Saturday, August 06, 2005

The Innocents and the Guilty
By Pap Hayrapetyan

Editor-in-Chief , Sevan regional newspaper

Does trafficking exist in Sevan city? The question came as a shock to the local government official sitting across the table from me. I had to explain what trafficking is, and then again I met his surprised stare.

"What are you talking about? I never heard anything like it. That can't exist in Sevan city," he insisted.

There was no sense in trying to convince him that he was wrong, that our city had not avoided the ugly phenomenon that brings grief to so many people in the 21st century. It is just that dignitaries do not like to have the truth flung in their faces.

Yet something like that did happen in Sevan. So I asked the official to be patient and hear me out. I told him my stories are based on fact and the people in them - the victims of trafficking - all come from the neighborhood.


"I married a man from Razdan city," one of the victims tells me between sobs. "My life was terrible," she continues. "My second child was just forty days old when my husband left us and went to Russia. We heard nothing from him for a long time. I lived with my in-laws. No one in the family worked.

We barely survived on my parents-in-law's pensions. It was getting worse every day. I was forced to leave my in-laws and live on my own. There was no other way. I started looking for a job. One of my neighbors helped me to get a job as a waiter in a restaurant in Razdan city. The wages I got were barely enough to buy bread. Two little kids were waiting at home. One day my husband showed up. I wished that he hadn't. I found out that he had been involved in gambling and that we had huge debts." Then she began avoiding my questions. I was curious so I kept asking what happened next? And next?

Earlier, she had promised to tell me the full story, so she continued in a low voice. "I had a terrible time and I kept trying to find ways out of my awful situation. As if we hadn't suffered enough, I suddenly learned that my husband had lost me and our son in a game of cards. My parents who lived in Sevan city turned away from me.

"There was a lady from Yerevan city that often used to eat at our restaurant. She would always bring her dog along. You could see she was well off. The girls advised me to ask her for help. For a long time I didn't dare. One day she noticed the depressed look on my face and asked what had happened. I had a chance to tell her everything.

"'I can help you,' she said, 'My daughter lives in Greece. She has good contacts there. Go see her; she will give you a job gathering bananas.' "I was very happy. I told her that if she could arrange this, I would be very glad. It is just that I didn't have any money to cover my expenses.

'Don't worry, ' she said, "I shall sort everything out". Indeed, five days later she got in touch with me and arranged everything. She even gave me a new passport with a visa inside."

She stopped talking, breathed in deeply and wiped the tears from her face with a handkerchief. I realized that it hurt to remember the days that brought her suffering and changed her life. She told me that the lady was known in Razdan as Mamma Roza. She gathered a group of young women. "Most of them were women my age, 25 to 30, from Razdan and Yerevan. We met on the plane. We all knew we were going to Greece to gather bananas. Mamma Roza saw us off at the airport and told us that her daughter would meet us in Greece and make all the arrangements for our jobs.

"The flight seemed terribly long. We all sat there planning our new lives, thinking of all kinds of things. Who could have known that life had a surprise in store for us?" She became silent for a while. "We never reached Greece," she continued. "Our plane landed in Dubai, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. In place of Mamma Roza's daughter, we were met by a portly young man. We later learned that he was aide to the Boss - the man who would decide our fates. Right at the airport, we were very upset, we started to protest, but who cared?

"Then they took us to the boss. He had a well-furnished house of his own.

The boss talked to us, and each girl was taken to a different place. I started to protest and said I had been swindled. He told me that they had not brought me to Dubai for my own amusement.

"'Pay us back five thousand dollars and we'll send you home,' he told me in an angry voice.

"I realized that we had been sold like commodities, and that it was Mamma Roza's business to buy and sell people without asking their permission.

"I did not give up, I kept protesting. I told the boss that had I been this kind of woman, I would have made my living that way in Armenia and provided for my kids. I even told him I would seek the protection of the law.

"The boss laughed. 'There is no law like this in this country. You came here, you must work'. There were girls there that came a long time ago, some of them of their own will. They were making their living that way."

I asked if he had had her passport with her.

"I did, but he tore it into a hundred little pieces," she explained. "And he told me I would never leave this place until I paid him back the money.

