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Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Catholic World News News Feature

Armenia Diary March 01, 2004

Father X

SUNDAY, DECEMBER 21, 2003

After a 10-hour layover in the Vienna airport they finally called my flight, and we boarded a Tyrolean Airways Fokker 70 at about 10:30 pm. The first-class section was occupied by the kind of flashy hard guys in their late thirties that were later pointed out to me—how accurately, I can’t say—as Armenian mafiosi. Certainly they dressed and acted the part, with the swagger and the smirk and the pricey toys—heavy gold watches and leather coats—on conspicuous display. One carried skin mags and a cell phone that sounded the Addams Family theme song.

The flight east took 3 hours, and we landed in Yerevan at 4:30 am local time. Oddly, Yerevan is 4 hours ahead of Greenwich, while Baghdad—on the same meridian—is only 3 hours ahead, and Teheran, 7 degrees of longitude to the east, is 3 and a half ahead. We walked down the gangway into darkness and bitter cold and were loaded onto a bus where we waited shivering for a driver to show up. My hand stuck to the metal of the handrail. After ten minutes a man appeared, spat a cigarette onto the tarmac, and moved us no more than 50 yards to the Arrivals doorway. I learned that Armenian includes some very expressive monosyllables. It would have been more amusing if it had been 30 degrees warmer.

Inside, the airport was bare, dirty, and cold. I’d figured that since we were arriving before 5 am there’d be no lengthy queueing for immigration, but in fact two flights had just preceded us, and I stood in line for half an hour. The border police wore Soviet-style wool uniforms; a square female officer in her late thirties had peroxided hair and an ill-fitting grey tunic with three stars on her oversized shoulderboards. She scowled at me and scowled at my passport and stamped it with violent disgust as if squashing a roach.

THE HOME AT SPITAK

I was met by the superior Sister Mieke (Belgian), Sister Anne Marie (Indian), and Carlo the driver, and we climbed into a Land Rover and headed north on icy unmarked roads through the mountains for about an hour and a half. It was still dark when we arrived.

Spitak is situated at an elevation of about 5,300 feet in the Bazum mountains, a spur of the Lesser Caucasus range, about 30 miles east of Turkey and 35 miles south of Georgia. The surrounding mountains are between 8,000 and 9,000 feet at the summit. This was the epicenter of a catastrophic earthquake in December of 1988, which killed 25,000 and destroyed the town’s only factories and many of its dwellings. Among the relief efforts was the construction of a cluster of pre-fabricated houses and other buildings that came to include the Missionaries of Charity’s “Home of Peace” for orphans and handicapped children, four miles to the west of Spitak proper. I was given a room in another pre-fab building, shared by the MCs’ chaplain Father Laurier Harvey, a Canadian Jesuit. I felt better after some instant coffee.

It was painfully cold as I walked over to my own quarters—cold enough to hurt my teeth when my mouth was open—and I realized my clothes were inadequate. There is a nearly constant gusting wind blowing a mixture of light snow and grit along the ground. The landscape is monotone and bleak. Everything that is not covered by snow, including the buildings, is the color of dead weeds. My room was clean, bare, and in spite of a weak electric heater, glacial; I put on my gloves and stocking hat and a second sweater and managed to doze in a chair. The building occasionally shook with the wind, which I could feel knifing in through a gap between the wall and floor slab.

Adoration and Benediction in the sisters’ chapel, then a tour of the facility. There are roughly thirty children of both sexes, ranging from newborns to 14-year-olds, with a few older special cases. Almost all are mentally impaired: some mildly, some very severely indeed; almost all have some physical defect as well. A few are true orphans; most were abandoned by their parents. As is usual in such places the boys are especially hungry for masculine attention, and I was dragged by the sleeve here and there to admire toy trucks, favorite photos, and Christmas decorations. Those who could speak at all addressed me in broken English learned from the sisters. I was touched by their delight in the Nativity crèche. Every ox and ass and kneeling shepherd was individually plucked from its spot, carefully examined, shown to me for my approval, and then reverently returned to its position. At least once a day I was towed into the playroom to repeat the inspection.

Back at his house Father Harvey showed me a Russian battery charger, with which he was attempting to top-up the spare for a veteran VW Golf he’d bought third-hand. Both cable leads were marked “negative,” unhelpfully, and he determined the proper configuration empirically: when the charger started to smoke, he knew the cables had to be reversed.

