THE WHORES OF STEPANAKERT
In 2000 United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, together with the International Organisation for Migration and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, conducted a study on the trafficking of women and children from Armenia. Those who have taken part in the study have said that the findings are alarming.127
In November 2001, the End Child Prostitution and Trafficking group, a global network of civil society organisations working to end the sexual exploitation of children, issued a seminal report. Five years on from the World Congress against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, held in Stockholm in 1996, End Child Prostitution and Trafficking’s ‘Report on implementation of the Agenda for Action’ provided insight into the health of the Agenda for Action.128
In Armenia, and certainly in Nagorno-Karabakh, which lays beyond the reach of law and order and outside the scope of studies and research by the international community, the situation was, to say the least, grave.
“They never talk about child prostitution. It’s a taboo subject,” says Mikael Danielian, head of the Armenian Helsinki Group. Commenting to the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, which states that: ‘Few people in Armenia will admit that child prostitutes exist, let alone talk openly about it. That is making it harder to address the problem...’
We would come face to face with the horrific human reality of this failure on our visit to Nagorno-Karabakh.
Alex Khachaturian works in what passes for a coffee shop at the Vallex Garden Hotel in downtown Stepanakert, a stone’s throw from the Presidential Palace. He wears the bored, unhappy look that many hotel employees do, uncomfortable in an ill-fitting, grey Vallex Garden uniform.
Amid a mix of scruffy tourists and some dubious-looking Iranians, Khachaturian visibly brightens when he sees three Western men eating breakfast alone. No accompanying women. Instead of the dismissive service of earlier, now we are the subject of a mini-charm offensive.
“Where are you going in Artsakh ?” “What are you seeing?” “Are you having fun?”
Eventually our new friend Alex came to the point. “Do you want some girls tonight?”
The Armenia mafia’s snakeish empire may reach to Spain, Britain, Scandinavia and the United States, but it is in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh that it has its starting point and is at its most pervasive.
Stepanakert is somewhat sleepy at night. Once the Blues Bar on Shahumyan Square closed for good, that left the warm and eccentrically decorated Bardak Pub on Tevosyan Street as the only legitimate nightspot in the town. Several hotels nominally have ‘bars’ but none seem to add up to a social scene.
Alex, however, has a proposal. If we meet him in Shahumyan Square at ten, he will gladly show us where the real action is.
A little doubtful, we are at the appointed spot, under a fine statue of Bolshevik revolutionary Stepan Shaumian that evening. Considering where we are about to head, it is a fitting place to begin our journey. Shaumian was compared with the devil in official British documents produced a century ago, when he was at the pinnacle of his influence in the region.
Alex arrives on time in the driver’s seat of a Lada that has seen better days. He is in high spirits. His breath smells of alcohol.
We are about to go whoring Stepanakert style.
On the way to our destination, our conveyance is visibly struggling as it climbs the town’s undulating road system, wheezing and belching out fumes at the same time. We head down the town’s main Azatamartikneri Avenue and make a series of right turns after passing Artsakh State University. Towards the last vestiges of the shabby suburbs, we swing up the back of the town and arrive, fittingly, at the Monument of Immortality.
Turning down a dark road, the ambient light grows dim and we reach a blue minibus, parked by the side of the road. This is our destination. A handful of faces peer out from the windows of the minibus.
Alex is clearly a regular. He shakes hands with a man who jumps from the front, and the rear doors are thrown open. It is packed with young women.
The man barks angrily and the girls jump out quickly. Temperatures have cooled, it is chilly. We are, after all, in the mountains. Yet the dozen girls, wearing short skirts and stiletto heels, form an awkward line up and await inspection.
Alex invites us to move closer, to take stock, to select. A few manage a smile, but mostly they are impassive. Awaiting their fate.
Like a president inspecting a guard of honour, I uncomfortably make my way along, making eye contact, asking questions of Alex.
“This is Sam. She is from Dağdağan. She is hot, yes? “Ahhh, Mariam. She will give you everything, brother. No problem.” “Hovsep’avan she comes from. Name is Ani...” he leans in, his voice audibly dropping as the attractive bleached blonde eyes me up and adjusts her skirt in order to show off much more of her thighs. She looks like a young Scarlett Johansson. Despite oppressive make up, alarmingly young.
