Thursday, 18 July

Jiliza: Life on the Armenian-Georgian Border

ThevillageofJilizain the Lori Marz is one of the northernmost villages inArmenia. Unlike other villages, Jiliza is completely cut off from any other Armenian villages and towns. The closest is the town ofAlaverdi, fifteen kilometers away as the crow flies, and twenty-eight kilometers away by the road.

On the other side of the border are seven Georgian villages, the closest are Akhkyorpi and Opreti, which sits on a hilltop just across the river that forms the border.

Satenik Tunyan, the director of the Jiliza school, says that only a few Greek families are left in the previously wholly Greek populated Opreti. Most have emigrated, and Armenians and Azeris have moved in instead.

During theSoviet Union, Jiliza had friendly relations with the Georgian villages and trade was fairly active. But with independence the borders were put under strict control, and this year the border was closed. From our side, the border is guarded by Jiliza's border guard, and from the Georgian side, by Opreti's border guards.

 “We have friendly relations with the Armenian populated Georgian villages – one girl from there married here, another person took a wife from here, and another person has a sister and brother living here. In my case, to see my parents I have to go to Alaverdi, then Bagratashen and Sadakhlo, and from there to their village. Even though it is only a few kilometers away,” said Satenik Tunyan.

During the last two or three years, five or six families have left this village of 200. The number of students at the local school illustrates the emigration trend – in 2004 there were 60 pupils, in 2005, 57, in 2006, 43, and in September 2007 there will be only 40 pupils.

In Soviet times the village school was closed for an extended period, because most of the young people had moved to Alaverdi,Yerevan, or Vanadzor. The remaining village children attended schools in the neighboring Georgian villages. In 1991 the school was reopened, as an elementary branch of theChochkanSchool. It later became an eight-year school, then after taking into account that the village is situated in a remote location, there are no Armenian villages nearby, it's a border village and the population could emigrate quickly , the decision was made to add high school grades as well.

The school used to be located in what is now a border station, but because of the bad conditions of the building was moved in 1998 to the village hall, which also houses the village club, hospital, and library.

The school was given ten small rooms in the hall, each with room for two to four desks. Director Satenik Tunyan notes that the greatest problem is the lack of a sports hall. The regional government has said they will solve the problem once there are resources. The school only has one very old computer, but has contracted to receive two new ones.

The village hall, built in the 1980s, was renovated two years ago. The Hayastan All-Armenian Fund provided the school with desks, cupboards, and four blackboards. Last year, the Armenian Diaspora of Greece paid the school expenses for all the children. There is only one large family in the village (12 people), and its children's school expenses are paid by the government.

Although the border is closed, this year also two families from the neighboringvillageofChanakchiexpressed the desire to send their children to school in Jiliza. Their children will join the one first grader from Jiliza.

Last year, the school had eight graduates; one of them was accepted at the V. Sargsyan Military Institute, and two others are preparing to apply to theVanadzorPedagogicUniversity. On average, one or two out of three to five graduates are selected to attend universities in Vanadzor andYerevan.

Director Tunyan notes that they try to provide jobs to the best graduates, so that they don't leave the village. Some of them have higher education, and several are still students. Thus most of the school's thirteen teachers are locals, though there are several from Vanadzor.

“We are very happy that combined classrooms haven't been introduced yet, otherwise the emigration of residents would speed up. Some teachers are from outside and in case of combined classrooms their salaries would decrease, they'd receive salary for only one class while teaching two classes, “ Tunyan explained, adding that Jiliza doesn't receive benefits as a border village.

“There is a tendency amongst the youth to leave the village. The girls are leaving, and amongst the boys only the son of our current military commander has married; his wife is from Meghrut. The villager works at a loss. He has to sell his produce, and that is difficult, and transportation costs are expensive. In the beginning, there was trade withGeorgia, and we didn't worry much, but now that the borders are closed, it will create big problems, “ she said.

“If the border is not going to be open, there has to be a barbed wire fence, which I cannot accept at all, “ said Gagik Muradyan, a mathematics teacher, adding that border closure has negatively affected the Armenian population's lifestyle.

The villagers cannot sell the produce that they used to sell before in the Georgian villages.

“The crops this year have been good, we have lots of apples and nuts, but where do we sell them? “ Muradyan asked?

 “There are no jobs for us to work. What can we do? We can't cultivate the land, because there is no equipment. Only two or three households are living in normal conditions; the majority of villagers are hungry, “ said 77-year-old Zakar Muradyan.

In Jiliza, only the village head has a fixed phone number. The villagers use the Georgian mobile network. Within the network, calls cost 50-60 drams per minute, but a one-minute call to Armenian mobile networks costs 200 drams. Only the village hall has heating, though it's a wood-burning system.

“Here, just like everywhere in Armenia, the authorities don't think about creating jobs, just about getting rich while they're in power, “ said teacher Gagik Muradyan. “The solutions to the problems need to come from the very top; party and individual interests need to be secondary.”

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