Karina looks somewhat older than her 60 years. Her face is heavily lined; weathered is a good description. Her lack of teeth draws her face into a sad grimace. It is hard to know if her pained look comes from a tough, rural life, her home close to the town of Noragyukh, north of Stepanakert. Or, perhaps, it is her grief.
We have met at The Roots, a well-appointed coffee shop on Vazgen Sargsyan Street. It tends to attract an upmarket crowd. Stepanakert’s well-heeled wear sunglasses even when its dark. Whispering into their mobiles.
She clasps my hand. Tears well up in her eyes. She leans towards my translator and begins to quietly tell us the story of her beautiful daughter.
In fact, it is Alia whose acquaintance I made first. In Spain. Learning that I was shortly visiting her homeland, Alia had given me her mother’s number.
The two are separated by 4,200 kilometres, the distance between Stepanakert and Madrid. But united through a disaster that has befallen them both.
Many cities in Spain have whiskerías. This can be translated as ‘whiskey house’.338 Yet for the clientele, visiting these dubious establishments, whiskey is far more than they are after.
Out of towns and cities, Spain has similar diversions for those so inclined. Driving between cities, at regular intervals one encounters a bright neon signs declaring simply club.339 Instead of a Western style club, packed with young people drinking and dancing, one can find a more mature clientele, likely to be truck drivers looking for fleshy pleasures.
Prostitution is not considered illegal. It is not regulated either. More of a guilty pleasure that Spanish society allows itself, however morally bankrupt as an idea. The sex industry is not addressed in the country’s criminal code. It exists in a disgraceful legal vacuum, one which oppresses, more than anyone, sex workers. Those unfortunate to be trafficked to Spain find themselves in purgatory.
Pimping is illegal. As is street prostitution. Despite there being chains of whiskerías and clubs across the country, brothels are only illegal if their signage specifically say they are brothels.
All in all, it is a bizarre and, frankly, disgraceful state of affairs.
Inside a whiskerías, you will likely see a bartender, but not necessarily the burly doorman that one would associate with such places. In fact, a whiskería can feel pretty relaxed, straightforward and not intimidating at all.
At least, not for the customer. For the girls there, trafficked, brutalised by their owners, forced to whore themselves and intimidated to accept degrading sex acts with strangers by the hour, it most certainly is.
Madrid is currently home to hundreds of trafficked girls,340 maybe thousands, working the clubs and whiskerías. The origins of many, if not most, are clear.
In June 2018, Spanish police launched an operation against the Armenian mafia. The agency Agencia EFE reported: Spanish national and regional police forces were poised to detain as many as 100 people in an ongoing operation against alleged members of the Armenian mafia who are suspected of being involved in a variety of crimes ranging from tennis match-fixing to drug and arms trafficking and money laundering, officials said Tuesday. Police sources close to the investigation informed EFE that sweeping operations were underway around Barcelona, in the north-eastern region of Catalonia, as well as in locations along the Mediterranean coast and in the capital, Madrid. Officers from the national police, the Mossos d’Esquadra police in Catalonia and Europol participated in raids on around 50 properties and some 20 suspects were wanted in the Barcelona area alone.341
Despite Spanish authorities working to interrupt a crime syndicate that was running drugs, trafficking thousands of girls and involved in protection rackets and illegal gambling, the response of the Armenian Embassy in Spain was to issue a grotesque statement expressing concern over the term “Armenian mafia” used by the Spanish interior ministry and media outlets.342
Spain is hardly an isolated outpost of Armenian mafia activity, certainly in relation to the illicit sex industry worldwide. In July 2014 LA Weekly published an article titled “Taking Down Armenian Power, California’s Modern Mafia” which highlighted ongoing turf wars in the West Coast city: The whole thing started with a scene straight out of a mobster movie. It was around 6pm when more than a dozen men from two organised crime groups opened fire on each other in a North Hollywood parking lot. Witnesses say nearly everyone was armed, and the shootout quickly went mobile. The men took off in cars, exchanging fire as they weaved through the Whitsett Avenue traffic.343
This was part of an ongoing war to control drug trafficking, fraud, identity theft, illegal gambling, kidnapping, racketeering, robbery and extortion. United States law enforcement continues to struggle with the issue.