“You will see her maybe in the Vallex Garden some afternoons... Big Boss likes her...”
Alex later tells me that 60-year-old Bako Sahakyan has recently taken a shine to Ani. Several afternoons each week she is transported to a suite at the Vallex Garden. Sahakyan’s office is just across Shahumyan Square. He slips into the hotel, via a side door, and spends a few hours relaxing with Ani.
Alex is a little vague about Ani’s age. Not that he’s hiding anything. It is just not an issue. So he asks her. 15 she replies.
I abandon any pretence of being interested and move along the line of expectant girls.
The last in the group is Sofía. She is from Turkmenistan.
Alex makes a sucking sound through his teeth, indicating that she is trouble.
What appears to be a black eye, badly covered by makeup, indicates that a customer got fruity. Or that Sofía’s owners did not care for her attitude.
My mind is made up by Sofía. She may be a bad girl, but she gives me a sly wink and speaks enough English to converse. Alex shakes his head in disapproval. She will go back to the Vallex Garden with me for the Dram equivalent of $125 where, I am told, she will provide anything I ask for.
“All holes,” says Alex, with a filthy grin that makes me want to punch his lights out.
As we are discussing business, another car pulls up containing a National Assembly member. For a local personality he is surprisingly not bashful. He examines each girl, as one would look at a nice cut of meat in the local delicatessen. He elects to take Mariam with him, and drives off with her for the night.
Sofía turns out to be an enthusiastic guest in my room, especially when she is told that I won’t be using any of her holes. I apologise for her situation.
“Don’t worry, dear,” she replies.
Night after night, this is a very familiar scene in the shadowy darkness of Stepanakert. Prostitution is technically illegal but the sex trade still thrives. The pimps recruit girls from across the territory. A few stay in the town, but most are shipped to the bright lights of Yerevan, or are sold on to the West.
Over several room service meals and a glass of wine, Sofía begins to tell her story. Hailing from a small town outside Ashgabat she was raised in a government orphanage. Introduced to a Turkmen who said he worked in Armenia and wanted to marry her, she willingly moved to Yerevan.
From there her story was alarmingly familiar. Almost a template. Heroin. Beatings. Acquiescence.
“I was shocked. I wept, shouted, and tried to fight. Nothing helped. I was beaten and threatened. I screamed that I would not do this. No way. Then they injected me. Then they beat me. I lost teeth and was in hospital. Still I said no. Then they injected me. Again. Again. Eventually all I wanted was more heroin. Then I agreed to do what they wanted.”
Her ‘look’, best described as Euro-oriental, made her hot property for a time. She was passed around the clubs, including Nightclub Omega on Teryan Street. When the drugs and the lifestyle begun to take its toll she was demoted. To sex parlours. Then touting for business on street corners in the red light district. Then Stepanakert.
Like, for an example, a player in England’s Premiership football league, she had now been relegated to the National League. Not many paydays remained. Injecting and sniffing heroin has left her a mess.
She left my room the following morning after a long, undisturbed sleep. And with enough cash to, hopefully, make a dash for Yerevan when the opportunity presents itself. Back in Yerevan we passed her details to the Embassy of Turkmenistan on Yerznkyan Street.
Along the busy streets, in dingy apartments and in hotel rooms around Yerevan, also in the backstreets around Stepanakert, countless women spend their days and nights being exploited in the commercial sex industry. The market for women’s bodies is flourishing and scores of men line up to pay for sex.
Every prostituted woman in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh has her own story. Many of the women working in Yerevan’s sex industry are tricked into coming on the promise of a marriage or a well-paid job.
Many are simply kidnapped from their hometowns and forced to work. Others are coerced by life circumstances beyond their control, like poverty, homelessness, and a history of abuse.
In Armenia, state policy in respect of the women of “licentious behaviour” during the Soviet period was based on repressive measures and their public condemnation. Society is different today, still somewhat conservative, yet certainly there has been a change in perception and attitude.
