THE REAL MADRID
Nice club with nice stuff, you will have a good time with dancer. — Julio Aracon.
European level. Club amenities. — libido555you
Club for people with a special taste. — Eduard Mkrtchyan
Google Reviews of the California Night Club – a wretched Las Vegas-esque strip joint along the M5, a road that takes arrivals from Zvartnots International Airport into the capital – are sanitised. But give an indication as to the after-dark delights that are on offer.
Alia was pretty. A round face, wide eyes. A neat blonde bob. Well- proportioned body. 5’7 tall. Busty, but with slim hips. Her physical appearance made her an instant hit with the regulars at California.
By now, hopped up on heroin and craving more, Alia was ready to do whatever it took to get a line or two.
Each evening she, and those others wretched enough to look good in lingerie, would be collected and driven to California Night Club. There, they would be made to dance on the small stage.
It took a practiced apathy not to make eye contact with customers, and not to attract attention while dancing on stage topless and wearing only stockings and suspenders. But even then, several times each evening, each girl would be hurried to a backroom and forced to have sex with yet another foul-smelling drunk who had stumped up the $50 charge.
Alia was promised some of the money for her acquiescence. But she never saw any. They said that whatever she was making was needed to offset the cost of her heroin addiction.
The turnover of girls in Yerevan’s seedy strip clubs is pretty steep, however. Even those who go along with their fate can only take so many long nights in Armenia’s smoke-filled clubs. Their embrace with heroin becomes too strong. Their pallor becomes grey. Their attitude worse. Then it is time to ship them out.
The government knows, of course, with the sex industry becoming progressively more endemic across the city. With payments, and the provision of girls, those in power have remained conveniently pliable.
According to Asbarez, a United States-based newspaper that serves the Armenian community: Prostitution in Armenia can be divided into three groups: street prostitution, elite prostitution and exported prostitution. The cheapest street prostitutes have their own spots in central streets and “earn” from $10 to $50 in a couple of hours. The elite prostitutes have cars, cellular phones and mainly gather at expensive cafés. Their per hour income may reach $100. The last group of prostitutes “work” abroad. The outflow of Armenian prostitutes to Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Germany and CIS countries is also growing.367
Along many streets in downtown Yerevan, and across a widening net beyond, the city is increasingly dominated by not-so-subtle sex clubs masquerading as nightclubs. Grimy, down-the-stairs bars where punters pay $50 for a private room and the pleasure of the company of an unfortunate sex slave. Alia was one of them.
Charlotte Cabaret, Night Club Omega and California Night Club have uplifting names. Yet a tissue-strewn room where one can pay a single ‘Ulysses S. Grant’ to cruelly screw a 17-year-old from Vagharshapat is hardly glamourous.
While Charlotte Cabaret – conveniently over the road from the Presidential Palace considering that the owners regularly sent girls over for at least two of its occupants – and California Night Club are perhaps the best known of Yerevan’s seedy clubs, it is Night Club Omega on Teryan Street where the big money lies. Most taxi drivers in Yerevan will ask a foreign passenger if they fancy some ‘jiggy-jiggy’, particularly after dark. For those that do, they will invariably take
to Night Club Omega as the manager pays them a fee for doing so. Alia had long since passed through the club scene in Yerevan. At Night Club Omega there is the regular menu of services, but it is what is off-menu that is interesting.
On the night we descended the spiral staircase into the bowels of this hideous Gomorrah and sit around its entry level bar, the girls were welcoming and the drinks cheap. The intention is to drag punters further in. It costs 100,000 Drams (approximately $200) to enter the hedonistic inner sanctum.
It is there that private dances become discussions on something far more, far worse. As the evening wears on, and I tip liberally, I begin to be noticed beyond the scope of the regular punters around me. Alia has been clear to me about the ‘concierge services’ that are available at a price.
I let it be known that I am seeking something other than just fooling around with one of the well-proportioned young ladies on offer.
What is clear to me is that in any modern nation, one professing to be a 21st century, democratic state, no matter how addled and corrupt one may find the political class, this is not normal. On Teryan Street, in the centre of the capital, in a commercial establishment that is well known, I am offered very underage girls, seriously underage. And indeed very underage boys if that is my preference.
