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Pensioners in Crisis

Armenia’s elderly pay dearly for independence

by Gayane Abrahamyan with photographs by Armineh Johannes

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Since settling in Armenia 17 years ago, Sonya Sargsian can only recall losses, hardships and heartbreaks.

“When we escaped Azerbaijan in 1988, the state gave us temporary asylum here with assurances we would receive an apartment later,” said the 80-year-old widow. “But they forgot about us,” she continued, repeatedly pressing her face into her open hands.

A “refugee,” Mrs. Sargsian is among the thousands of Armenians who fled their homes in neighboring Azerbaijan in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

“Who needs a life like this? I don’t want to live in these inhumane conditions,” she added, gesturing at her run-down studio apartment.

Sonya Sargsian resides in a dilapidated government-owned building housing impoverished pensioners and the homeless — one of three clustered in a forgotten suburb of Yerevan, the Armenian capital. Built as a student dormitory after World War II, the building has not been renovated since its construction. Residents share a common bathroom, which barely functions. Decrepit plumbing supplies water at irregular intervals.

“We can’t take a bath for months. We walk a district away to get water. Those unable to make the trip try to forget they have basic human needs,” Mrs. Sargsian said, pointing to the sewage leaking through the ceiling.

Complicating matters is the disappearance of her son and his family. “When the war began,” she said, “I sent my son and his children to his in-laws’ home in Chechnya. I had no idea they would escape one war only to find themselves in another.”

She has received no news of their whereabouts; attempts to contact them have not yielded any leads. “Their home has been shelled and ruined. Nobody lives there,” she concluded.

For many elderly Armenians such as Sonya Sargsian, a normal life is but a memory.

A small landlocked nation of 2.9 million people, Armenia has paid a high price for its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Once part of a mammoth state-controlled centralized economy, Armenia has had to go it alone. Soviet-organized trading patterns collapsed and state-subsidized industries decayed.

Exacerbating Armenia’s economic turmoil, the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh — an Armenian enclave seeking independence in neighboring Azerbaijan — soon escalated into war. Azerbaijan imposed a blockade that cut off Armenia from the outside world, crippling its economy further. By the mid-1990’s, the blockade had worsened living conditions in Armenia, leading hundreds of thousands of people to emigrate. Many of those who remained until the Russian-brokered cease-fire in 1994 endured years of economic warfare without electricity, heat and other basic amenities.

Armenia’s economy began its slow but steady recovery once fighting stopped and the state implemented wide-ranging reforms. According to government statistics, Armenia’s economy has grown at a double-digit rate for the past seven years. Official figures also indicate the poverty rate dropped from 56 percent to 35 percent between 1999 and 2005.

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Tags: Armenia Armenian Apostolic Church Caring for the Elderly Pensioners