"My friend Armenuhi deceived me. She promised me a well-paid job in theUnited Arab Emirates. So I went. Once I got there she took my passport and forced me into prostitution to make money for her," recalls Narine Karapetyan (the victims' names have been changed).
Thirty-four-year-old Narine lives in Vanadzor -Armenia's third largest city in size and population. Vanadzor is in the northeast ofArmenia, 120 kilometers fromYerevan. According to the official data, it has a population of 120,000. But 30,000 or 40,000 people leave every year in search of work, and unofficially, the population is only 50,000. The disastrous earthquake of 1988 ruined most of the city and shattered the economy. More than 800 people died; tens of thousands were left homeless and unemployed.
We met Narine in her apartment on the outskirts of town. When she came back from the Emirates no one would take her in, so she was forced to rent the one-room apartment where she lives with her two young sons. The room has only one chair and a small table-the family usually sits on a mattress on the floor. It is colder in the apartment than outside. There is no heat, and for months they haven't been able to pay for electricity. Narine has to borrow money for bread.
Her husband was killed inRussia. Narine's mother told us that he fled Vanadzor after committing a theft. He never sent money fromRussia, and Narine's relatives had been helping her to get along. She worked as a clerk in a local store, but couldn't support her family on what she earned. So she took the advice of her friend Armenuhi and left for the Emirates, hoping to find a job in a store or café and save up some money. "Armenuhi and I had been friends since childhood. I had always trusted her and she had been good to me. It never occurred to me that that she could treat me like this," Narine says. Armenuhi left Vanadzor for the Emirates in the spring of 2001, and then in July invited Narine and a woman named Ofelia to join her. They didn't know that their friend had been involved in prostitution; Armenuhi said she had been working as a seamstress. So Narine left her boys with a friend, R. B., and set off.
Armenuhi's brother Artak took the women to the airport. Armenuhi met Narine when she landed, and took her passport while they were still in the airport. "She told me that I had to work as a prostitute or else I could stay there and rot. She said I had to give her $10,000 to get my passport back. She found Ofelia a place in a café," Narine says. Armenuhi had been renting an apartment in a place called theLaundryBuildinginAbu Dhabi. Narine worked there for nearly eight months, making up to $200 an hour. She received six or seven men a day. She was treated cruelly, beaten up, and forced to work even when she was sick. As a rule, Armenuhi would take the money in advance, promising to divide it up afterwards. Narine says she was not the only one in this situation. There were many Armenian girls there, some as young as 16 or 17. While there, Narine periodically sent money to her children - about $1,250 over the course of eight months. "I couldn't stay there anymore, I was like an object, like a slave. Sometimes the Arab men would see me crying and spare me, they wouldn't touch me," Narine recalls.
One day Narine happened to notice some stitches in the mattress; she ripped them open and discovered her passport. She confronted Armenuhi and demanded the money she had earned, but Armenuhi refused. Narine was helped by an Arab man, who bought her a plane ticket and sent her toArmeniain April 2002. Narine was met at theYerevanairport by Artak Simonyan (Armenuhi's brother), Hovik Vardanyan (a police officer from Vanadzor) and his brother, Heno. A few days after she returned to Vanadzor, Hovik and another policeman named Gagik took her to Robert Karapetyan (nicknamed Rambo). Karapetyan is a detective with the Vanadzor police. "Rambo asked me in an angry tone why hadn't come to see him and whether I knew that he was in charge of the girls returning from the Emirates. Then he threatened me by saying that he would deprive me of my parental rights if I didn't write down what he dictated, and he demanded $500. So I wrote down everything that happened to me in the Emirates," Narine says.
Narine told Artak Simonyan about her statement, and asked that his sister pay what she owed - $8,750. She took $200 from him, on the condition that he would give her the rest later. Narine says Artak signed a paper stating that the money was for sexual exploitation. But then Artak consulted with Robert Karapetyan as to what to do next. Karapetyan threatened Narine again and told her to leave Artak alone, insisting that Armenuhi didn't owe her anything. Narine believes that police officer Robert Karapetyan is behind all of it. "Rambo told me that he was in charge of this affair and I had to check everything with him. Rambo was informed about everything-he knew that Armenuhi owed me money and wanted to get something out of it, too," she explains.
Narine informed both law enforcement and the Foreign Ministry of what had happened to her. On June 17, 2003, she received a letter from the ministry stating, "In reference to your letter of June, 3, 2003 we would like to inform you that according to the information we have received from the Police and Transport departments of the Lori Marz, from 1990 to 2003, Vanadzor residents Vanadzor Armenuhi Simonyan and her brother Artak Simonyan recruited and sent to the United Arab Emirates for sexual exploitation a number of women, including residents of Vanadzor. The Prosecutor's Office of Armenia is now investigating the case. Measures are being taken to locate Armenuhi Simonyan."
Narine is not working now. She had a job at a bakery for a while, but she left because the salary was too low, and her health was poor-she has had serious kidney trouble since she returned from the Emirates. Her children have not attended school for a year-an-a-half - they don't have textbooks, school supplies, or clothes. All her relatives have turned their backs on them. "I understand that my daughter was deceived. But I cannot forgive her anyway; she wouldn't listen to us, and she led an immoral life," says Narine's mother, Hasmik.
Narine has appealed to some international organizations, and they have promised to help her defend her rights. "I will fight until Armenuhi returns the money I earned-$8,750. She deals with big money and our police officers profit from it," she insists.
Charges have filed in the case and the Office of the Prosecutor General is in charge of the investigation. Armenuhi used to visitArmeniaa few times a year, but hasn't done so in the months years since Narine first filed her complaint. Her cohorts keep her informed her about the investigation. The law enforcement agencies know of her whereabouts, and they know the names of her partners inArmenia- police officers who recruited and sent Narine and many other Armenian women to theUnited Arab Emiratesfor sexual exploitation.
There are other woman from Vanadzor besides Narine wh fell victim to Armenuhi Simonyan. They are all afraid to meet with us. The mother of one of them told us that her daughter was mentally disturbed and couldn't talk. Ofelia, who went to the Emirates with Narine, agreed to speak with us. But in Vanadzor, we were met by her daughter instead. "Armen Tamazyan, an investigator from the prosecutor's office, told us that you are not authorized to meet with us. My mother will not tell you anything. The lawyers gave us the same advice," she said.
To be continued