This is not hedonism. It is an abyss. An underworld of wretchedness. Paedophilic is beyond words. Commercial paedophilia, found here on the streets of Yerevan, is a cancer that shames us all.
In April 2018, a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty profile of post-Sargsyan Armenia titled ‘Armenians Want What They Need, After Getting What They Wanted’, delved into the direction that the nation needed to head and the socio- economic funk that dominated life.
The writers of the piece, Alan Crosby and Amos Chapple, noted: Take a walk south from the protests on Republic Square in the capital and you enter the industrial area of Gortsaranayn. In Soviet times, its factories were bustling with activity, employing thousands as they hummed with production. Now, the factories mainly lay silent, broken windows pockmarking the façades where managers once mingled with floor workers. Prostitutes walk broken sidewalks at night, avoiding piles of garbage as they ply their trade in the dimly lit streets.368 The domestic sex industry is small potatoes though. Control the clubs and control the girls. Control the girls and there is a ready supply available for export purposes.
And export they do. The almost legendary Armenian madam of Dubai, Lusine Hakobyan, was into 25 ‘bodies’, as they called them, every month. Strangely, given the historical enmity, Turkey was also a burgeoning market for Armenian flesh.
Also known locally by the moniker Aisha, Hakobyan in particular won a reputation for being icy, even in an industry run by some of the hardest and most despicable criminals. In a profile of the UAE-based madam, Hetq Online, noted that: She is known among prostitutes for being cruel and slovenly. Like most Armenian pimps she first came to Dubai as a prostitute herself, but quickly worked her way up to boss... said K. from Charentsavan, one of Aisha’s victims. “But I don’t think there is anyone crueller than she is. She beat us and forced us to work even on the days when it wasn’t possible to have sex. I used to cry and tell her that I couldn’t do anything, but she would throw me out of the house.369
As was common practice, the madam had destroyed the passport of the girl in question, ensuring that she had no way out. Hetq Online traced the tragic evolution of most girls’ career in the Emirates. After working as escorts, or in bars and nightclubs, after they lost their looks, or will, they would be shifted to housing districts where Asian construction workers lived ‘where they charge $3, $5, or $10’.370
Discussing ‘Prostitution: A Key Metaphor of Post-Socialist Transformation’, and how the nation’s society squares its supposedly conservative values system with so many women being forced into the sex industry, the Journal of the International Institute questions if the phenomenon is a “white genocide” of Armenians?371
According to the International Organisation for Migration, high demand in destination countries, as well as the lucrative profits to be made by a trafficker, and the fact that ‘poorly paid officials are willing to turn a blind eye or to falsify travel documents in exchange for money’,372 made Yerevan the new Bucharest.
Hundreds of girls, many teenagers, would find themselves unwittingly shifted across Europe and forced, under duress, to perform sex acts. Alia, was trafficked once at 14 to Sri Lanka. Then a year later, while 15, to Spain.
“The victims of trafficking are often women from socially vulnerable groups. They are mostly single, widowed, divorced, or abandoned women who do not have a regular source of income. They often have children and elderly people under their care,” says Viktoria Avakova, coordinator of the anti-trafficking programme at the United Methodist Committee On Relief. “Because of a lack of education, or more often, a lack of job opportunities, they are unable to earn money to live and support a family the normal way. Victims are often women who have been subjected to domestic violence trying to escape from their relatives at any cost. Traffickers target such women.”373
Yerevan’s tragic sex clubs simply did not have the capacity to recruit enough girls. Fake employment schemes and marriage proposals all help to cull victims from poor communities across the country. Another methodology was to simply offer parents in the many impoverished areas in Armenia cash for their young daughters.
According to experts, women are often tricked with false marriage proposals. In Armenia, particularly in villages, it is considered shameful if a girl is still not married by the age of 25. Victims of trafficking are often women who have been reproached by relatives because of the ‘shame’ they have brought on their family, or just to escape from their villages. Many such women are ready to marry even under extreme circumstances.
“They show the girl a photo, saying ‘this is my relative’s son, living in the United States, you will marry him’, and so they take the girl with them. Can you imagine? Or they speak with a guy on Skype and later say that he is their ‘knight on a white horse’ and they travel in an unknown direction. There have been such cases in our experience,” says Avakova.374
So lucrative is the business – sources estimated that the partners earn $5,000 per ‘body’ who goes on to work in a British brothel, or $10,000 and more for those considered pretty enough to become a high-class agency hooker – that numbers have continued to rise.