"Since I kept protesting, the boss's men gave me a beating. For five days I could not move, the girls used wads of cotton wool to drip water into my mouth. They really beat me and humiliated me. Every day the boss would come to my room and say: 'Hurry up, you are wasting your time. You've got work to do, you must make a profit for me.' "I learnt that the girls from my group were distributed among different hotels. For five or six months I worked for my boss. We would wait in our rooms for the clients - there would be 10 to 15 every day. We had no sleep or quiet. I really could not stand it any more, I cried all the time. My friend Nana, who had worked there for seven years and told me she had already brought the boss 300,000 dollars, gave me the advice to cry all the time - maybe someone would have pity of me and help me. I followed her advice and kept crying and protesting in front of the hotel owner. In the end, he believed me and realized that I really had not come there of my own accord.

"It was especially difficult for me because I did not speak the local language. The girls would write things for me and I showed them to the hotel owner. Eventually he took me to his own home and I worked there as a servant. He had an Indian wife who was very kind. She saw my grief and tried to help me. I stayed one or two months at their home and even learned some Hindu. The hotel owner's wife asked him to find a job for me. He knew a girl in Abu Dhabi city, 350 km from Dubai, and he sent me there. I got there somehow, in the night, without a passport. I worked in factory that manufactured cellular phones. There was a furniture store next door. The owner of the store, an Arab, saw me and fell in love with me. One day he approached me and asked me to marry him. I had been fooled many times in my life, so I did not believe him. I thought this was just another trap. The girl who had helped me to get that job advised me to do as he asked. 'You have no other way,' she said. ' Maybe this man will help you. ' "I lived in the Arab's house for six months without marrying him. Against my expectations, he proved a very kind man and helped me with everything he could. He sent 5000 dollars to my friend in Razdan so she could buy a house for me. He kept sending clothes and food to my children who were in an orphanage.

"We must marry and start a family, " he insisted.

But I kept thinking of my kids that I had left in the orphanage. He promised to help me go back to Armenia on the condition that he would come and fetch us to live with him. Meanwhile we could not get a new passport. One way of getting the passport was to be tried and deported. But, by the law, before they deport you, you have to stay in jail for as long as you stayed in the country illegally.

"Adil, the Arab, did everything he could for me. He spent ten thousand dollars to buy a paper that said I had been tried and deported. That way I got back to Armenia. I am now here with my kids. Adil visited us twice and tried to take us with him but could not. We have problems registering our marriage. " I asked her if she would like to go with Adil?

"There is no other way," she said. "I regret my life worked out like that. I hope that the future will be better for my kids and myself."

I asked her if there were many Armenian women in the Emirates.

"Quite a few," she said. "There were many women from Razdan, Gavar, Yerevan and Gyumri. The saddest thing is that many of them went there of their own accord, to make a living. For them, just like for Mamma Roza, it is just a business, a way of making money." "Does it work?" I asked.

"For some people," she said. "It works out very well. For others, life becomes a nightmare. "


Moscow attracts people. For many Armenians faced with extreme poverty, Moscow appears to be the only solution. With hopes of finding such a solution, a group of over sixty car drivers from various parts of Armenia, mostly from Gegharkunik, went to Moscow to find jobs for themselves. One of the group, Yurik Barseghian, tells his story.

"Like many others, I was surprised to learn that drivers were invited to go to Moscow to work at a construction site - they were building a new military base. Why shouldn't I go, especially since I'd been sitting home jobless for two years already, and they were offering very large wages - 1000 to 1500 dollars a month, and provided lodgings and food.

"They told me that Martik Vartanian from Sevan city would gather the group.

I had known him for a long time, he was the one who gave me my driving license. The next day I went to his place. There were more than a dozen men standing in front of his door. I knew some of them, we had worked together in a transport company. Everybody looked happy, they talked all the time, mostly about Moscow.

"Martik received us one by one, interviewing us. He asked each one of us whether he had a job, what kind of driving license he had and whether he needed money. He promised to sort everything out, including getting new driving licenses, B-licenses instead of BC etc. We had to pay for these services ourselves, while Martik and another man from Sevan, Yurik Mkhitaryan, would pay our travel expenses.