In Australia too, there is widening Armenian mafia influence. The Daily Mail reports that foreign crime groups are setting up in Sydney because they don’t ‘fear’ the law.344 It highlights Armenian organised crime.
Israel has gained a reputation for a vibrant sex industry. ‘Tel Aviv’s lucrative sex trade industry... supported by a constant flow of trafficked women’, according to Israel News,345 with prominent author M.K. Styllinski writing of ‘women, many of whom are young girls, are routinely subjected to violence, sexual abuse and rape which often ends in murder... girls who sell for about $10,000 to $15,000 apiece.’ 346
The Armenian sex business also flourishes in the United Arab Emirates, with Abu Dhabi daily newspaper The National reporting of a typical story when: Ani was 20 and working on a market stall in a Bangladeshi area of Yerevan, the Armenian capital, when she was given an offer she couldn’t refuse – the chance to work as a nanny in Dubai for a tempting tax-free wage.
But Ani, like many women before her, had fallen victim to a sinister human- trafficking ring run by three Armenian sisters. When she arrived in Dubai, her passport was taken away and she was sent to live with “Madame Anoush” in her brothel in Deira, where she was forced into prostitution.
Anoush Martirosyan (on the photo, right), 40, the leader of the operation, was sentenced to 13 years in prison by a Yerevan court on April 20 after UAE and Armenian authorities worked together to gather evidence against her.347
These reports and others from around the world feed into a broader view highlighted by a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty investigation that: The Armenian authorities have done little to combat illegal trafficking of hundreds and possibly thousands of Armenian women abroad for sexual exploitation despite their persistent claims to the contrary, according to the findings of a nearly year-long journalistic investigation.348
Hetq Online reports suggest that there could be as many as 2,000 Armenian prostitutes working in the UAE and other Gulf states.349
In July 2017, citing comments made by Vache Hovsepyan, head of a special subdivision at the Police Department on Combating Organised Crime, Armenian news site Tert.am reported that children account for 50% of trafficking victims in Armenia.350
Entering Ocho y Medio you are greeted by a madam. She pours a drink, on the house, and provides a menu of services so that you may be acquainted with what is on offer. But it is who is on offer. At her command a group of girls appear, blondes, brunettes, and a redhead. All wear only the smallest of G- strings. On the end of the line is a dominatrix holding a paddle board which, I am informed, is called a Bottom Tenderiser here.
It would almost be funny, if it was not such a tragic scene. A motley group of girls forced into a line up, being offered from a printed menu for penetración anal at €45 and oral sin condón for another €25.
Almost expressionless in the centre of the line, trying to avoid my stare and therefore the possibility of being chosen, is Alia. She is almost waif-like. Gaunt. Pale. There is a whiff of giving up about her. As I will later learn, this has much to do with the heroin she has ingested.
Instead of one of the spartan, by-the-half-hour rooms in Ocho y Medio, I opt for the servicio de comida para llevar. Alia can spend the night with me at my hotel, the Hotel Santo Mauro, for €650. With a wink, the madam tells me that I have made the right choice. Alia, she says, is “abierto a cualquier cosa”, open to anything.
Sitting in The Roots, Karina begins to tell a story. It starts with living peacefully. Happily. Their mixed community. The war and in particular the events of February 1992 in nearby Khojaly.
She lost personal friends in Khojaly, an ethnic massacre. They were Muslims. She does not care who knows it. The different religions lived, not just peacefully, but well together, says Karina. Three of her friends were felled by machine gun fire as they fled. She does not know what became of their children.
