- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
 January 9 , 2004 

Magic Hands and Liquid Sun: A visit with Kashatagh's "fighter pilot" physician

The doctor says he sacrificed a surgical practice "for this land".

Is it possible that a pilot of an SU fighter plane would choose instead to fly the "kukuruznik" (the simple Russian plane nicknamed "corn cutter")?

Surgeon Artsakh Buniatyan pours mulberry vodka into glasses and compares himself to a fighter pilot. The doctor has exiled himself from a modern hospital in Abovian to this "kukuruznik" of a place, Kashatagh, where there are no facilities for surgery.

"I sacrificed my surgical practice for this land," he says and drinks his first glass.

(Before being reclaimed during the war with Azerbaijan, Kashatagh - still widely known as Lachin -- was the Azeri territory separating Karabakh from Armenia. Through heavy fighting, Armenian forces took the territory in 1992, and in 1993 began repopulating it, and rejoining Karabakh and Armenia after 70 years of separation.)

Mulberry vodka ("t-ti oghi") is brewed by villagers of Karabakh and the southern regions of Armenia and is the potent and favored drink of the region. And so it is in Kashatagh, the newest region of Karabakh.

Head of the Kashatagh Medical Division and director of Berdzor (Kashatagh's administrative center) hospital, Artsakh Buniatyan named the vodka liquid sun.

"Liquid sun is a divine drink, when you drink it you destroy it, that's why you must meditate while you drink it," says the doctor and then blissfully concentrating his eyes on the liquid in the glass he addresses it: "After I drink you, you will turn in my body into balm, you will heal me, you will free me from bad thoughts and make me more kind-hearted. After you drink it you must not twist you face as you can hurt it."

Then the doctor drinks another glass, cleans his long fedai mustache and smiles. People sitting around the table mechanically repeat everything he did. Despite the hard (70 percent) drink, his guests swallow without a flinch. Then they chase the fiery liquid with apple.

With his every guest the doctor performs three meditations in his small office in Berdzor hospital. Vodka is one of those rare gifts that he accepts from villagers.

Patients say he has "magic hands, not to mention his heart".

Berdzor hospital may be the only hospital of the "two Armenias" where medical treatment is really free of charge. Patients don't pay anything while being treated in the hospital (in other hospitals of Armenia relatives of patients must bring all necessary things for patients from linen to medicines and food and must pay doctors and nurses in cash for treatment).

"If a doctor takes money from a patient then he will be punished for that," says Buniatyan. "However, we can't treat all diseases and when we send a patient to Yerevan or Goris then he finds himself in a completely different world and falls into the hands of hawks, where they demand money and medicines of him. In those places residents of Kashatagh are taken for third rate people, who cannot cover their treatment expenses."

Artsakh Buniatyan is 69. During the entire Karabakh war from 1992 to 1995 he was working as a doctor in a field hospital. He published three books about the years he had spent during the war. He is author of five books, one of which is a book of poems.

After the war he again returned to his former work in Abovian hospital.

"I hadn't seen my family for three years. Three daughters were waiting for me. After the slaughter of war, it was hard for me to adapt to civil medicine." While he was trying to adapt he was invited to Kashatagh hospital's opening ceremony.

"I was invited to spend two days there, but they lied to me. At the opening ceremony the Karabakh Minister handed over the order of appointing me to this position. I thought that during the war I had been in so many difficult places and now it is God's will and it means that people need me."

Officials congratulated Buniatyan and left him alone with the walls of the hospital.

"For many months I had been spending more difficult days here than during the war. There was no place here to render patients medical assistance. People were blown up on mines and it was terrible that we couldn't help them."

These days the hospital is a modest resting place for whatever conditions afflict the residents of the region.

Women who've come from remote villages to deliver babies lie next to each other in one ward of the small two-storied building.

Seventy-year-old Emma is sick with cancer and has been in the hospital for two months. Her illness is terminal and now she waits to die.

Roza lies next to Emma. She has a kidney ailment and is waiting for her husband to sell a calf so that they'll have money to take her to Yerevan for treatment.

Three children who have pneumonia are in the same ward, brought there from a remote mountain village.

When the doctor appears, he is met with praise: "He has magic hands. Not to mention his heart," a patient says.

An operating room is the only room facing the street and it differs from any other ordinary room, as it has two ceiling lamps instead of one.

"Dust from the streets penetrates the room but we can do nothing. Fortunately cases of complications haven't been noticed," Buniatyan says.

The simple room's equipment - a device to administer anesthesiology -- was a gift of Agape, an American charitable organization. But the equipment has never been used, because the hospital doesn't have an anesthesiologist. An appendectomy is about the most serious surgery that could take place here.

Buniatyan is not a gynecologist, however he delivers babies and treats some female illnesses as there are no specialists of this field in the hospital. The maternity department is a three-room ward. With her newborn child a mother lies in one bed placed in the hall connecting the rooms. There is no other bed for putting the newborn separately.

For eight years in this building adults, children, women and men have been treated next to each other resignedly like a Gypsy band, as Buniatyan says.

The entire region looks like a mixed strolling company. "This territory hasn't got its distinguishing features yet," says Buniatyan. "People brought their traditions and one common mentality hasn't been shaped yet. People who appeared in the most difficult situation came to live here. Each of them suffers and has problems. There are people who lost their homes and found themselves in the streets. They came here to find a shelter."

Eight doctors work in the hospital and they render medical assistance to residents of half of the region (there is another hospital in the south in Kovsakan). They earn 45,000 drams (about $80) a month. Buniatyan dreams that one day young doctors will come to the region and he will be able to pass on his experience to them. It is almost impossible to find a doctor who will agree to work in the region as nobody wants to come here and work only for salary without taking money for treatment from patients.

"During the entire history of Armenia people have always been taking care of doctors giving them hens, eggs. But now doctors are simply tearing up their patients, they became leeches. Forget about Hippocrates, they kill him 10 times," says Buniatyan, whose sorest subject is corruption in the healthcare system. "There are villagers, who with great difficulties purchased two cows in 4-5 years but when they get sick they have to sell these cows to pay doctors in Yerevan for treatment. People prefer to die but never visit a doctor."

He fears that authorities will start charging facility fees in this hospital, like many in Armenia.

There is one medical service, which the doctor refuses to provide . . .

A woman approaches Buniatyan and speaks to him in a low voice. Her husband stands behind her. Buniatyan whips out a reply: "No way, it is forbidden here."

The woman says she has three children and can't take care of them. She wants an abortion.

"I don't care, you will have the fourth," says the doctor leaving them embarrassedly standing.

Buniatyan made two rules for the hospital. The first: No abortions.

"Two of 10 women go to Goris to have abortions, while eight give birth to children and then come to me and thank me because I didn't kill their fetuses," says Buniatyan (from 140 to 160 children are born in the region annually).

Rule Number Two: Any baby born in Buniatyan's hospital must be given an Armenian name. A list of names is attached to a wall in the hospital from which parents may choose.

After inspecting the hospital the "fighter pilot" returns to his office and pours liquid sun into glasses.

"When we have guests, the batteries of our soul get charged and then when villagers visit us we charge them in our turn. They are poor people, who come to the big city and the city is Berdzor," says the doctor, and empties his glass in one sip.

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