For me, Armenia was the end of the world. Of course, I had already heard about this thousand-year-old civilisation, its monasteries, its history and its tragedies. But for me, Armenia was a distant land, nestled between the mountains of the Caucasus, a country at the crossroads of East and West. I knew almost nothing about the country's regions and cultures.
I was quickly assigned to Yerevan, the capital. From there, we conduct several operations in the neighbouring regions. Several times a week, we take the main highway south to the Ararat region. Tightly packed in the car, with the air conditioning on full blast, we zigzag between potholes and speed bumps. On the right-hand lane, Kopeika, the emblematic car of the USSR, and dusty taxis, which often no longer have bumpers, drive as best they can. Everywhere, the same Armenian music, some kind of electro remix of traditional songs, interspersed with Russian eurodance tracks from the early 2000s. Traditional churches, Soviet blocks, ruins, cemeteries follow one another, the country is in mourning for the 2020 war.
The flags on the graves, the faces of these young people who never returned, tagged on the walls, engraved in the steles, testify to this. After about twenty minutes, we arrive in Ararat, this vast expanse of dust south of Yerevan. Everywhere in the country, the fertility of its soils, the quality of its agricultural products, its vines, its watermelons, its pomegranates is praised.
However, it is enough to open one's eyes, in this region that runs from the first suburbs of Yerevan to Yeraskh, on the border with Azeri Nakhchivan, to realise that this region is not the promised land of wealth.
The Ararat region is a vast plain surrounded by arid mountains to the east and north, and to the west and south, the border with Turkey and Azerbaijan. Overlooked by the colossal Mount Ararat, the omnipresent symbol of Armenia, this region is a succession of villages and small towns. On the heights, old factories almost abandoned since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. A blazing sun, a dry air, the wind whips the former Soviet blocks of the region, in which the more affluent have the chance to live relatively sheltered from the heat.
In the flat of an old man who has been abandoned by his relatives for decades, a thermometer from the 1950s reads 25 degrees Celsius, an oasis of coolness, while outside, under the blazing sun, it is frequently over 35 degrees in the shade.
Despite its legendary fertility, this region is probably the poorest I have visited in Armenia. SOS Chrétiens d'Orient is engaged in missions of donations and aid to hundreds of destitute families. Thanks to the help of Myasnik, a veteran of last year's war, known throughout the Armenian diaspora for his heroic rescue of a baby during an attack on a village in Artsakh, we are able to visit these families and assess their needs.
You only have to go a few dozen metres away from the village centres to encounter overwhelming misery. I remember some of these hovels, built with nothing, sometimes on ruins, sometimes on interrupted building sites, for lack of means, sometimes on nothing. In one of them, a family of five, a couple and their three children, all living in a single room of barely 6 square metres, littered with rubbish, a sour smell clinging to the clothes and the walls.
In another of these hovels, an old lady, driven mad by loneliness and poverty, living in an old ruined residence ! If her room is lucky enough to have four walls and a roof, the adjacent rooms do not even have a floor.
They explain to us the cause of this ambient poverty... Despite the fertility, it is risky for a villager to invest his savings in agriculture, it would only take one bad year for them to lose the little they have. Most of the parents here cannot read or write, so it is difficult if not impossible for them to receive any kind of aid from the state, or even to enrol their children in school. They do a succession of odd jobs, often the women work in the fields, the men work in factories or on building sites, and they find money as they can. At the corner of some houses, veterans of the war just liberated by the Azeris, in others, handicapped children whose parents cannot afford the treatment.
It was also there that I realised how much our missions can help. Even if we can't get the region out of its situation, we can at least considerably improve the living conditions of these people. Methodically, we carry out a series of visits and assessments of the families' needs. Food, first of all, enough to prepare basic meals, but also clothing, hygiene products, washing powder, basins, often facilities whose importance is no longer noticed in Europe, refrigerators being a perfect example. For other families, donations of animals, chickens and then pigs, which at best allow them to earn an income from the sale of meat, at worst to ensure meat consumption for the families.
And then there are the smiles and the welcomes. The families, aware of the Armenian rules of hospitality, always offer us something. Those who can afford it serve us coffee with some sweets, the poorest always offer us a glass of water, even though they don't have drinking water. We are seated on a sofa or shabby armchairs, on the walls, photos of relatives, between two images of the Virgin or Christ. Always the same smiles, eyes shining with hope. On the plain of Ararat, for us volunteers, a smile is worth all the thanks.
A visit always takes place in the same way: we enter, the family welcomes us and offers us to sit down before telling us its history and situation in detail through Alexander, the translator. We leave after having taken note of everything. Some time later, we return with the packages and goods needed to improve their daily life. The visits end with thanks and a prayer shared with the Armenians, who are sometimes embarrassed or even ashamed to receive so many things from complete strangers.
Between two donations, looking at the landscape, listening to Myasnik's explanations about the region, we understand that the problem is bigger, that poverty here is endemic. The ideas for projects and interventions multiply. Three times a week, we drive along the same dusty highway to assess the needs of new families, to start new projects, to see what can be done to help.
Classical donations, i.e. food and hygiene parcels, donations of fridges, donations of livestock, donations of uniforms so that the children can go to school, visits to buildings to be sold so that, why not, a centre for poor children can be set up, or simply to offer a visit to the zoo to children who can only very rarely get out of the fences that delimit their garden.
Today, I have left the region, but the interventions continue and will continue, as long as there are people to help.
Every evening, on the way back, the same saving fatigue, the calm in the car, the sun falling behind the surrounding mountains. The same deep feeling of having done the right thing, the irreplaceable feeling of being useful to others.
The sun is setting over the Ararat region. Today, the children have been able to play with their new balls, and at the beginning of the school year, they will be able to follow their lessons with adapted equipment.
The sun is setting over the Ararat region, tomorrow, other children will need clothes, other families will need food aid. A food parcel costs 15 euros, and with each donation we get closer to the evening, when the sun will set over the Ararat region, none of these families will suffer from poverty.
Gabriel, Communication Officer in Armenia.