What she does wish is for things to return to how they were before the war. It was a more peaceful time. For all the revenue earned by the government with the mining and logging we have seen on our journey through the territory, she says that life has got progressively worse across that time.
When Karina’s husband passed away, life became ever more difficult as she struggled to support their three daughters and one son.
John Miller, a senior Department of State official in charge of tracking human trafficking around the world, said that there is a public perception in Armenia that corruption among law enforcement officials seriously hampers the fight against human trafficking. “The lack of public trust is a serious obstacle to progress in this area,” Miller told Armenian journalists in a video conference from Washington.351
Reported by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the same article states that: a senior prosecutor dealing with human trafficking admitted on Wednesday that transport of Armenian women for sexual exploitation abroad has reached “alarming” proportions... The United States report also said that despite a reported increase in the number of trafficking-related criminal cases opened by Armenian prosecutors only a handful of individuals were imprisoned on relevant charges last year. While the government increased implementation of its anti- trafficking law, it failed to impose significant penalties for convicted traffickers.
‘In March 2017, the Council of Europe also had its say. The Council of Europe Group of experts on action against trafficking in human beings, known as GRETA, published a report stating that Armenia remains primarily a country of origin for victims of a trade dubbed “modern slavery”. GRETA called upon Armenia to do more to prevent trafficking of children, trafficking for labour exploitation, as well as to protect and assist victims.352
Relieved just to talk and not have intercourse with me, Alia says she thinks she has had sex with 1,000 men in Spain alone. She wonders when she will be set free, but then how she will return home and to her community with such shame around her shoulders. The normal dreams of a young girl from Nagorno- Karabakh: marriage, a small family, of peace, she says, is now over.
How could a real man want her? How could she ever enjoy a relationship with a man, when in her mind she will always be haunted by visions of the creatures she routinely pleasures?
Alia also works two other establishments, Pacha and Moma 56, depending on where her bosses see the business is on a particular night. On her left temple there is a prominent scar. Alia explains it is the result of an hour with a Pakistani businessman, who took exception to her refusal to provide services that were not even on the menu at Ocho y Medio.
Alia cries herself to sleep at night. Or, to be precise in the morning, as she goes to sleep after working all night. For throughout the night she is ‘entertaining’, a euphemism that her owners like to use when describing her business.
Each evening. Seven days a week. A steady stream of men who visit her tiny, grubby room to force sexual deviation upon her. They don’t seem to mind that, as they heave themselves into her, they are rolling on a bed still reeking of the body odour of several other men. Nor do they seem to care that the wet patches on the bed, that they kneel in, and lie on, are semen from those same visitors. They don’t care about that. Nor do they care about her.
Alia has been beaten, slapped, punched, cut, burned with cigarettes, robbed, urinated upon, forced into degrading sex acts and found herself vomited over by drunks. She has had numerous unnatural items thrust into her. She has been forced to have sex with three and even four men at once.
There are threats that she will be made to have sex with a dog, with customers paying to watch. She does not doubt it.
It is a far cry from anything Alia knew before in her life, brought up in semi- rural Nagorno-Karabakh, not far from the capital. They were simple times, her head was at peace until her family was rocked by the death of her father. Alia’s family struggled on, with help from relatives, but it was not enough.
Alia got on with helping her family. Aged 14 she dropped out of education and got a job in a supermarket in Stepanakert. Commuting the 45 minutes back and forth every day. The town provided a financial lifeline to the family through the few Drams she brought home, equivalent to maybe $200. But it would also be their undoing.
Alia’s curse would be that she is indeed pretty. When I met her she was five years into her heroin addiction. Half a decade ago, in the flush of her teenage years, she must have been a beauty.
Her curse would bring her into contact with sex-industry recruiters. They stalk the town. Looking for victims. An insidious search for young girls.