Living with the MCs are two volunteers: Hilde Vanwesemael, a Belgian in her late twenties and Jevgenia Veskäilänen, a Finn in her mid-twenties, both pious laywomen, both nearing the end of extensive sojourns here and despondent at the prospect of leaving the sisters and the children.

Vespers in the chapel at 7:00, followed by supper, then Compline. Outside, light snow blown by a stiff breeze. My room still cold, but I piled on the blankets and got four or five hours of sleep.

DECEMBER 23

Up at 5:50, said the Office of Readings and Lauds, with my breath visible. The water is on the fritz, so I took a bucket from the 55-gallon barrel and bathed very quickly, toweling off as fast as I could and climbing into my clothes. A cold-water shave. Mass at 7:00, with the sisters plus Hilde and Jevgenia, and Communion by intinction, according to the Armenian usage.

After breakfast, Sister Nishakant (Indian) loaded up the Land Rover and took Hilde and me into Spitak. It was sunny and bitter: temperature about about 3°F. The devastation left by the earthquake is still obvious everywhere: rusting trestles, buckled train-tracks overgrown with weeds, lopsided half-buildings used as haycrofts. Goats, calves, and dogs were foraging in the alleys and footpaths. Though I’d been told by Sister Mieke that unemployment was roughly 80 percent, I was shocked by the destitution.

The spine of the town is an abandoned factory (for processing sugar beets, I was told) that was erected by the Russians, destroyed by the earthquake, and—since its destruction coincided with the break-up of the Soviet Union—never rebuilt. The poor have scavenged from the ruins whatever they could find for their own use. Several rusting shipping containers were used as houses, as well as wheel-less buses propped up on cinder blocks with the windows sealed with cardboard. In at least two cases an 8-by-20-foot oil storage tank had been laid lengthwise on the ground with broken pieces of concrete to serve as chocks and a door cut in one end of the cylinder. Sanitation took the form of scrap-metal outhouses just big enough for a five-gallon bucket. There were no true roads in the poorer areas, just twin ruts of the kind tractors make, and Carlo moved the Land Rover through the snow in low gear, trying to balance on the crown between the ruts and the bank.

I saw a man carrying what at first looked like a bundle of weeds on his back; they were twigs and bits of sticks he had collected for fuel. Then I was hit by the realization of the treelessness of the hills and the fact that none of the houses was built of wood, but concrete and stone and steel, making for a doubly cold winter. Elsewhere I would see women standing in the snow by the roadside, completely in the open, with a dismal little pile of firewood for sale at their feet.

We made our way into a cluster of shacks and stopped. There was a Dogpatch flavor to the place; the houses were crazily out of plumb and improvised from disparate bits of scrap: corrugated steel, fieldstone, sheet-metal scavenged from crane cabs, odd bits of concrete and “pre-owned” cinder blocks. Speckled hens scratched through the snow and scattered when the dogs came out from under the houses to bark at us. Sewerage, running water, and electric power were missing. On the other hand, there was evidence that the poor were still trying—that it was money rather than energy that was lacking. Many houses had laundry hanging from clotheslines; the fences were as heterogeneous as the houses (one included a harrow frame, punch-press scrap, a white enamel range top, and several rocker panels) but were intact. I’m not sure why, but it struck me as heartening that many of the cottages, even the poorest, had curtains hanging in the windows: a flag of defiance.

Carlo lit up a Chesterfield, and Sister Nishakant and Hilde and I took some plastic sacks filled with milk powder, cereal, soap, and some odds and ends of clothing and made our way cautiously down a steep and icy incline between the shacks. We came to a one-room cottage, maybe 18 feet square, with a tiny stove in the middle. Against one wall was a bed with two sick children in it. There were no closets, no chest of drawers, no shelves, no hooks on the walls. All the clothing of the household, outer- and underwear, was laid flat on top of bed, and the children shivered beneath it all.