Yerevan-based Hope & Help, a non-governmental organisation was established by a group of physicians and psychologists in 1998. Hope & Help’s 2001 Report on Some Aspects of Commercial Sex Work in Armenia makes it quite clear the base behind the rise of the industry: The fact that the population becomes poor is the social consequence of the economic crisis, unemployment and unequal distribution of the most important social services – education, healthcare, market relations, corruption, income, etc. According to the official statistical data 55% of the population is poor, 23% out of it is rated as very poor.129
Since 2001 the economic situation has continued to remain dire. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty stated that: Almost one-third of Armenia’s three million people live below the official poverty level, according to the Asian Development Bank.130
Due to this, the industry has only grown. It is an issue that Armenia itself acknowledges. Armenia Has Become a Transit Point in the Sex Trade cried the investigative journalist website Hetq Online in 2005.131 More recently, with the industry out of control, Armenian news resource Tert.am had gone as far as to call for prostitution to be made legal in Armenia.132
A December 2007 report published by the United Nations Development Programme Anti-Trafficking Project, ‘Republic of Armenia Law Enforcement Anti-Trafficking Training Needs Assessment’, published by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe noted that: The use of the services of a prostitute is not a punishable offence in Armenia.133
It is an anomaly, not uncommon in many nations, that the law is relaxed in approach to the users. Overwhelmingly male. While laws and punishments are skewed toward providers. Overwhelmingly female. Even if the latter are underaged minors in Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia.
In January 2017, one television channel commissioned a group of regional journalists from Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan to look into the industry. Their report, titled Sex Workers in the South Caucasus: ‘Is What We Do Amoral?’, stated that: In Armenia, prostitution is... [an administrative offense] punishable by fines. The exact amount of such fines is not defined by the Armenian legislation, but interviews with police lead to the conclusion that first-time violations are punishable by fines of up to 20,000 Dram ($41). Second time offenders are fined double.134
What is clear from this is that the industry is widely tolerated and subject to laws and penalties that are in place merely to give the appearance of a functioning system. In reality it is open season for commercial sex.
In the California Night Club,135 brightly signposted along the main highway between Armenia’s airport and capital, the girls themselves credit the advent of scheduled Qatar Airways flights to Yerevan136 as bringing with it a boom in business.
A new, golden age of sex tourism has dawned!
In Karabakh, a few hundred metres from the Monument of Immortality, built as a testimonial to the bravery of those who gave their lives to save the Soviet Union during the Second World War, teenagers are hooking from the back of a minibus. Several, claimed my guide with a sense of pride, were below what serves as the legal age of consent in most decent nations.
Indeed, so is the youngster who is currently the favourite of the man running the territory, for his afternoon delights.
Individuals aged 15 or younger in Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia are not legally able to consent to sexual activity, and such activity may result in prosecution for statutory rape or the equivalent local law. Maybe.
If the pertinent authorities are stretched. If political and law and order figures are purposefully looking the other way. Whatever the reason. The laws governing commercial and underage sex are being ignored.
This situation is exacerbated by the ragged state of social services in Nagorno- Karabakh and Armenia and, not least, the way orphanages have become recruitment factories for the sex industry. Both administrations face agonising funding decisions given their deep economic issues.137 This has put pressure on those most susceptible to a lack of basic services.
Extremely vulnerable to being groomed and recruited by traffickers hundreds of at-risk children go unaccounted for within the orphanage system. George S. Yacoubian, Jr. serves as chairman of the Society for Orphaned Armenian Relief. Based in Pennsylvania, the group raises funds and does undoubtedly good work, yet Yacoubian warns: Children in Armenia are more vulnerable to the consequences of poverty than any other age or social group, resulting in increasing numbers of orphans, institutionalised children and children living on the streets. There are nearly 1,500 children living in Armenia’s 16 state and privately funded orphanages, and government expenditures on social services are very low and offer little in the way of a social safety net... Armenia remains a source and, to a lesser extent, destination country for men, women and children subjected to sex and labour trafficking.138
From where does this apparent laissez-faire approach to the sex industry come?
No one is saying on record. But that is not to say that people are stupid. Even more seriously, certainly, is what is at the root of the apparent disappearance of so many children through society’s cracks?
One Western non-governmental organisation official based in Armenia compares those who prey on children in Armenia to the Child Catcher, an antagonist of the classic film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, employed by Baron and Baroness Bomburst to snatch and imprison children on the streets of Vulgaria.
