A town that's lost its men

Story highlights

  • Photographer Julien Pebrel visited an Armenian village where it's mostly women
  • Almost all the men are spending up to nine months a year working in Russia
  • But the women are strong and resolute, and they keep the village going

(CNN)The moon has risen, and it's quiet around this little Armenian village.

Past a field of tilled soil and over a stone wall in a little brick house, the children have been put to bed and there is a kettle on the stove. A woman speaks in a hushed voice on the phone. Her voice is tired but full of emotion.
Another woman rises with the dawn and slips a scarf over her hair as she steps into the dew of a new morning. She ushers the livestock with a rough wooden stick to the point of gathering -- from there, the village shepherd will take the animals out to pasture.
    Still another woman, with aged hands and a furrowed brow, is bent low over a pile of potatoes. She peels them tirelessly as she prepares food for her family.
    In the Armenian village of Lichk, you will find many hard-working women, but you will not find many men. All these women's husbands are thousands of miles away.
    Julien Pebrel
    Because of the poor economic situation of this village, 90% of its working-age men have left for better-paying construction jobs in Russia.
    So for eight or nine months a year, women run the village.
    These are sturdy women. A grit and strength sustain them as they bravely take care of not only their families, but also their village as a whole.
    Photographer Julien Pebrel had been working in the Caucasus region when he heard rumors of towns without men. He and his translator did some investigating and found the stories were true. He spent two weeks in September 2013 documenting the lives of the women of Lichk.

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    Pebrel stayed with Anoush and Ruzanna, two sisters-in-law who lived together with their families while their husbands worked in Russia.
    He captured painterly scenes of the village with his Rolleiflex film camera, only using his digital camera in low-lighting situations. "That's why I love film," he said. "You don't need to do post-production to get some beautiful colors." And indeed he has captured the feeling of a bygone era. The colors and lighting give the images a storybook quality.
    There is a great sense of community among the women. Everything is a team effort, from working the land, uprooting vegetables, herding the livestock across dirt roads, sheering curly-haired sheep, baking flat bread and raising wide-eyed little ones.
    Now this is not to say that there are no men whatsoever in Lichk. Look under the shade of a cool brick wall, and you can find the older generation wearing caps and denim as they tell stories and play cards on splintery wooden tables. These men serve as a source of authority over unruly schoolboys and provide support for their daughters-in-law. But even Pebrel says it is still "the women who do everything."
    In the beginning, Anoush and Ruzanna didn't discuss the emotional toll this separation takes on them. But by the end, they acknowledged that while most of the women in the town do trust their husbands, there is still an underlying fear that the men may lead a secret life in Russia. Worse yet is that some of the men never return. "We try not to think too much about that," the women told him.
    While there is a great deal of determined patience required for both the husbands and wives, the winter months are a time of pure celebration. When the men return at the end of the year, the village is filled with weddings, parties and births. It's a time of joyful reuniting. (Although Pebrel said he overheard stories of children who did not recognize their fathers when they returned.)
    Those three months together are savored before the husbands, sons and fathers will pack their suitcases and leave for the majority of another year.
    Again, the women will unwaveringly take the helm of this village. Despite the fiscal hardships, the exhausting manual labor and the lonely pangs they face, they remain strong and full of love.
    Julien Pebrel is a photographer based in Paris. He is a member of the MYOP Agency. You can follow him on Facebook.