World Council of Churches Office of Communication
WCC Feature
150 route de Ferney, P.O. Box 2100, 1211 Geneva 2, Switzerland
E-mail: media

29 May 2001

Robinson's Village
How life is returning to an Armenian village

by Karin Achtelstetter

In the village they call him admiringly "Robinson". Robinson was the first to come back to Yeghnajour; the first to endure a whole long winter alone at 2150 metres; the first to settle in this devastated village in the far north-western corner of Armenia, not far from the Turkish-Georgian border.

That was five years ago and Nairi (Robinson's real name) can hardly remember the details of that first winter. In his mind the six or seven months of winter seemed like one long, dark, never-ending night. "There was no electricity and no water. There wasn't another living soul up here, but at least the house was finished," says Nairi, now 35 years old. He knew the winter would be long and cold and he was mentally prepared for that, "But I hadn't reckoned with the constant icy wind. That was the first lesson I had to learn."

Since Nairi led the way in 1996, other families have followed and today ten families live in Yeghnajour. Life is slowly returning to the village where fifty families lived before the earthquake in 1988. New roofs are beginning to rise from the rubble of ruined houses. Children and dogs race each other in play. More families will be joining them soon.

Yeghnajour is a "social experiment", says Volodya Harutyunian of the "Shen" Office in Giumri. "Shen" means a "prosperous village" in Armenian and that, Harutyunian hopes, is what Yeghnajour will one day be. Careful planning, sensitivity and a knowledge of human nature are needed if the undertaking is to succeed. "We are going about it very carefully because we want a harmonious village community."

At present 25 families are on the waiting list for Yeghnajour. An average of two families a year are resettled there. They are given assistance to get started, help in rebuilding their house, three hectares of land and some cattle.

Yeghnajour is just one example of the agricultural projects supported by "Shen" and the other activities coordinated by the World Council of Churches' (WCC) "Armenia Round Table". The Round Table was set up at the suggestion of the Armenian Apostolic Church in cooperation with the Armenian Evangelical Church. Thanks to the initiative of the late Catholicos Karekin I, who died in 1999, and the WCC's Europe Desk, a permanent office was established in 1997 with the task of coordinating the work of international and local church partners. Since 1999, the Catholic Church in Armenia has also been involved in the Round Table.

What conditions must a family fulfil to be accepted for "Shen's" Yeghnajour project? The first requirement is motivation, says Harutyunian. They have to be ready to settle permanently in the most northerly village in Shirak province. "People have to know something about farming or at least come from a rural background, and they have to be willing to do hard physical work." The programme is intended mainly for people who were made homeless by the earthquake and are still living in the emergency accommodation hastily erected at that time. "And, of course," he says, "we prefer families that are still likely to grow bigger. After all, we want the village to grow and develop."

But Harutyunian knows that good intentions are not enough. Last winter two families went back to Giumri; they had found it harder than they expected to adjust to farming life. However, both are prepared to give it a second try in the spring.

Nairi is on hand to help the new arrivals with advice and practical assistance. His mother Manushag, his sister Susanna, his uncle Sergei and his aunt Sveta play a central role in the village. They welcome the newcomers, give them advice and help, and from time to time lend their parlour as a classroom when the state allocation of heating fuel for the village school runs out. "And it always runs out," says Aunt Sveta, who heads the school. The children are doing maths at the moment. Husik, Michael, Arthashes and Bagrat look hot and bothered as they struggle with their sums at the dining table - you can't help being nervous when the teacher is looking over your shoulder at what you are writing.

The school building, which survived the earthquake more or less intact, is in any case too big for the eleven pupils attending it at the moment. It's hard to imagine that in a few months the bare classrooms with the icy wind whistling round the windows will be bright and bustling with life. 240 children will be coming to spend their holidays in Yeghnajour during the three hot months of summer. Groups of 80 children with ten teachers each occupy the school building for a month. How do you milk a cow? How do you plant a tree? How do you make cheese? The children can learn all these things on the school's farm next door. It is a good experience for everyone - the villagers and the children, most of whom come from needy families in Giumri. They are children who live in emergency accommodation or who lost their mother or father during the earthquake.

"Some children liked it so much in the village that they persuaded their parents to put their names on the waiting list for Yeghnajour," Harutyunian tells us. "But they only know the village in summer," he warns, "and the winter is the real test."

Seven months of winter - a bunch of red tulips stand on the table in Nairi's parlour, a spring greeting from Giumri. But up here, the best place is still the warm seat by the stove in the kitchen.

Slowly, nature is coming back to life in Yeghnajour; the first purple crocuses are poking through the earth. "You know," one Shen worker told us, "our ancestors used to put the first crocuses on their eyes to greet the spring."

This feature was written during a visit to Armenia and Nagorno-Karabagh by staff members of the World Council of Churches' Public Information Team in April. It is the second in a series of features to mark the 1700th anniversary of the proclamation of Christianity, being celebrated by the Armenian Apostolic Church this year.

Photos to accompany the feature and on Armenia and Nagorny-Karabakh can be obtained from Photo Oikoumene.

Information about the anniversary celebrations of the Armenian Apostolic Church can be found on the website of the Catholicosate of Etchmiadzin and of the Catholicosate of Cilicia

For more information contact:
WCC Media Relations Officer
tel.: (+41 22) 791 6153 (office);
tel.: (+41 79) 284 5212 (mobile);
e-mail: media
Top of page

2000 press releases

WCC homepage

The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 342, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.