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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cold Nights, Bitter Days in Armenia

YEREVAN, Armenia - Ushkhan Gatchatryan rubs his hands together vigorously, trying to keep warm. A taxi driver by profession, he carefully places a piece of plywood into his stove, making sure it will burn as long as possible. The wood was supposed to be used to fix his roof, but now he uses it to keep his children warm.


I just can't bring myself to chop down a tree like everyone else", says Gatchatryan with a heavy sigh. "So now I use my roof instead. We almost have no trees left in the city. If they are all destroyed this winter, what are we going to do next year? "


Gatchatryan, 57, is one of the few Armenians who is not on the street with a saw. Trying to fight the bitter winter cold, freezing Armenians have already cut down a million trees. Since the only pipeline carrying natural gas to the former Soviet republic was blown up for the second time last week, Armenians have been burning anything that will ignite.


Antique furniture and books have gone up in flames, as have pieces of ceilings and walls. People pile up as many branches as their sleds, carts and baby carriages can hold. Once lush city parks are now filled with lonely tree stumps that are barely visible under a thick blanket of snow.


Although energy has long been sparse due to a blockade by neighboring Azerbaijan, the electricity supply has never been worse.


As the light goes out in his house, Gatchatryan points to the lightbulb dangling from the ceiling.


"They don't even give us an hour of electricity anymore", he says. "They say it's only going to get worse, but I cannot imagine how it possibly could".


Like most Christian Armenians, Gatchatryan blames the Moslems in Turkey and Azerbaijan for his country's plight.


"Turkey dictates to us and Azerbaijan is trying to starve us by blocking the roads", he says. "Our people are becoming hostile because of those Moslems. For the first time in 20 years I am afraid to pick up people with my taxi. They are no longer the nice and quiet people they used to be. Everyone carries a gun these days".


Gatchatryanis daughter-in-law can only wash her baby twice a week due to the lack of warm water. A mother at 19, she says she cannot remember the last time she took a bath herself. "If we have electricity I have to cook as much food as possible", she says. "I just don't have the time to wash as well".


In the five years since war broke out with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia has been plagued by many hardships. The territorial conflict has killed thousands, but the energy crisis now gripping the country is even more crippling. Industry is at a standstill, leaving millions without jobs, and inflation has made what little food is available unaffordable.


One of the few places in the city where the lights are on and people are still employed is the Republican Hospital in Yerevan. But 300 of the hospital's 1, 000 beds are empty. Only the seriously ill can be treated, according to the hospital's director, Grikor Gregoryan.


"A woman brought her son from a town situated 150 kilometers outside the city", Gregoryan says. "She paid 25, 000 rubles to get him here. Because of the delay, there was very little we could still do. The situation is almost as bad it was in Leningrad during their blockade", he added, referring to the wartime siege of St. Petersburg. Gregoryan says he uses "personal contacts" to supply the hospital with medicine and food. Many of the patients are Karabakh soldiers and Armenian refugees from Baku in Azerbaijan. Some stay on when cured; they have no place else to go.


Medical aid from the United States and Europe reaches the hospital, but the absence of warm water makes it impossible to maintain sanitary conditions. In the corridors, doctors wearing jackets and thick sweaters under their white coats say they have been treating cases of frostbite for the first time in their lives.


Other problems like carbon monoxide poisoning are becoming more common as people resort to homemade stoves. But the physicians at Republican Hospital consider themselves lucky; in other hospitals, doctors are forced to operate by candle light.


It is bitterly cold in Armenia, but despite the difficulties that people here are facing in the winter months, many fear that spring will be worse. The government does not have the money to repair the 32 breaks in the city's water pipes, and there have been predictions of epidemics as the weather warms.


"There have been three outbreaks of dysentery in January in connection with sewage water seeping into the drinking water", said Suzanne Olds, the U. S. Agency for International Development's representative in Yerevan. "As soon as it becomes warmer, other epidemics will break out. Due to gasoline shortages, garbage trucks cannot collect trash, which will also have devastating effects".


Olds said that the director of Yerevan's central morgue had told her that the average measurement of fat on a corpse has dropped from 6-9 centimeters last year to 2-3 centimeters now.


The children at Yerevan's Orphanage No. 2 have lost so much weight that many are too weak to get out of bed. The remaining children, from ages 4 to 16, sit huddled around a stove all day. One of the biggest problems is drying sheets and blankets. As a result, many lie in damp sheets and eventually catch the flu and infect other children. They get baths only once every two weeks.


"I would like to change everything here", says Larisa Arzumanyan, one of the nurses at the orphanage. "We need more rooms and the food is completely inadequate. I wish I could spend more time with the children, but I often have to help chop wood to keep this place warm".


The prison in Ashdarag, which is just outside Yerevan, has recently been converted into temporary housing for refugees from Baku. "The only good thing about sharing a room with so many people, is that we are forced to lie close together", says Lida Artyunova, 30, a factory worker who lives in the room. "At least we keep each other warm at night".