Strawberries in the shadow of civilization

Seeing me with my suitcase in the corridor right before my first trip to Armenia, my neighbor wished me a safe trip asking me where I was heading. ‘To Yerevan,’ I replied, while she fired back excitedly: ‘And, pardon my French, where exactly is that? Sounds exotic.

IMG_0175-670x300‘ My airport experience was pretty similar: it was only during her third attempt that the local clerk found the international air traffic abbreviation for this city. Then she started her interrogation on whether I had been sufficiently – and properly – informed about whether and what kind of visa I needed to enter Armenia. Her attempt to compromise my several months’ diligent investigation on the conditions and ways in which Serbian citizens could obtain an Armenian visa caused the well-known cramp right under my ribs, reminding me of my massive experience in visa-lines earned during the previous decade.

Our lodging was provided at the guesthouse of the State University of Yerevan with other international lecturers and guests. However, its residents looked more like protagonists of an Indiana Jones movie episode: all people we met the first day were all dusty, obviously sun-tanned and in crushed and wrinkled khaki clothes. ‘They are participants of the world archaeologists’ congress. Today they’re off to another field trip. Yesterday they were in, I guess, Metsamor and we’re heading there the day after tomorrow,’ said one of our hosts. I got pretty puzzled.

We came to a social development training in post-conflict contexts believeing that we would go to a single field visit to a community near the only nuclear power plant in Armenia. Then it seemed we would also be going to a place where the world’s archaeologists were studying a neolithic quarry and an observatory from the 5th century B.C. Eventually, it turned out that both the nuclear power plant and the archaeological site – once, as they say, also a castle inhabited till the 18th century – were in Metsamor, some forty kilometers west of Yerevan. Through the window of our jeep we saw four nuclear power plant chineys of gargantuan proportions dominating the landscape, while the archaeological site remained hidden from our view behind the surrounding hills of the Black Marsh, which is the Armenian name of this place. The settlement of the same name – a village by size, but predominantly with soc-realistic multi-storey buildings for collective housing – was built solely for the power plant workers and their families.

The infrastructure includes electricity, water supply and partially sewage. There is a local village government office, a small primary health care centre and a school whose pupils are more prone to dropout than not because of their parents being too busy to take care of them. Though both the nuclear power plant and the archeological site were opened at the beginning of the 1970′s, the people of Metsamour do not mention them at all in their conversations to us. They feel stuck in time when the workers became redundant and started getting fired. Their main concern is the future of their children who claim their childhood started just a few years back when the village got its children’s club, a choir and a puppet theater.

The little puppet theater actors and other artists make all their props by hand. Their plays and songs speak of friendship and the beauty of what is at hand and right under our noses, whereas some are in the rhythm of march. The latter make the teachers and the choir conductor require solemnity, sometimes even addressing the troupe in a stern voice. Their most dedicated audience are their parents and previous generations of once-children who are living their second childhood alongside the little artists, the very childhood in the shadow of the nuclear power plant of which no one has thought about until recently.

To our question on how did they know whether the radiation level around the power plant was within the permitted limits, they said they were planting strawberries. Thinking we misunderstood them, they explained that radiation makes strawberries grow up to five times their normal size.

Author:  Ankica Dragin

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