A village of 30 people was not the frontline Veronika Shahnazaryan and Narine Vardanyan had planned for as rookie reporters. Yet when they visited Vaghazin in the summer of 2017, they realized that a frontline can also be a run-down village school. Teaching the 10 pupils in the isolated hamlet of Vaghazin, about an hour and a half to the west of the Nagorno-Karabakh town of Shushi, was a challenge they decided to embrace, notwithstanding the challenges.
“After university, I had various jobs, but I wasn’t satisfied,” explains Shahnazaryan, who, together with Vardanyan, graduated in journalism from Yerevan State University in 2017. “But [they were] routine jobs. I was bored. My father encouraged me to get engaged, do something meaningful.”
Shahnazaryan and Vardanyan responded to a call for teachers from the Nagorno-Karabakh administration and Yerevan-based non-governmental organization Teach For Armenia. The NGO focuses on expanding educational opportunities for children in Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh by recruiting graduates and professionals to teach for a minimum of two years in the most underserved and isolated schools.
Vaghazin’s is certainly one of them.
A satellite view of the hamlet, nestled among high mountains and rolling meadows, shows a handful of limestone coverings against an array of roofless buildings -- a grim legacy of the conflict between Nagorno Karabakh and Azerbaijan. The 1994 ceasefire put the full-fledged war on hold and people slowly started repopulating the houses. Yet life there is harsh and, soon, the inhabitants got on the move again in search of opportunities elsewhere. Out of the 50 families who lived in the village in the early 2000s, only eight remain today, for a total of 30 permanent residents, according to official data.
The population drain took its toll on the education system as well. With only 10 pupils, Vaghazin’s school cannot organize its students, aged between 7 and 17, according to grade. Nonetheless, the school has 10 teachers so that all curriculum subjects will be taught, according to Nagorno Karabakh’s education law. Some must double up. Shahnazaryan, for instance, teaches both English and Russian, while Vardanyan focuses on Armenian language and literature.
Shahnazaryan and Vardanyan live together in a house provided free-of-charge by the village council. It is a few yards away from the school. The sign on the door reads “Teach Love in Your Liberated Fatherland.”
Inside, the walls of the only room are plastered with portraits of Armenian poets and artists, like Minas Avetisyan, Yeghishe Charents, Paruyr Sevak. They hang next to images of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Ernest Hemingway -- freedom fighters and life-changers, the two women say. Quotes from Hemingway and the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin are pinned on the windows’ shutters.
Two beds, three rickety chairs, an old table and a wood stove complete the interior. There is no running water. The bathroom is an outhouse in the yard. The two young women have had to adjust.
“Loneliness can be suffocating at times,” sighs Vardanyan, as she looks over the snow- capped mountains that surround her new world.
Isolation is at the heart of the village’s hardship. There is no healthcare and the closest first-aid service is in Vardut, seven kilometers away. Vaghazin got electricity only in 2006.
The closest shop and large settlement are 50 kilometers away -- the 1,900-person town of Berdzor, better known as Lachin. Karabakh’s main town, Stepanakert, is over 90 kilometers away, at the end of a potholed strip of tarmac.
To get around, people rely on their cars or the community-owned UAZ, a Russia-manufactured off-road vehicle common throughout the former Soviet Union. It doubles as both an ambulance and a bus. But winter can defeat even the UAZ. Then, heavy snow completely isolates the village.
Yet the village will survive as long as there are children and a school to educate them, Shahnazaryan and Vardanyan believe.
“We’ll do our best and then we’ll leave Vaghazin in a year and a half,” Vardanyansays. There will be “new teachers to continue our work.”