According to Britain’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade, women are being sexually exploited on an industrial scale in so-called ‘pop-up brothels’ run by trafficking gangs, all over Britain. Brothels, often set up in residential properties using short-term leases, allow gangs to keep ahead of police and retain control over the women.375
How this industrialisation of the sex industry in Armenia has been allowed to develop is indeed a question. Another may be how the political class in Yerevan have been induced to remain pliable as the pimps have contrived to ship a generation of women abroad to work as sex slaves.
In any other democratic nation, the idea of serving as a wholesale source of female flesh for the European and Middle Eastern sex industries would have been the source of a backlash and scandal.
In Armenia, under Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan, the sex business has been allowed to flourish. How has this been possible? At least part of the story comes down to a pervading bigotry and discrimination. Human Rights Watch notes: Armenia’s human rights record remained uneven... concerns include domestic violence, often perpetrated with impunity, violence, and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and unnecessary restrictions on access to pain medications for people with life-limiting illnesses...
Despite evidence that violence against women remains common and sustained pressure from women’s rights groups and activists, Armenia has no law criminalising domestic violence and has not ratified the Council of Europe’s Convention on Prevention and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence.
The Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women published a report documenting 30 cases of women killed by intimate partners and family members between 2010 and 2015. The report notes that domestic violence is grossly under-reported and largely perpetrated with impunity. Coalition members receive more than 2,000 calls about domestic violence each year.376
The #MeToo movement and its attack on the prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual assault seems a long way from Yerevan. In its corridors of power Armenia, it seems, has more than its share of overly empowered and behaviourally inappropriate Harvey Weinsteins. According to the April 2018 United States Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour report: Although the law addresses lewd acts and indecent behaviour, it does not specifically prohibit sexual harassment. Observers believed sexual harassment of women in the workplace was widespread.377
This has permeated into a societal malaise – one in which the nation’s leadership and government has, it seems, gone along with more than happily. A wall of silence. An egregious willingness to profit from, or partake in, the fruits of the sex industry.
In a September 2016 Human Rights Council speech, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein criticised the authorities’ denial of access for his staff.378
In the United States Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2018, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo stated that: “Modern slavery has no place in the world, and I intend to ensure, through diplomatic engagement and increased action, that the United States Government’s leadership in combating this global threat is sustained in the years to come.”379 In their 2018 document, Pompeo’s team report on a continuation of Yerevan’s altogether relaxed approach to the issue, reported: Observers reported the Investigative Committee (IC) or Prosecutor General’s Office dropped most cases categorised as trafficking by local police due to a lack of evidence. Local investigators lacked the skills to properly interview victims, especially children... Law enforcement investigated only formal criminal complaints filed by victims that specifically alleged trafficking and did not proactively investigate criminal activity that potentially involved trafficking. As a result, law enforcement initiated investigations only when victims self-identified.380
So what is behind the administration’s seeming acquiescence? Money certainly. It can often help to know a man’s proclivities. In Charlotte Cabaret, for example. We spoke to a generously-proportioned Sudanese dancer. Prior to the Armenian Velvet Revolution, she claimed she met regularly with one former President at the behest of her pimps, as a valued added service. Gloria was discreet, did not like to talk about it much, but said that he was generous with his tips.
Among the girls here and in the likes of the Crazy Show Club on Myasnikyan Avenue, if you are a paying customer, willing to cough up for enough drinks and dances, the girls are happy to name drop cabinet ministers, armed forces chiefs and police bosses, diplomats and parliamentarians, society’s movers and shakers, who they have served to various degrees.
There have been times when scandals have shocked the establishment and often these have included what is said to be the widespread use of prostitutes.
In 2011, Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan was rocked by a sex scandal. Sargsyan’s advisor Serop Der-Boghossian, the Prime Minister’s front man in ownership of a mining firm called Metal Prince, which held lucrative rights in and around the northern town of Akhtala, was arrested by the National Security Service. He was charged with sex abuse stemming from media reports that implicated him in paedophilia, including film evidence and testimonials from those who he had abused.381
Another example, from 2015, came when long-married Yerevan State Engineering University head Hovhannes Tokmajyan was ruined as evidence crept into the public arena of his extramarital activities, a scandal from which he never recovered.382
In 2015, the nation’s political leaders were hard at work debating amendments to the constitution. Controversy reigned.
