Friday, 21 September

"I can't turn my son away," says John Haroutunyan's mother

“When he got here he was in very bad shape, he was having attacks of pain, he kept saying, ‘Oh, Mom, I’m dying.’ Different parts of his body were hurting, we took him to the hospital three times. Once he said, ‘Mom, I’d be better off dead, I don’t want to live.’ I said, ‘John, maybe you’ve done something wrong, tell me.” But he said, ‘No, I haven’t done anything.” He had rash on his face, his lips were cracked, he kept getting the cold sweats. One of the doctors even said that he wasn’t sick, something else was going on with him.” Anik Haroutunyan cried as she talked about her son John, on trial for killing Tigran Naghdalyan. The fifty-three year old woman is a cook at the hospital in Martuni. She had three sons, one of whom, Raj, was killed in the war. “You know, I can’t hold my head up, chat with anyone, because my son did this. Now I can’t talk to people. One is dead, one is in prison, and the last one doesn’t know what to do, he is all alone. And John has four children, the oldest is ten, the youngest is two,” she told me.

I met Anik Haroutunyan in Martuni, a small town in the south of Nagorno Karabakh. It’s a town where everybody knows everything about everybody--there are no secrets. Last January everybody knew that John had money, that he had parties with his friends, he bought a car, was handing money out. Just like in Armenian towns everywhere, men in Martuni like to get together and talk on street corners. By evening, they’ve had a few drinks and conversations become louder. John Haroutunyan could sometimes be seen hanging out on the streets with his friends. But he wasn’t a talker-he listened to other people. And he wasn’t a leader-he was a follower, he never took the initiative.

It should become clear in court how John and his friends ended up as they did. Back when John was in the Soviet Army, his parents received a letter of gratitude for his service. “I don’t know, I don’t understand what made him do it - our being poor, or his friends. He owed us a little money, maybe that’s why he did it,” John’s mother wondered. “It didn’t have anything to do with him, nobody did anything to him, or to his children, or to his wife. Why would he kill someone? He didn’t even buy anything with the money. Just that car [a Jhiguli owned by Samvel, nicknamed Tsav, also accused of murder].

“But he had sold the cow before that, and he told us that he had paid half of what he owed for the car, and still had to pay the other half. He owed $2,000 to the bank-- he didn’t pay off that debt either,” she went on. When the investigator asked him why he had paid back the bank loan, John said it was blood money. “He didn’t buy anything for his house or his children, he just gave the money out to his friends,” she said. He organized dinners for his friends, even for policemen. The policemen ate with him and after they said goodbye, they stopped his car and fined him 20,000 Drams (about $35).

Gegham Shahbazyan had been to John’s house twice. Once before the murder, once after. “I told Gegham, ‘You look out for my son, don’t let him get into trouble.’ He said, ‘No, Aunt Anik, there’s nothing going on, ’” she recounts.

“The second time he came they were standing face-to-face, whispering, for a long time. Then when Gegham left I said, ‘Johnik, I don’t like the looks of that boy.’ He said ‘No, Mom, we were talking about something else. We didn’t anyone to hear. We were talking about taking the animals out. When I get some money, I’ll make another payment on the car.’

“When Gegham came the second time it was one of John’s children’s birthday. He brought toys-- a big car and a pistol. And I joked, ‘Did you bring the big car so the boy could drive around and shoot someone? Later I realized that Gegham and John looked at each other when I said that. Now I think that Gegham thought that John had told me. In Gegham’s eyes there was a question, ‘John, did you tell your mother?’

“What parents would want their son to be a killer? I can’t get it through my head that John could do such a thing. I still cannot believe it. I used say, ‘John, go kill a chicken,’ and he would say, ‘Mom, I can’t do it--I can’t stand the sight of blood.’ During the war, too, there were days he came home out of his mind from the sight of blood. Blood made him physically ill.”

“He was used by his friends," was my first thought when I heard that John killed a man,” said John Haroutunyan’s Armenian teacher, Elmira Alexanyan, a school teacher for 39 years. She often visits John’s parents these days. Anik told me, “She sits down and cries with me. Talk to her, she will tell you about my son.

“He never made trouble, but wasn’t a good student. I used to visit their house, his mother was a good parent,” the teacher said. “It seems to me that Johnik must have wondered how I would take this blow. When I first heard about it I thought he probably did it for his friends. He’s easily led; he was used by his friends. It was a situation where he did it in his friend’s place. He did it for his friends, I’m sure. He was always like that. He wasn’t a bad person.”

I asked Anik if people knew she was John’s mother when they saw her in the courtroom. “I don’t think so,” she said. “If they knew they would come up to me and get angry, say bad things. I’m afraid they’re going to find out. I keep to myself, and speak to John with my eyes. If he’s guilty he should be punished. But they took my son and turned him into a sinner. Four children are orphans. They turned him into a sinner. They probably got my son drunk, did something to him. He would never have done such a thing-- he went there four times and didn’t do it-- he came back. In the end they made him drink half a liter of vodka. He wouldn’t have done such a thing.

“In November, a man called our house fromYerevana few times. John said, ‘I’m not coming, don’t call me.’ And I stupidly said, ‘John, why don’t you go? This man helped you sell the livestock lots of times. You made money.’ He said, “Mom, be quiet! I don’t want to go, I’m not going.’

“I don’t blame any of them. I blame my son, because he took it upon himself and he went and did this thing. Why should you go and kill that young boy? He’s just a boy like you. They tricked my son--tricked him and got him mixed up in this thing.

“I can’t watch TV any more; all those faces look like John’s face. I lost one son, and now I’m losing another. I can’t get it through my head that he could do such a thing. Sometimes I think that maybe they tortured John into confessing. If I had known, I would have torn that Gegham to pieces. His son is in the army in Martuni-he used to come to our house, he would eat, and we would sit and talk. Who would believe that his father would get my son involved in this mess?

“The way they act in court, I start to wonder, wasn’t there any one among them-- that they had to come to Karabakh and take my son. And another thing I don’t understand is why they applaud in court. It’s not the theatre-isn’t Tigran’s mother a parent, too? Do they expect her not to say anything? I will never forgive John, but he’s my son, what can I do? I go there to show him that he’s not alone, that I won’t turn him away. I had more dignity when my Raj died in the war-- now I walk with my head down. But one of the policemen told me, ‘Aunt Anik, don’t forget that one of your sons was a hero.”

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