It is not an unappealing linkage, although in that classic 1968 family film the Child Catcher does not have his captives forcibly hooked on heroin and pressed into the sex industry.
In Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, parents whisper his moniker. The Child Catcher is a bogeyman who could snatch their children at any time. Across Nagorno- Karabakh – like Vulgaria, also essentially a fictional nation – and Armenia, the criminals that inhabit this humanitarian basement are the stuff of nightmares, their bogeymen.
The Institute for War & Peace Reporting, an international network of organisations headquartered in London with coordinating offices in Washington and Amsterdam, published a startling Caucasus report which stated: Underage prostitution is growing as more young people end up on the streets. Few people in Armenia will admit that child prostitutes exist, let alone talk openly about it. That is making it harder to address the problem as increasing numbers of vulnerable young people end up living on the street...
The number of children who live on the streets of Armenia has multiplied because of a rocketing divorce rate and falling standards of living... Child vagrancy still ranks very low on the government’s list of priorities and there are very few agencies dealing with the problem...
The police by and large ignore street children begging or prostituting themselves, because they rarely have any cash worth extorting. Unless they get involved in violence or theft, they are left alone...139
The corrosive effect of this on society is clear. The nation’s pimps and recruiters supply everything from the sex clubs in Yerevan, to the street walkers in major cities and the minibuses that hover around Stepanakert’s back streets. Along the way they also service politicians and administrative officials with sex and money.
Initiatives such as the Agenda for Action remain sidelined and little more than paper given the financial incentives behind the industry. Significant changes have not taken place to better protect children. Existing initiatives remain at the legislative or policy level without any effective implementation.
The same applies to prostitution and the sex industry at large. A subsequent End Child Prostitution and Trafficking report, ‘From Stockholm to Yokohama: The Global Partnership to Combat Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children’, added: In Armenia, a major part of the child sex tourism industry is connected to the vast numbers of Armenian children that are trafficked from one city to another, within Armenia or from Armenia to other countries.140
For whatever reason, the truth of the situation as assessed by internationally recognised authorities is that policy and law frameworks in Armenia are constructed with a surprising and telling degree of ambiguity. Why that would be, one should make one’s own conclusion.
Save The Children’s ‘Child Rights Situation Analysis: Armenia’ for 2015, summarises that: The study revealed that the Republic of Armenia has ratified the key international treaties concerning the rights of the child; however, a few very important optional protocols still remain not ratified. At the same time, the newly adopted draft laws on the rights of the child are not required to be assessed according to Republic of Armenia legislation, in contrary to the legislative requirement to assess the impact of legal acts in a number of other fields.
Regarding the Republic of Armenia Law on the Rights of the Child, the activities for the protection of the rights of the child are carried out in the manner and timeframe foreseen by the annual programmes, however, the assessment showed that these programmes have a lot of shortcomings.141
The same report says of the child protection regime in Armenia: According to the results of the study, Republic of Armenia legislation associated with protecting the child from an insult, absence of care, indifference or rude treatment is not clear: in particular (a) the description of these phenomena and a struggle against them are still in the state of drafting; (b) not all incidents of violence are punishable under criminal law in the Republic of Armenia, (c) any manifestation of violence against the child is conditioned by the fact that the child is either not perceived or is partially perceived as an individual by the society, (d) children are still subjected to physical and psychological violence as methods of upbringing, (e) there is no separate legal act or a single and comprehensive document on physical and psychological integration of children and their social reintegration, (f) so far there is no legislation in the Republic of Armenia on juvenile justice.
Almost the shortest message on this appalling situation was delivered by the International Organisation for Migration, following a study funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. This stated bleakly: Trafficking in human beings has become a global problem and a number of developing and transition countries are affected as countries of origin. Unfortunately Armenia is not an exception.
After a long week in Nagorno-Karabakh, as we were checking out of the Vallex Garden Hotel in Stepanakert, we met a familiar face. Also in the reception was 15-year-old Ani. A second after seeing me, a flicker of recognition crossed her face. She remembered us from that darkened street near the Monument of Immortality, just a few days earlier.
“Sofía friend” she said, using what little English was at her disposal. She looked at us and delivered perhaps the shortest and most palpable summary of the situation as it currently stands in that territory, and in Armenia.
“Please... help me also.”
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