Too Young to Die: 30-year old “frontier” Nerkin Hand village faces extinction

Too Young to Die: 30-year old “frontier” Nerkin Hand village faces extinction

Photo: Gayane Mkrtchyan/

Three children from the seven living in the village

Nothing violates the silence of Nerkin Hand but the slight whisper of leaves on thick-trunked planetrees. The streets of this village resting on a forest edge are empty. The 30-year-old village is aging…
Norik Danielyan
Margush Aslanyan
(from left to right) Galya Gasparyan, Lusine Aslanyan, Margush Aslanyan
Norik Danielyan in the hollow of a 800-year-old plane tree

“It’s embarrassing to even say how many of us are left – only 85… our school has seven students and seven teachers,” says Norik Danielyan one of the elderly villagers. “We fought during the war to keep this village, people died for it, and now… ”

The village is located in Armenia’s southern province 350 km from Yerevan and is one of the remotest (on the border of Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh). Zangelan’s liberated areas stretch beyond the village. During the Soviet years Nerkin Hand was on the far end – bordering with Azerbaijan.

Village head Khachik Baghdasaryan says during the active period of the currently frozen Karabakh conflict – in 1991-1993 -- the village was of strategic and military importance.

“In 1993 Azeries intruded the village and set it on fire. For a year the village was in a neutral zone, villagers had to leave their homes, but in1994 we liberated it. People returned to their homes,” says Baghdasaryan who took part in the war.

Nerkin Hand was founded in the early 1980s, 2 km to south-east from the old village of the same name. The old village (founded in 1827-28) was populated by a number of families who had migrated form Iranian Vina and Karabakh’s Karaglukh villages. Today it has 29 households. One of the school teachers Galya Gasparyan recalls how in 1992 the Azeri were shooting from the top of the mountain at the village nested in the gorge, as she was at school with her students.

“Fourteen people among the peaceful population got killed in this gorge. We fought hard to keep our village and it pains me to see its decay. My son got married, moved to Kapan to find employment. But I can’t live in a city, I am not used to it. I love my village,” says the 55-year-old woman.

The state maintains the seven-student school. Gasparyan says it has seven teachers and a seven-member service personnel. If these 14 were left unemployed the village would “shut down”.

Nerkin Hand is hiding in the embrace of giant mountains. It’s hard to tell whether the village is in the forest or the forest has slid down and merged with the village. Margush Aslanyan, 80, collects dry tree brunches to burn in her furnace in winter. She slowly drags the pile to her house. To the greeting “Hello, how are you?” she immediately responds: “We are far away, driven away, cut off, on the very edge. Bless your heart, my life is over. I only want my country to stay in peace, the rest doesn’t matter. The war we have witnessed… ”

Her son and daughter-in-law come home in a Soviet-era Lada car. They are the village’s rarest young family: Lusine Aslanyan is a teacher at a school in Ditsmayri village (Kashatakh region, Nagorno Karabakh), 7 km from Nerkin Hand.

“We have 16 students, I go there to work because of the salary. In those territories (liberated during the war) salaries are higher. If in our village it’s 50,000 ($125), there it is 90,000-100,000 drams ($225-$250),” says Lusine. “Still, living here is too hard, I guess when the kids grow up a little bit, we will leave the village.”

Nerkin Hand is part of Kashatagh administrative area. At the very end of the village the biggest preserve of the Caucasus - Sosineri Purak (Planetree Park) - is located, stretching over 7.5 km and occupying 64.5 hectares of land. The preserve offers several employment chances to the village men.

Forestry expert Danielyan with 40 years’ working experience wears rubber boots; dry leaves covering the ground rustle softly as he walks enjoying the sweet serenity around him. He says he grows planetrees and walnut trees in the Park. From here seedlings are taken to provinces and Yerevan. This year they have grown 22,000 seedlings – 12,000 walnut and 10,000 plane trees. There are 300-400-year-old planetrees in the preserve.

Danielyan shows the oldest, 800-year-old, planetree and says: “This hollow is 10 sq meters and can room up to 30 people. This is one of the rarest trees in the region. There are only a few left.”

He agrees with regret that the village is dying out.

“Another 4-5 years and the village will die, but we are the country’s southern gate, the southern frontier soldier. We want our village to prosper, children to be born, we want to have a church. What village would that be if it has no school and church? Those two things are sacred.”

Recently the village women have participated in a hospitality workshop sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe PIP project in Syunik aimed at creating guest-houses or B&Bs in the village.

“The houses have been bomb-shelled, few have been reconstructed. Maybe when the youth return they might reconstruct and start working in that direction, I don’t know,” says teacher Gasparyan.

Village head Khachik Baghdasaryan believes that the village’s only chance for survival would be a community development project. This year they have participated in Transboundary Joint Secretariat for Trans Caucasus supported by the German government.

“It’s an experimental project. The development plans submitted by our neighbor villages of Shikahogh, Shishkert and Srashen have won. As a result each was granted 30,000 euros for community development. Maybe next year we can do that too. It would allow us to create food preserve, diary and wood processing workshops in our village. It’ll create jobs and villagers won’t have to leave their homes,” he says.