In its assessment of the methodology of gangs operating in the area, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe did not mince words in its report, ‘Trafficking in Human Beings in the Republic of Armenia’, when it stated that: Anecdotal evidence suggests that some victims were promised jobs in the service sector and deceived, while others, often with previous experience of offering sexual services, expected to get engaged in prostitution. According to the police, traffickers often recruit among prostitutes.353
When Alia received an offer, for a hotel job in Sri Lanka, her mother was both horrified and thrilled. Her daughter was so young. They needed her. But the offer of a whopping $1,000 a month salary was too good to be true for the embattled family.
Indeed it was.
Within weeks Alia, now possessing a Republic of Armenia passport showing that she was 18 years old, and with a visa issued by the Sri Lankan Honorary Consulate in Yerevan, flew along with a group of other girls to the island.
‘...the government adopted a National Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons. Between 2004 and 2006, the Government of Armenia took some steps to increase awareness about trafficking.
Despite numerous initiatives and activities that have been conducted, there are still significant gaps in many areas of the anti-trafficking response. The assessment team identified serious shortcomings in practically all areas of anti- trafficking activities undertaken by the state. The state authorities pay limited attention to the issue, and efforts to combat trafficking in human beings remain erratic.’354
The aforementioned report, ‘Trafficking in Human Beings in the Republic of Armenia’, reached a series of damning findings. These are in parallel with most international reports on the issue. Most pan-national bodies and non- governmental organisations steer clear of Nagorno-Karabakh, of course, the territory falling between the cracks due to its disputed status.
The pimps and recruiters are not so choosy. They are active there and most of the girls poached from within that territory pass through Armenia. Many, like Alia, are also provided with under-the-counter Armenian passports.
How all this is allowed to happen is the subject of much diplomatic chatter. Perhaps the best example of this emerged thanks to WikiLeaks. Marked confidential and titled ‘Concerns about prosecutorial conduct’, this official United States Embassy communication goes into detail in explaining how human traffickers had funded holidays to Dubai for senior officials from the Armenia Prosecutor General’s office, along with others. The same document also told of: ...serious, persistent allegations that senior members of the Prosecutor General’s office are susceptible to outside influence... We have already noted the problem of prosecutors charging traffickers with lesser charges, i.e., charging them with pimping instead of with trafficking.
Aristakes Yeremyan is the principal investigator in the Prosecutor General’s office who deals with trafficking cases.
In conversations with us he has demonstrated a lack of sensitivity, but has said nothing that would directly tie him to illegal activities. He has insisted to us, for example, that “pimping” is the correct charge to use in trafficking cases because, “all the prostitutes knew in advance” that they would be working as prostitutes...355
One particular note from this alarming report requires a separate paragraph. As reported in this United States Government document, the principal investigator in the Prosecutor General’s office in Yerevan incredibly informed United States officials of his sympathy for traffickers because they spend “so much money on these women, on their makeup, perfume, clothes” and that this is “very expensive”.356
Alia and other girls had been told that hotels in Sri Lanka were looking for Russian speakers to handle a rise in Russian tourists. The first she knew otherwise was when she arrived in Colombo, capital of the Indian Ocean nation, and was told straight that, that night, she was to begin work.
Her Armenian boss ran a lucrative business passing white skinned girls among mainly Indian visitors to Sri Lanka. From a flat in the Crescat Apartments along the city centre Galle Road, the girls were parcelled out to customers. When Alia refused she was repeatedly beaten, until she submitted. They knew her mother, her siblings, her home, she was told. What did she imagine would happen to them if she did not do as she was being told?
Along with a dozen of other girls at any one time, they ran the gauntlet of nine months ‘entertaining’ the most obnoxious men she could imagine.
When her local pimp’s phone did not ring and business was lax, she was forced to hang around in Bally’s Casino many evenings in order to tout for business among the clientele there.
Most days she would be driven around town to be delivered to hotel rooms.
As many as four or five each day. In each she would be forced into a demeaning routine of sex acts.
