lines.
“Those days they lied to us,” says refugee from Kirovabad Roman Karapetyan. “They said they would develop the village, install a gas line . . . And then they put us into an Ikarus (model of bus) and brought us here.”
It is a far measure from life as it was known in Kirovabad or Baku.
Villagers mainly live by growing potatoes and wheat, a task made more difficult because the village has no irrigation system. They say they cannot work their croplands because they have no machinery. And even if there were machinery, they couldn’t afford to buy fuel.
Thirteen families live in Geghakar, about 50 residents. Three times that many are registered here. Two-thirds of the official population actually live seven kilometers away in Lusakunk. They come to the village to graze cattle and to vote. The head of the village also lives in Lusakunk, and rarely visits his “constituency”. (In general, almost all refugee villages in the region have heads who are non-refugees.)
The poorest villagers are refugees from Baku, Boris and Irina Kulikyan, who have seven children.
“We had been living in the city for 35 years. What can we do now? This is our reality. We have no place to go,” says Boris, who is seriously ill and cannot do physical work anymore. Their eldest son, who is the main breadwinner in their family, was called up for military service.
“In summer we can do something, but in winter it is very hard. We can hardly sell 500-600 kilograms of potatoes and buy firewood. However, I cannot work the land anymore. In addition, there was terrible heavy rain, which killed all potatoes.” (In early March a storm and flood caused severe damage to the region. Many roofs in Geghakar were damaged).
In general, Geghakar has rich resources including wide meadows, croplands and a quarry. However, villagers insist they don't make use of them as quarries belong to a businessman from Vardenis, where only residents from Vardenis work. And majority of croplands is granted on lease.
“All hayfields belong to head of the village. He thinks only about his pocket,” says one of the villagers. (ArmeniaNow tried to reach the village head, but he was not in Geghakar nor in his permanent residence in Lusakunk.)
There is a medical station in the village, but it is always closed. A nurse from Lusakunk visits every two months, according to villagers.
Emma Tsaturyan, 62, a refugee from Baku, is the villagers’ means of health care. Emma gives injections, and, since 1992, has delivered 11 babies. She is not paid. Neither by the government, nor by the villagers, from whom she will not even allow a small gift.
“I used to work as a midwife in Baku,” Emma says. “When we were escaping from Baku I couldn't take my medical school diploma. Head of the village didn't allow me to become a nurse. He said I had no diploma (medical association of the region appoints nurses, however, head of the village can offer his candidature).”
There is only one car in the village but it is very old and hardly works. When somebody is seriously sick, the car becomes an ambulance. But if the road is closed by snow, or if there is no petrol, patients are taken by horse. Roman remembers when his daughter was seriously ill he took her to the city, carrying her along in a sled.
But when a villager is too sick to be moved, he is at the mercy of fate because it is impossible to call an ambulance. One villager died this winter as a result.
Geghakar has little to show as improvement since it became this involuntary home. It has, however, built a school with money given by Diaspora. Twelve students attend the eight-grade school. Those who wish to study beyond eighth grade must go to Lusakunk. Few, however, are likely to do so, as it would require walking 14 kilometers a day on a desolate road. Roman says his daughter is an excellent pupil, however, after finishing eight years in school she will not continue her study.
A month ago a bus to Vardenis began operating once every two weeks. However, it is not clear how long that route will be in use.
At least there was a shop here those days (when the refugees first settled),” Roman Karapetyan says. “But now even if you die nobody will know about it. I have arms and legs. I can do everything. We are specialized in different professions but we sit here and have nothing to do. We can hardly keep a couple of sheep and cows to be able to exist. How could they bring citizens to these mountains?