The constitution was set to restrict marriage as a union only between a man and a woman. The issue of same-sex marriage became contentious in Parliament, leading to accusations that some parties were becoming too liberal in their approach to sex. Focus expanded from legislating against LGBT rights and to the booming sex industry.
It was a seminal challenge to the sex industry. Footage began to circulate, showing senior and well-known political figures discussing procurement and their personal needs.
Whispers of a possible sex scandal eventually reached the local media. In August the news site Lragir.am reported: Two sex scandals are maturing on these days, one is an everyday, the other is a political one, both are related to the Armenian government and Russia. Several Republican members of parliament have been caught while having a chat with Russian teenagers on Skype on intimate topics. Perhaps they thought that Skype cannot be “wiretapped”. On the other hand, it has obviously become a stimulus for the process of clarification of relations among Republican groups. The second sex scandal is larger in scope and is related to an individual who is the chairman of some Armenian-Russian organisations and is known to have received high awards and medals from different Armenian agencies.383
Lragir.am was not quite on the money. Yet the basics of its story were correct. Lawmakers were discussing sex and someone had the evidence of wrongdoing.
Parliament quickly backed off from the issue. The Armenian mafia had succeeded in protecting its lucrative human trafficking business, and the sex industry.
In a report to the Human Rights Council in March 2016, Maud de Boer- Buquicchio, United Nations special rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, stated that the extent of child trafficking is unclear in the absence of relevant legislation and child-friendly complaint mechanisms, and insufficient awareness-raising among parents, professionals, and society. She urged authorities to pass domestic violence and other relevant legislation and ensure the child protection system consistently acts in the best interests of the child.384
For a generation of children and young girls, the wait for leadership has already cost them dear.
For several months, Alia worked the strip club scene in Yerevan. Yet she was always destined for more. No matter how much she would try to avoid it.
A well-established physiological process was underway. It is not in female psychology to pleasure an unremitting line-up of men. They need to be broken down.
Piece by piece. First there are the threats and intimidation. Then the drugs.
Then introduction to the ‘business’. Then they strip them of everything. Stripped of everything from their old life, losing their belongings, is a step toward reducing personal identity towards zero.
From the innocence of their upbringings, homes, families and society, they are catapulted into a world where they exist in a singular state: They are tools.
Human trafficking has become an even more lucrative business in light of the refugee crisis, making record profits of between £2 billion and £4 billion385 last year as criminal organisations in Europe extort money from people desperately fleeing home for a different continent.
A new report from the European Commission – which only includes victims identified by the authorities – paints a grim picture. More than 1.2 million people are estimated to be victims of forced labour, sexual exploitation and forced marriage on the continent – but barely a handful of victims are identified. The report concluded that sexual exploitation is the main purpose for human trafficking, making up 67% of the total registered victims and stated: Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom are the most targeted countries by human traffickers, due to the high demand for cheap sexual and labour services in these countries. Trafficking for sexual exploitation can take on different forms: more visible ones, as in the case of street prostitution, but mostly clandestine ones, operating in brothels or private homes.386
To most casual observers in Europe, the issue of human trafficking is one dominated by horrific images of slave labour markets in Libya, and news stories of Africans, Syrians and Afghanis attempting to make their way towards a better life, aboard flimsy boats in the Mediterranean.
In November 2017, the bodies of 26 young Nigerian women were found floating in the Mediterranean – another tragic incident adding to the many left to die while seeking refuge in Europe.387
The brutality of borders, marked by barbed wires, walls, floating bodies and push backs, is not an invention of the Trump administration. This is the reality of the European Union 70 years on from the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, its opening preamble recalling the disregard and contempt for human rights that outraged the conscience of mankind.
Yet amid the television news broadcasts and reams of newsprint dedicated, rightly so, to the crisis of those seeking refuge in Europe from Africa and Asia, there remains a worsening issue with sex trafficking.