Several times each month she was dropped at the Presidential Palace, where ‘parties’ raged most of the night, fuelled by whiskey and local hashish. These parties were the worst, as she was passed around among as many as a dozen men in a few hours.
Only when Alia was an emotional and physically wreck, after months of this treatment, was she allowed to go home. She was still just 15.
After months away, Alia returned to her village with just $1,000 in her purse for nine months’ work. Her bosses had charged her clients $100 per hour, or between $250 to $350 per night.
Many government and law enforcement agencies were rather reluctant to share relevant information, opinions or anecdotal information, referring exclusively to generally known statements about trafficking in human beings in Armenia. In general, perhaps understandably, governmental agencies had a tendency to portray the state of affairs in more positive light than the representatives of the international community and civil society.357
That same team from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe summed up in their findings, above, with what sounds like a domestic sense of denial, or perhaps an outright cover-up.
Again WikiLeaks gives an indication of what the international community was saying privately.
In the WikiLeaks-released cable 06YEREVAN1091, United States Ambassador John Evans vividly describes the culture of immunity and rampant power abuse in Yerevan in relation to investigation and prosecution of those behind the industry.358
Elsewhere Ambassador Evans wrote of a visit to the town of Vanadzor. His words make alarming reading, as he spoke of: ...prostitutes gathering after dusk in the traffic circle outside a central church to begin the day’s work... girls as young as 11 and 12 have started walking the streets... We visited a decrepit shanty town, where prostitutes work for bread and rice... illicit smuggling across borders and of girls lured into prostitution under false pretences... on legal passports, with legal visas, and for the most part without having to bribe border guards to let them through. Pre-teenage girls ride buses to Turkey...359
Ambassador Evans’ report is disturbing.
In one notable exchange with Prosecutor General Aghvan Hovsepyan, with Ambassador Evans attempting to bring the issue of trafficking and corruption to his attention, Hovsepyan responded: “May God keep us from the evil that comes from prostitutes.”360 And saw him refer to the victims with an amazingly frank contempt, saying that such cases were common and that most reports were simply generated by ill-intentioned prostitutes who were angry with their pimps.
Official reaction in Yerevan to exposure of these tragic stories shows a pattern of disregard. The online publication of MassisPost, one of Armenia’s political newspapers, reported that: Cables on sex trafficking in Armenia reveal frank contempt toward victims and contradictory statements from the law enforcement officials on collusion in sex trafficking.361 Furthermore MassisPost added that statements made by the Armenia General Prosecutor’s Office seeking to refute the allegations exposed by WikiLeaks: ...contradicted by information on reports of Armenian investigative journalists and Trafficking in Persons Report – United States Department of State.362
Physically and emotionally shattered by the ordeal in Sri Lanka, but back home, Alia found the strength to repair herself slowly. She told no one of her suffering, least of all her mother. But it was no good. Something had changed in her. She was hardened. And her family was still suffering.
Alia took the brave, or perhaps foolhardy, decision to try again.
Even as you are reading this, the next part of the story seems obvious. As Alia tells the story today, she does not know if she was plain stupid, continued to be naïve, or suffering something approaching post-traumatic stress disorder and therefore on mental autopilot. Either way, she was about to plunge herself into a horror that made Sri Lanka seem like an Indian Ocean holiday.
Still aged 15, a female acquaintance of a friend pointed her towards an advert in a newspaper. Western families needed maids. Good girls only need apply.
With the endorsement of this person, whom she now believes to work for the same recruitment gang, Alia and her family scraped together the $150 fee that was required to apply. After a month, she was called to a smart office in Yerevan for an interview. The offer was $600 a month and full board, looking after a Spanish family with children.
After a brief meeting at a Western Honorary Consulate in Yerevan, accompanied by a representative of the recruitment company, she was granted a Schengen visa, stuck in her forged Armenian passport. Corrupt officials from two countries had now provided the means of her undoing.
