For 22 years, Murad and Susanna Yeghyan, an Armenian farming couple, have been selling melons each summer and fall from a roadside straw kiosk located just a few kilometers away from the Azerbaijani borderline. As retail locations go, few are more dangerous. But to make money on their crops, they have no other choice.
“Twenty-four hours [a day], we are here so that we can sell the whole harvest,” elaborates Susanna Yeghyan, 56. “Every second, our life is threatened on this road. Though, there are no shootings. But, anyway, we are in front of the enemy.”
The 349-kilometer-long Yeraskh-Meghri highway runs from western Armenia, not far from the Turkish border, all the way south to the border with Iran. At its start, where the Yeghyans sell their produce, it is located just above the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan.
Other dangers exist, too. “The road is always loaded with trucks and passenger cars,” Yeghyan continues. “There was a car crash just next to us. The road is not lit up at night.”
Each time she hears car brakes squeak, she jerks herself up from her kiosk seat.
For all these perils, the road is safer than the villagers’ original farm land, located on the other side of the highway, less than a kilometer from the border. Like other residents of the border village Paruyr Sevak, they have had to give up growing crops there and move to less fertile land near the Yeraskh-Meghri highway. To have a rich harvest, they routinely change fields.
“We sell this harvest in this dangerous area to earn our living; our survival, more precisely,” says Yeghyan’s neighbor, 60-year-old Apaven Abrahamyan. “We store things for winter. Otherwise, we’d die of hunger.”
Selling watermelons and other melons to highway drivers between August and October gives villagers enough cash to tide them over during the winter and spring. They use unsold items to barter for food from other villages.
As border-area residents, they receive a 50-percent discount on the cost of water, a 5,000-dram ($10.34) subsidy for their monthly electricity bill and a slight discount (1,000-2,000 drams or about $2-$4) on fertilizers.
But these villagers still remember easier times.
“When the border was open, the nearby [Azerbaijani] village of Sadarak was very convenient for trade,” recounts Albert Baghdasaryan, 62. “It was very close and had a big market. We could sell our products faster. Now, we have to sell a part of our products to resellers with low prices.”
The trade ties with Azerbaijan, though, did nothing to reduce hostility when war over Nagorno Karabakh hit in the early 1990s. “[T]he situation was very tense here,” Baghdasaryan recalls. “We were standing on the border with guns in our hands. Our wives and children were with us and would hide in basements during shootouts.”
Today, their village of Paruyr Sevak, with a population of less than 400 people, is “half-empty and not interesting for youth,” Baghdasaryan claims.
“They leave the village for Yerevan or for abroad. The old stay. Where can they go? They won’t be employed.”
Baghdasaryan himself spends one month each winter with his son in Russia. The rest of the season, he stays home and waits for the spring.
The grueling life takes a toll.
Apaven Abrahamyan acknowledges he smokes three packs of 20 cigarettes and drinks “seven to eight” cups of coffee each day while waiting for fruit customers.
Yegyhan, who had to give up further education when she married at 18, comments that “I felt the hardship of life at an early age.”
She continues after a pause. “Look here, are those hands feminine? Look at the cracks and corns. I am tired of this tough job. I want to be a slender woman.”
She also worries about “hearing problems” from the traffic that make “you start talking loudly.”
Yet she herself always speaks calmly and with a smile.