- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
July 16, 2004

Home in the Highland: Serbian transplant is rooted to village life

“I don’t understand people, who say Armenia is my country but then they leave Armenia,” says Serbian Lilianna Oskanyan, who has been living and working in Byurakan for nearly 40 years.

Lilianna, 79, moved from Yugoslavia to Byurakan in 1966, when her husband, astronomer Vahe Oskanyan was brought there to work at the Byurakan Observatory.

On the lap of the Aragats Mountain, Byurakan is the largest settlement in the Ashtarak Region, with about 2,500 households. Its name became well known in Soviet times, when in 1946 scientist Viktor Hambardzumyan founded the observatory.

The village is at 1,500 meters above sea level, and in Soviet times workers there got a special allowance for working in a high mountain belt.


Like nearly every institution in Armenia, the observatory fell on hard times as the Soviet Union crumbled. And Byurakan itself lost its prominence as the scientific center struggled.

“Within the past four to five years Byurakan has grown poor for people as they leave for Russia,” Lilianna says. “It seems to me half of the village has left. It is very hard for people to live here. People, who have someone in Russia and get money from there live relatively normal lives.”

Lilianna’s Armenian still carries traces of an accent, but her devotion to the country she married into is steadfast.

Her husband’s family escaped Turkey and settled in Yugoslavia before 1915. Lilianna Antonovich was a student of Belgrade Medical University when she married the astronomer.

Two sons live in Yerevan, but even after Vahe died in 1989, Lilianna chose to stay alone in their Byurakan apartment.

Her reasons for staying in the mountain settlement are linked to one of her earliest memories of Armenia.

“It happened when we had just moved here. We were going to Artavazdik; it is a small church in Byurakan,” Lilianna recalls. “It was in March, snow had just melted away. In one of the last houses of the village a woman was baking lavash. We saw she had little flour. When we returned from the monastery she had finished baking lavash. She gave us four lavishes.

“Since that time I understood these people. When you pass by they necessarily give you something. People are poor but they share the last thing they have with you. Since that time I’ve attached myself to these people.”

It has been a mutual attachment and Lilianna sees similarities between Armenians and Serbians.

Life in the highlands

“Habits, and the nature of people to love and help other people. These similarities are very dear to me,” she says. “Armenians and Serbians resemble each other by their fate. Today Serbia also faces difficult days but the situation in Armenia worries me very much. It is obvious that people love their homeland as if you don’t love your homeland then you cannot love other nations.”

Two months ago a couple from Slovenia visited Byurakan. They were traveling throughout the region doing stories for Slovenian radio. They spent a night in the residency of the observatory.

“One of the watchmen told me, ‘doctor, two people are here. They speak your language and I don’t understand anything’,” says Lilianna. “That was a wonderful day for me. We were talking until late night. They were telling me about Slovenia. They didn’t lose ties with Serbia. The only thing is that they are separate.”

Everybody in Byurakan call Lilianna “Doctor”. Although the village had one small clinic with one doctor, many residents took their care from Lilianna.

“Despite there was a small ambulance station in the village and there was a doctor here, however, the whole village was visiting me,” she says. “I couldn’t refuse to help them. From time to time doctors were going to the city but I was always here and people were applying to me.”

It used to be that Lilianna would walk from village to village in the region visiting patients. Now, however, her patients must come to her.

Patient Hranush: "God bless my Lilianna"

“Last winter a woman visited me with her six-year-old grandchild. It was a very cold and windy day. Snow was falling in large clumps,” she says. “That woman was wearing slippers… I cannot forget it. The village is in terrible conditions. My pension is 8,500 drams (about $16.5). With such money I could have died if my sons didn’t help me. But in this village my pension is regarded as high. People here get less money.”

It is mainly people of Lilianna’s generation who have stayed in Byurakan. The younger ones have most left in search of work. Lilianna accuses government officials for ignoring Byurakan.

Lilianna’s sons Armen and Aram live in Yerevan, however, she has no plans to leave Byurakan. And even though the capital is less than an hour away, she has not been in Yerevan since 1999 when she attended the wedding of her grandchild.

“Here I feel very good. From our apartment in Yerevan I can see streets and buildings while here from the balcony I see Tegher church that I love very much and Masis (Ararat) as well,” Lilianna says. “It is incomparably more spiritual to live in a village as you communicate with people here.”

According to Agnes


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