The cottage was made of concrete—not poured concrete, but irregular blocks that might have come from a torn-up highway or factory floor, laid in courses like bricks. I could see daylight through many of the chinks. The door was a piece of fiberboard hanging by one hinge in the doorway, providing some privacy, I suppose, but little else. It was still achingly cold. The mistress of the house was a very thin woman of about 27, a widow, plainly worried, dressed in a long skirt and thin wool top. She stood trembling in the cold, rubbing her upper arms and chafing her hands constantly. Her teeth chattered. Sister Nishakant gave her some large pieces of heavy cardboard and told her to put it on the floor as covering and not to burn it for fuel in the stove. I remembered that Eudora Welty story where the sharecropper couple, on a freezing morning, put a chair into the fire to feel the warmth, and in a fit of madness feed every stick of furniture they own into the flames. Then, of course, the fire dies and the cold returns.

Next we visited a two-room cottage, and a slightly older housewife, whose husband had abandoned her. Carlo had loaded the back with 18-inch squares of scrap linoleum for her, although, being frozen, some of it shattered in our hands when we took it out to give her. Some children helped carry it to her house. The rear room was windowless and used for storage. In the dark I could make out half a dozen cabbages on the floor—semi-spoiled, judging from the smell—onions, and some unidentifiable vegetables in jars of tea-colored brine. This house as well as the first had no decoration beyond a picture of the Sacred Heart and a smaller one of Mother Teresa.

We returned to the Land Rover and visited three or four houses in other neighborhoods. One was headed, at least provisionally, by a 13-year-old boy, who took care of a younger sister and brother. I was told that his mother had been in an overloaded bus that tumbled down a mountainside, as result of which she’d lost a leg. Her husband had left her and his children and skipped town, and she was presently in the state hospital for more surgery. They too got soap and cereal and some Christmas candy.

On the way home Sister Nishakant stopped at a grocery to buy flour. The store was small and crowded; I saw bananas and dates and a 30-pound smoked carp and rings of untempting sausage that smelled like Deep Woods Off. Above the heads of the grocers were rows of vodka and brandy; also the unfortunately named “lemon BARF detergent powder.”

Home for lunch, and an hour of adoration. Afterward I visited the children’s playroom. Hovanes, whose legs are paralyzed and who muscles himself from chair to chair with his arms, was completing a jigsaw puzzle he had laid out on the table—which I was pleased to see was a 750-piece panorama of the Cleveland skyline. How this particular puzzle ended up in Spitak is a mystery, but it seemed appropriate somehow. When the boys found out where I was from they said “America—drive big auto!” and made the steering-wheel motion with their hands. When I said I didn’t have an auto they grew quiet and appeared baffled, gripping the air more diffidently, convinced I must be mistaken about my car ownership or my nationality but unsure which.

4:30: Heard the sisters’ confessions.

I found Sister Romana and Hilde in the nursery, taking turns holding and feeding bottles to the five babies. The youngest, I believe they said, is five weeks old. Two of them were Down syndrome babies, and another two had hydrocephaly, which had given their heads that characteristic inverted leek-shaped deformity. Romana explained to me that the sisters were engaged in a more or less continual struggle with the surgeons in Yerevan, urging them to perform reparative surgery on the defective children. Sometimes they were able to pay for it with money given by foreign benefactors.

After Vespers, a supper of soup and bread. The heater in my room (which can’t be moved above the lowest setting without tripping the breaker) has taken the chill out of air but it’s not exactly snug yet. At least I no longer read my breviary with gloves on. Compline and early to bed.

DECEMBER 24

Up at 4:50: Office of Readings and Lauds. Still no water, so another blitz-bath in a plastic bucket. Four or five drowned earwigs found in the water barrel. A spectacular sky walking over for Mass: moonless, cold and perfectly clear, the Milky Way so distinct that the edges looked to be torn out of paper. Mass at 6:00, a quick breakfast, a Holy Hour beginning at 7:00. I noticed the sky begin to lighten at 7:40.

I was asked to help pin up some of the harder-to-reach Christmas decorations in the boys’ corridors. Gaik caught my shirt cuff and yanked me into the room he shares with three others. He’s about 15 and big for his age, physically coordinated but mentally well below par. He was keen to show me a chess set he had under his bed, and was entranced by the plastic pieces, which he played with like toy soldiers. I started to point out to him where the pieces went on the board but saw the lights go out almost instantly. “America!” he said to me. “Drive car?” At least he thinks I’m still teachable.