"After talking to Martik, I went home and had a long discussion with my wife. She was also in favor of my going to Moscow. She said: "Go there, work, at least will pay back our debts".

"But where could I get the 350 dollars to pay for a new driving license? We found a way: we took my wife's jewelry and pawned it at the Agrobank. I gave the money to Martik. Several days later I got my new license and a passport with a visa inside.

"Two days later they asked me to come to Martik's office. There were many people there. We had a meeting. Martik spoke first, and then Yurik. They made long speeches. They said the construction of the military base had started long ago and they needed drivers badly, so that we'll get jobs as soon as we get there. Then several drivers took the floor. We were so inspired that no one doubted that everything would work out very well.

"Two days later we were on our way. There were sixty of us. The organizers sent us by bus to cut the costs down. The first surprise awaited us on the way. They stopped us at the Georgian border and kept us there for a day and a half. They made each pay 150 rubles and only then let us go on our way. In Minvody, we paid 200 rubles, and in Voronezh, the same amount.

"Several days later we finally arrived in Moscow. The traffic police stopped the bus as it entered Moscow and did not let it inside the city. The leaders of the group, Martik and Yurik, left us there and went to Moscow to sort things out. We spent three days and nights in the bus but they did not show up. Our food supplies were running low. Worse still, we had spent almost ten days in the bus and smelled awful. On the fourth day, police told us to move to the nearby forest on the grounds that we interfered with the traffic. We did not have the guts to disobey and went to the forest. We stayed there for two more days. We slept in the bus and wandered in the woods during the day.

The police forbade us to move the bus so much as a meter forward. Eventually the bus drivers told us to get out of the bus: their time had run out and they had to go back.

"If you want to go back to Yerevan, pay for your tickets and we'll take you back", said one of the drivers, Arthur.

"But how could we go back if we had borrowed lots of money to pay our way here? We got out of the bus and stayed in the woods. We began to realize that something was wrong but we still had hopes. We spent one night under the trees. The next day, three cars started to move in our direction.

Well-dressed, well-fed young men were driving the cars. Some of the guys from our group recognized them at once. They were men from Sevan city that had moved to Moscow several years ago and started a successful business. The cars were laden with food. There were the Meloyan brothers from Sevan city, Armen Grigoryan from Ddmashen, and others. They approached us, we all hugged each other. Martik and Yurik arrived a little later. In the presence of the guys from Moscow we held back our anger at those two. Martik started to give excuses. He said we had arrived too late, drivers for the construction site had been found already and everyone will have to seek his own fortune. We felt as if he poured cold water over our heads. No one spoke. What can you do with you pockets empty, who will give you shelter?

"The Meloyan brothers took the matter in their hands. An hour later a bus arrived. They came to terms with the police and we were on our way. We settled down in cottages next to a garage belonging to Armen Grigoryan. We could not sleep from that day on. We woke one day and found that Martik had left. He fled during the night fearing revenge from his pals. Until this day we have not heard from him.

"We started looking for jobs. Some of the guys, mostly from Martuni, found some kin, phoned them, and they came and took them away. I got a job at Armen's garage: I changed the tires and washed the cars. Three of our group started to work as manual laborers at a market across the street. We did all kinds of work but could only earn enough to buy bread.

"I stayed in Moscow for six months before I could make enough money to pay my way home, and came back. Until this day I have not paid back my debts or the interest.

Indeed, Moscow has surprises in store for Armenian drivers. They trust someone, leave their homes with the hope to make their living and borrow money to pay their way. With the terrible social situation and growing unemployment in Armenia, people lose all hope to find jobs at home and go to Moscow. How could they know that this was a trap skillfully set by several men who were doing business that way?"

My next interviewee was from Chambarak village. He used to work as a driver in a local transport company. He had a good income, was respected in his village, built a house for his family. Independence became a nightmare for him. The company where Martik Galstyan worked went bankrupt and closed down.

For around two years he was jobless. Every day he would look for small jobs to do and thus provided for his daily bread. It was Yurik who told him about the opportunity to go to Moscow.

