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
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
"I sacrificed my surgical practice for
this land," he says and drinks his first
(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
"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
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
say he has "magic hands, not to mention
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
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
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
"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
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
Three children who have pneumonia are in the
same ward, brought there from a remote mountain
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
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
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
"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
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