Naira Manoucharyan: “I will keep my kids, even if I have to feed them my flesh”
One can occasionally see 11 year-old Arman selling tissues on the streets of downtown Yerevan. His makeshift mobile store is a cardboard box.
With school once again started, Arman isn’t that much involved in the retail trade.
The boy’s mother, 30 year-old Naira Manoucharyan told me over the phone that she didn’t want me to write an article about the family’s needs. Her husband, Artsakh War vet Gagik Antonyan, reaffirmed this wish.
“Yes, it’s correct that we don’t live well. But we’d be embarrassed if you wrote about that. My husband wouldn’t allow it,” Naira told me. I don’t try to convince her otherwise. A bit later I call her again.
She suffers from bronchitis and was diagnosed with breast cancer five years ago. Doctors advised surgery. Her husband suffered a concussion in the war and his hands and legs were damaged. Naira says he sometimes exhibits bouts of memory loss. The family lives in a rented house.
Naira said she’d only talk to me about her children and reiterated that she doesn’t like to complain.
“I want to become a doctor and cure my mother”
Construction debris lines the road to the village of Zovouni. Large stones lie about. The periodic noise of a passing car breaks the overall silence of the place. The street on which the family lives seems disconnected from the rest of the neighborhood.
The afternoon sunlight is reflected in the eyes of 5 year-old Marina who waits for us to arrive. She’s playing with a dog when we get there. I ask if she got tired waiting and she answers, “yes.” We walk the sandy road to the house and the dog, named Archouk, falls behind. Marina frequently turns around to make sure that the dog is following.
Marina says that she wants to become a doctor when she grows up. I ask why. She remains silent for a moment and then the five year-old says, “My mom is sick. I work in the house and help her. I sweep, fold the clothes, and straighten things out.”
Naira opens the gate and greets us with a smile. 2 and a half year-old Emil is there as well. Naira says that Arman is at the home of his father’s parents. The yard is clean. A lace tablecloth covers the table.
“I will keep my kids, even if I have to feed them my flesh”
Naira Manoucharyan’s life has had a number of twists and turns. We spoke about them off the record. She was born in Kapan. Her parents had disabilities. She fled to Yerevan dreaming about the good life. “My parents opposed the decision but I believed I would live better in Yerevan,” Naira says. The two kids play in the yard. “You know, we had many difficult times. But I am satisfied with what I have now,” she says
Naira says that Gagik is her second husband. Her eldest son is from the first. “Before Arman I had a son who died at the age of 18 months with lung-heart deficiency,” she says, her voice breaking. She doesn’t blink. It’s as if she’s concentrating on the point to collect her memories. She says the death of her child changed her. The once lively, outgoing woman has become withdrawn.
She’s says that she was diagnosed with breast cancer after the birth of her second child. They told her at Yerevan’s Erebouni Hospital that she needed surgery. On top of this, she has bronchial asthma that can frequently get worse during the day.
“My husband helps me a lot,” she says, a smile coming over her face. “Right now I’m three months pregnant.”
She’s says that before getting pregnant, she would help her husband with his construction work. Gagik makes 3,000 AMD (US$6.30) daily. The work isn’t permanent. Sometimes he sells used clothing at Yerevan’s Vernisage flea market for 200 AMD an item. “When they give us old clothes I keep the large ones for the kids to wear later. The others I give to my husband to sell,” Naira says.
In the summer, Naira and the kids collected berries to sell. She’s says there are blackberry bushes nearby. They’d sell a bucket for 2,000 dram.
“Even hungry, I’ll keep my kids under my wings. I’ll feed them my flesh. That’s how strong I am. They can break me, but my kids must be fine,” Naira says. Silence once again. Naira recollects last winter when they had had neither electricity nor a stove. They were turned off due to non payment.
“I’ll never forget it. Emil was a few months old. They hadn’t eaten anything. We used to go to the bakery asking for some old bread. It was very difficult,” Naira says. “Now we eat well and sleep well. Sometimes I wake up at night fearing that it will all end.”
The family receives no child support from the government. Naira says they didn’t even get a one-time payment when Emil was born. “We received 50,000 dram ($105) when my daughter was born. I gave half to the Kharperd maternity ward. I would have done the same if I got a payment for Emil. Old people and children are my weakness,” Naira says, adding that she cannot get child assistance because she isn’t officially registered at the address where they live.
The boy selling tissues
Arman came up with the idea of selling tissues on his own. When we visited, he wasn’t at home. Naira said he lives with his grandparents during school. It’s closer that way. He’s now in the fourth grade. Naira says she knows about the tissue selling but there’s no alternative.
“He was picked up a few times by the inspectors. They called me and said he’s too young to be doing that. I told them to let him go because I can’t go and pick the boy up,” says Naira. “They brought him home and told me to work instead. I told them to give us money to buy some bread.”
Naira tells me that Arman was forced to go sell tissues a few days ago because 3,100 dram was needed for the school fund. In addition to this amount, Arman raised another 6,000 dram that day. Naira says they used the cash to buy a chicken and a duck.
“My life story has been quite hard. Perhaps the reader will not understand me. I just dreamt about living well,” Naira says. When I ask her what she dreams about having, Naira responds, “I just want a domik (small trailer cabin), nothing else. I also want my kids to have full stomachs.”
“So that people understand me correctly”
I turn off the recorder and continue my conversation with Naira. She says that while some might not understand her, there may be folks, with full stomachs and a roof over their heads, who want to help out
“I didn’t go to war to be appreciated”
I talk to 42 year-old Gagik Antonyan about the war years and today’s Armenia…about Independence Day. He says he volunteered for the front when he was 17.
“That was real life that we lived. If war breaks out today, I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment. After the war, in 1997, I served at the Noyemberyan military unit. I was 23 at the time,” says Gagik, who uses few words. He says he lost two friends before his eyes when Martakert was liberated in 1993. “My hair turned white in one day,” he says, looking at the ground.
I tell him that two days ago, on September 21, was Independence Day. He looks at me and laughs. “I raise chickens. People are happy. What would I do if I went to Republic Square? It takes a half an hour just to get to Davtashen.”
I ask Gagik if his service has been appreciated. After a few moments of silence he responds, “No it hasn’t, but I don’t need such appreciation. There are many who can pull out documents saying they spent a day on the front-line, but they have official positions. They don’t interest me. I did what I had to do. It wasn’t to be appreciated.”
Our conversation over, the parents turn to look at Emil. Gagik says that Emil is his main concern right now. “He’s a strong boy. He’ll become an athlete one day, a world champion.”
Photos: Narek Aleksanyan