Sona: “I Gave Up My Soul . . .”
August 20, 2004

Sona:”I Gave Up My Soul . . .

By Vahan Ishkhanyan
ArmeniaNow reporter

Photos by
Ruben Mangasaryan

Editor’s Note: Compared with early years of independence,
life, finally, is getting much better for many people in Armenia.
But for many more – especially those outside the capital, recovery has
neither come, nor appears on any horizon.
They exist on the fragile fringe of society.
But like those who are surely building a new republic, these whose lives
have been damaged by the changes of time own Armenia, too. And they should
not be overlooked.
Photojournalist Ruben Mangasaryan, whose work over many years has included
attention toward the marginalized and socially exiled, is currently working
on a special project “Poverty in Armenia”.
Over the next several months, ArmeniaNow will highlight Ruben’s work, in
hopes that the unfortunate large number represented by his few subjects will
receive due recognition.
ArmeniaNow reporter Vahan Ishkhanyan joined Ruben during the first of his
photo investigations. . .
. . . and Live Underground.”
It has been two years since Sona has been able to go to her “job”, under the
wall of Kumayri Museum in Gyumri, where she would sit and beg for money.
Because of an illness, Sona Davtyan, 39, grew old right away and she can
hardly move. Her stomach is swollen, fluid seeps into it. People mock her as
if she were pregnant.

The face of 39
“Water collects, my stomach gets swollen, it becomes even more swollen in
the evening. I drink about a bucket of water,” she says.
The museum is about 4 kilometers away from her apartment. She can no longer
go there, so she does her begging closer to home. The farthest she can get
is the building of the Regional Government where “there are rich ones
wearing ties”.
Before, it was easy, she would sit under the wall and passersby would throw
her money. Now she has to come up to them herself and beg. It makes her job
harder, more troublesome. “Some give, some curse. There are more of those
who curse than those who give,” Sona says.
Until 1988 Sona was working at a factory. The earthquake took her job and
her apartment and made her a beggar. Now, the lingering effects of
earthquake are quickly taking her life.
The effect? “I gave up my soul and live underground,” she says.
Before, when she was healthy, she would collect 500-600 drams a day. That’s
more than a dollar, and enough for food and other expenses. Now she collects
less. She can hardly move and is always moaning.
And now, her daily needs include diuretics, which she cannot buy.
She says she expects no other treatment from this life.
“The ambulance has come twice. They do this (she shows how the doctors
pressed on her stomach with fingers) and go. They think by doing so it’ll
get better.” Now she cannot sleep from her stomach pains. “It hurts so much
that I can’t sweep anymore. I cannot bend down at all, if I bend down my
stomach will explode.”
Sona’s home is in the former park of the Polytechnic University, where
residents of Gyumri would walk, before the earthquake. All that’s left from
the park is the metal part of a rusty fountain and the round-shaped kiosk of
a café. Sona, five relatives, and the odd stray cat or dog in the kiosk.
Sona’s two daughters, who as she says were born from “a known mother and an
unknown father”, live with Sona. The younger, Arevik, 15, goes to school and
wants to become a handball coach. The elder, Armine, has a two-month old
child. Her husband, Samvel lives with them, too. He works at Gyumri Zoo,
cleaning up after animals. For it, he makes 20,000 drams (about $40 a
Samvel’s arms are covered with cuts from top to bottom. Some wounds are
still fresh, others are old scars. He says when he gets nervous he cuts his
arms with a razor.
“I did it to myself. Cutting makes me high. When I’m angry I see my blood
and relax.”
Samvel, 29, has been convicted three times for fighting for fighting, and
has spent eight years in prison. But he’s been living straight for the past
four years. “I’ve become calmer now,” he says. “I clean under animals.”
The owner of the kiosk is Chichak, whose company is prostitutes and former
criminals. He grew up at an orphanage with Sona’s mother (her mother died
this year). Above Sona’s bed there’s a black and white photo that was taken
16 years ago. It is young Sona, pregnant with Arevik, and little Armine and
Chichak. Chichak raised Armine and he says she actually is his brother’s
daughter and that Sona is lying about the children, so that she is pitied

Home sweet home
Family relations have become entangled like the street animals that share
their lives. Besides the family, there are constant “guests” – old people
and women wearing shabby clothes, children with sooty faces and, like the
cats and dogs, one cannot figure out who is whose relative.
Chichak’s income is his pension.
“Life is very cruel. We’re starving, we miss fruits. The whole world has
eaten watermelons, we haven’t; it has eaten tomatoes, we haven’t. We give
what we get for the electricity, so that we at least see each other’s faces
in the evenings.”
He longs for the past. “Eh, it was very good during Soviet times.”
Last year, Sona, her mother and daughter were given a one-room flat near the
park. They took some of their belongings to the apartment, but do not live
there. Sona says with her bad health she cannot go four floors up. But the
real reason is not her physical state. Psychologically she cannot turn away
from the street, from Chichak’s kiosk which is her life and her way of
It is hard to imagine how, for instance, she will take the street garbage –
which is their fuel – up to the apartment. In the kiosk it’s easy; they
collect whatever can be burnt from the nearby garbage pile. The fuel is
piled next to the kiosk – rags, plastic items, rubber . . .
Things that cannot be burnt are also collected in another pile, from which
scrap metal is occasionally sold for about $20 per ton.
They also collect from the garbage dress-up items. Sona wears rings that
were found in the garbage. And her nails are painted from discarded nail
But she didn’t find any lipstick and jokes that “the lipstick is left for
the next time.”
The old age that has come to her too early has left her hair young. She
jokes that if she finds dye “I’ll dye my hair gray.” And laughs as if on her
last breath.