In the afternoon I heard the children’s confessions. I was given a chair in one of the playrooms, with the lighted candle on a table at my elbow. The sisters brought the children in one by one, reminded them to kneel down, and then left. In the case of the three or four most severely defective children—those incapable of speaking and understanding where they were—I simply gave them a blessing at the sister’s prompting and they were led out again. For the most part I was pleased at how well they confessed, even those with Down syndrome; they took some liberties with the order of the ritual, but they knew right from wrong, knew what to confess. For penitents whose English was shaky or nil Sister Anne Marie knelt beside them and served as interpreter—of course, she gets put “under the seal” too.

10:00 pm, the Christmas Vigil Mass. The children were dressed in their best for Christmas; a somewhat shocking change—not that they were scruffy earlier, but in aggregate they’d outshine any congregation in a US church I’d seen in the past 20 years. I was touched by the care they took with Gargarin, who is perhaps the most severely retarded of all; he looked almost natty in sweater and slacks, seated on a bench smiling at the palm of his left hand, which he held continually four inches from his nose. All the children received Communion—again by intinction, according to the Armenian usage. They sang the hymns lustily and grossly off-key; it may well be the first occasion on which the congregation’s singing was worse than my own. Compline, and to bed at 12:30.

CHRISTMAS DAY

Up at 5:50, read my breviary with a flashlight. There’s an Italian water-heater in the bathroom, but as there’s still no running water it’s useless. Bathing is unpleasant, but it’s the shaving in cold water I really detest. At breakfast, because it was Christmas, the sisters gave me a fried egg.

Christmas Mass at 9:30, Father Harvey presiding.

The temperature outside has risen to about 20°. I was surprised to see students arriving for class at the state-run school to the west of the sisters’ house, but was told that December 25 has no particular meaning for Armenians; New Year’s Day is the major holiday, and Christians celebrate the Epiphany as well.

That said, the sisters were not going to let the desperately poor go hungry on Christmas Day, and Nishakant loaded the Land Rover with warm food, and Jevgenia and I rode along to help deliver it. We made fifteen stops or so, often feeding two or more households at a time. The sisters had prepared stewed chicken, boiled potatoes, and a salad of peas and grated carrot. There was also an apple and a tangerine for every person in the house. One complication—which, I’m ashamed to say, hadn’t occurred to me—was that food containers were scarce, and people sometimes brought out buckets and wash basins, into which Nishakant and Jevgenia carefully ladled the meal. I’d help carry it into the homes, say a blessing prayer with Nishakant, and sprinkle the room with Holy Water. Looking around for other food I usually saw nothing. Most people gave no sign of gratitude or resentment. One woman scolded Nishakant (“She asks for clothes, Father.”) Another woman wept.

Slowly it dawned on me that nearly all the most wretched folks we visited were mentally deficient, and that in addition to being destitute they were imperfectly capable of keeping house and taking care of themselves generally. I mentioned this to Nishakant and she nodded, and explained that depression was an even greater problem; sometimes the hardship became overwhelming and people just quit. She told me that “Ripsy” (Hripsime, one of their wards) was found as a baby, black with filth, lying in a dirty bed with her head crawling with lice.

Back at the compound, I followed the spry Father Harvey down a concrete conduit into a well pit to try to prime the pump that services his bungalow. Water flowed for five minutes and quit.

After lunch there was a Christmas pageant, which has been in rehearsal for several days. With the help of some creative gender-bending, everybody had a part. The infant Jesus was convincingly played by a 3-week-old girl whom the sisters laid in a bassinette. Those confined to wheelchairs, for the most part the most severely retarded, served as the angels, wearing white robes with tinsel haloes and cardboard wings fastened behind. As they slumped in their chairs, cross-eyed and drooling, it came home to me that few persons who played the part would be likely to pass more of their lives in the state of grace. A two-man pantomime donkey genuflected in the general direction of the manger, next to four of the Three Kings.

Afterward, Santa Claus made an appearance and gave each child a gift from his sack, for which the recipient performed a dance or sang a song. I sat on a folding chair helping with hard-to-open presents, etc., caught unawares several times by slobbery kisses on the temple and neck from overexcited children.

Vespers, a bowl of soup, and to bed before 9:00.