"One day Yurik phoned me and said he would visit me in a couple of days and bring good news. Then he came and said that guys from Sevan were putting together a group to go to Moscow and that he had asked them to take me as well. I agreed because I had no other option, and two days later I came to Sevan. Yurik introduced me to Martik. At first he refused to take me saying that there were too many applicants from Sevan and he can hardly accept all of them. Yurik pleaded for me and Martik agreed to accept me on the condition that I pay 300 dollars extra. I agreed. Several days later I received my papers and went to Moscow with the group.

I asked what he had done when he realized that he had been swindled?

"I stayed a few days with the guys from Sevan," he said. "I am grateful to them for their help with food and shelter. I have a school pal in Moscow, by the name of Hrach. Luckily I had his phone number. Armen helped me to find him. He came and took me away. I worked as a manual laborer in a shop, got a temporary residence permit. I worked for about eight months. The job was awful. I couldn't stand it anymore, so I put some money aside and came back.

By chance I found a job here and managed to pay back my debts. But you can't imagine how mad I am at Martik. How could he swindle sixty people, sixty families and leave with a clear conscience! Until this day I cannot understand what he wanted."

In Sevan, Razdan and Gavar we talked to the drivers who had been swindled by Martik, and to their families. Until this day they cannot forget what had happened. They are very angry with Martik and his companions. The women damned him for making them go into debt.

Gaghik Hakobyan from Zovaber village tells his story.

"One day after midnight an old friend of mine from Sevan called and offered that I come to Sevan the next day. I agreed without knowing what he wanted.

We met near a technical school and had a short conversation. He told me that a driver, Martik, was gathering a group of drivers to go to Moscow. It was a good job, they promised good money. Later we met with Martik and talked to him. The next day I gave him the required amount, 450 dollars. Next time we met on the day of departure. I can remember very well that the guys were very enthusiastic. On our way to Moscow we were joking, everybody was telling what he would do after coming back. By the way, I borrowed money from my neighbor on the condition that I would send it back in two months. " I asked whether he believed they wouldn't swindle him?

"There was no doubt," he said. "Could you believe they would swindle 60 men at the same time?"

"Then how did they manage to?" I asked.

"Well, they did," he said. "It was the first time in my life I had been swindled. A few days ago my neighbor suggested going to Moscow where he had found a good job. I didn't believe him. No, brother, I told him, I'll better stay here on bread and water than go to Russia again."

"How did it go in Moscow?"

"At first I carried meat boxes in a supermarket, then I was night watchman.

Those were hard days. I barely managed to come back home." I asked Misha Stepanian from Vardenis City, how he ahd joined the group.

"Damn that day.," he said. "My wife is from Sevan. My brother-in-law called me and told me about the group. Than he said that it was very hard to convince Martik, so I had to come right away to Sevan and bring about 500 dollars. The next day I went to Sevan. He acquainted me with Martik, who seemed a nice guy but boasted a lot. I asked him if he would keep his word.

He answered with confidence and even looked offended with my question. I gave him the money, my old driving license and passport and came back home.

A few days later we were on our way, full of expectations. I had lots of debts; both my children study at a private college. I went and came back and I'm still in debt. "

The list of drivers swindled by Martik and Yurik includes three men from Razdan city - Varuzhan Gevorkyan, Barsegh Poghosyan and Edgar Hakobyan; Garnik Ignatevosyan from Lchashev village; Yerem Hakobyan and Shahen Astvatsatryan from Gavar city, and many others. Meeting these people and talking to them made me think that it was their difficult situation that made them choose the seemingly attractive solution of going to Moscow. Not one of them had the slightest suspicion that they might be tricked.

Meanwhile Martik and his pal Yurik did not stop at anything in order to make money. They didn't even have any scruples about the fact that many of their victims were their friends or relatives. They were blinded by the desire to make a quick profit. The way back proved very long for the swindled drivers.

Some of them are still in Moscow, far away from home.


Those were just two cases that I described to the official in front of me.

He listened to the stories and, finally seemed convinced that trafficking does exist in Sevan. He could not help it: the facts spoke for themselves.

Behind the facts there are people - helpless, despairing, tricked by their own kin, forsaken by the authorities. There are many similar cases. Society needs to be protected against trafficking.

--Pap Hayrapetyan

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