European Union countries reported 15,846 victims of human trafficking between 2013 and 2014, 76% of which were women and girls, according to a 2017 European Commission report.388
Existing simply for the quite brutal sexual gratification of men – and little more than cashpoint vaginas that enrich the criminals behind the crime.
Alia and those selected to be trafficked alongside her in 2017 were lost. Gone. They were now ghosts. Lost from the system.
After six months on the sex circuit in Yerevan, Alia was heading to Western Europe, using her forged Republic of Armenia passport and a cheaply purchased Schengen visa. Each week dozens of girls are shepherded out of the country aboard Air Armenia flights to Athens, Paris and Frankfurt, from where they are spread around the continent.
Alia flew to Germany. She never saw most of the other girls again. She found herself crossing Europe’s open frontiers, until she reached Madrid.
Lonely Planet says of the city: ‘No city on earth is more alive than Madrid, a beguiling place whose sheer energy carries a simple message: this city really knows how to live.’
For millions of visitors each year, Spain’s capital represents the definition of cool, a city of elegant boulevards and expansive, manicured parks such as the Buen Retiro. It is renowned for its rich repositories of European art, including the Prado Museum’s works by Goya, Velázquez and other Spanish masters.
The heart of old Hapsburg Madrid is the portico-lined Plaza Mayor, and nearby is the baroque Royal Palace and Armoury.
Yet, in a contrast of cultures, this is a nation of the whiskerías and clubs.
Within the neighbourhood of King Felipe VI’s palace there are whiskerías. In this historic nation, with its noble place in modern civilisation, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and the nation’s leaders, in the Congress of Deputies and Cortes Generales, seem entirely comfortable with the presence of ‘clubs’.
In this era of the #MeToo movement, it is worth noting some facts about those who turn a convenient blind eye to the sex trade.
The monarch has two daughters – Leonor, Princess of Asturias and Infanta Sofía of Spain.389 The Prime Minister also has two, Carlota and Ainhoa.390 These two dominant personalities of modern Spain have daughters, wives, mothers, sisters, aunts and nieces.
Yet they are content with the whiskerías and clubs on their doorstep, and around the nation. As are the nation’s Deputies and members of the Cortes Generales.
That is not to focus just on Spain.
Prostitution will never be eradicated fully, yet the point must be made that while international leaders take an almost laissez-faire approach to the sex industry, it is impossible to believe that the female members of their families, their staff, their voters and their subjects, can look at them without soul-searching disappointment.
While #MeToo rages around the world, they allow sex clubs to flourish, staffed by sex slaves spirited into the nation, intimidated and coerced into the ultimate in human degradation. Alia was just one.
Do those around Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan not wonder why he continues to allow young girls to be trafficked from his nation to serve as sex slaves in Western European brothels?
What about the daughters of Serzh Sargsyan, whose influence over Yerevan extended years? Do his daughters, Anush Sargsyan and Satenik Sargsyan, drive through the capital in their flash cars and consider the fates of the girls who work in the sex clubs that flourished during his tenure?
Or indeed those girls whose tragic stories would see them trafficked abroad, to a certain ghastly and unthinkable life?
Awash with their own privileged lives, Anush and Satenik, along with Gayane
Kocharyan, it seems, have no time for girls like Alia.
If one considers the hapless tale of Alia, now trapped in purgatory in Madrid, one sees a clear answer. Just the night before I met her, she was threatened by her owner and forced to consent to perhaps the ultimate degradation. If she could have walked straight in the days following her latest violation, perhaps she would attempt to clear her mind from its demons with a stroll. Perhaps it would take her past the Palacio Real de Madrid or the Complejo de la Moncloa. Perhaps it would take her close to the Palacio de las Cortes.
Inside these buildings men of great influence go about their business. Like those in Yerevan, they care nothing for Alia and the thousands like her. Forced into damnation.
In The Roots, a coffee shop in downtown Stepanakert, Karina pulls a photograph of her lost daughter from her purse. She shows me the face of an innocent 14-year-old, an image taken in the months before she left Nagorno- Karabakh for the first time.
From the few, fleeting telephone calls that Alia has been able to make, her mother believes that her daughter is working in a café in Spain. Karina just wants her home now.
She has already been trafficked to two different countries. On two different continents. That is in addition to those long months providing services in a variety of depraved clubs in Yerevan.
Alia is still just 17.
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