Barely a week later, Alia packed a small suitcase and made her way to Zvartnots International Airport. Two dozen young Armenian and Karabakhian girls were there. They giggled and smiled, chattered about their hopes and told stories of how they were going to send money home while, with a glint in their eyes, it would not be too bad if they met a boy who wanted to marry.
They never saw it coming. Their flight was cancelled said the older, matronly woman who was there to accompany them. They would spend a night at a local hotel and fly tomorrow instead.
Ushered through the terminal, they took a minibus to a low-rent hotel on the outskirts of Yerevan. They were allowed to call home for a few minutes. Alia sees now. The phone call was to allow their trail to go cold, to placate and quieten families, allowing just enough time for the girls to disappear.
It took one day before her naïvety wore off.
Alia had been through it before. Two of their party were whisked away in the middle of the night. A third, who refused to leave, was found, beaten to a pulp.
Then Alia knew.
A new man, who said little, hovered around and watched. He made no attempt to hide the gun he was carrying. “Remember” he told them, “you filled out an application form? We know your mothers, your fathers, your sisters and your brothers. Where you live. If any of you run, or do anything stupid, we will not think twice about killing them.”
It was here that Alia was introduced to her real captor. She and all the girls were injected with heroin. When heroin is ingested, it enters the bloodstream through the nasal and sinus passages, creating an almost instantaneous high that is rather short-lived. It is not unpleasant, of course. Indeed, for a young girl going through this kidnapping experience, the high was perhaps welcome.
Yet this was no act of charity. In as little as few days, the girls were hooked.
When a heroin user subjects the body and brain to repeat doses of the drug, the brain gets a repeated and unhealthy level of stimulation. In response, it is exhausted, and the brain takes action, dampening response to any other source.
The addict quickly needs more of the same drug to achieve the same high. Heroin addicts need and search for hits that are bigger and bigger because their experience of pleasure is shrinking. They have a problem feeling pleasure or satisfaction from even the things that used to make them so happy, the things that healthy people usually enjoy.
Alia was now ready.
Former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called human trafficking a “vicious chain that binds victims to criminals”363, during the 2013 General Assembly’s high-level meeting on the United Nations Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons, adding: “We must break this chain with the force of human solidarity.” At the same event Armenian Deputy Prime Minister Armen Gevorkian stated that “...the Armenian Government declared the fight against human trafficking as a priority more than a decade ago...”364
In early 2018 Serzh Sargsyan, who held senior government positions since Armenia regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, was swept away in a Velvet Revolution. In his wake, he left behind a nation whose poor economy and deep corruption has left almost one-third of the country’s three million people living below the official poverty level, according to the Asian Development Bank.
This horrific situation has left Armenia’s people in a vulnerable state.
Human trafficking is one of the most profitable crimes in the world and has continued to flourish in Armenia, despite high-minded public pronouncements. According to Antitrafficking.am, an organisation that cooperates with the country’s National Assembly, High Commission on Anti-Trafficking and the Ministries of Social Security and Health, among others, states that: ...there were even cases when traffickers were relatives or friends of the victims, sometimes even the initiators were parents. Traffickers mislead the victims with promises and guarantees of profitable work in their homeland or abroad. The promises are from earning high profits for non-professional jobs to starting or continuing professional careers in a well-known international organisation.365
Since Armenia’s independence, thousands of Armenian women and girls have been taken – to Russia, Turkey and some states of the Gulf – to be initiated into prostitution.
An investigation undertaken by Edik Baghdasaryan and Ara Manoogian – journalists for Hetq Online and TheTruthMustBeTold.com – reached the startling conclusion that approximately 2,000 Armenian women were involved in the sex industry across just three small Gulf nations – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman – their findings documented in the film and book, Desert Nights.366
Countless thousands of women and girls have found their destinies so tragically intertwined across the modern story of Armenia. Their narratives embody the tragedy of the nation.
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