"I'm upset with everybody. Why should we have to live like this? We're already in the garbage dump, there's nowhere left to go. This is the end of the world," says fifteen-year-old Hamest. Hamest was a straight-A student up to fifth grade, but she hasn't been to school for two years now - she doesn't have the shoes or the clothes. She lives with her family on a vacant lot abandoned by a motor depot in the Achapniak district, near the Fourth Village . As we reported earlier, there are five families living on this lot.
"I am from Spitak. Our house collapsed during the 1988 earthquake, one of my children died. Ten years ago my husband left to work in Russia , I haven't heard from him since. In Spitak, we used to separate the iron reinforcement from the concrete blocks of collapsed buildings and salvage it. It was hard work. Then the concrete blocks ran out and I moved to Yerevan with my kids", Hamest's mother, Alisa Arakelyan, recalls. She has had three operations on the hernia she developed carrying the heavy loads.
Today Alisa and her children collect bottles, old shoes, and plastic at the nearby garbage dump. They live off what they can salvage. Hamest is the oldest of four children. Christine, 11, went to school up to fourth grade. Ashot, 9, only went for a few months, just managing to learn the alphabet.
"I got married again four years ago. I had a fourth child with my second husband," Alisa explains. Seven or eight months ago my husband left for a job in Karabakh, but it's not going well, he can't send any money. He came home once with no money, and then went back again. Because of the heavy work I was doing, my youngest child was born with a double hernia. He was in constant pain. We took him to the hospital in an ambulance three times, but we had no money to pay for an operation and they discharged him from the hospital every time. Then the French organization Medicines Sans Frontieres helped us and he had surgery. I am very grateful to them. They are kind people," she says.
I ask her why they didn't get an apartment in Spitak, where so many have been built.
"We were registered at my mother-in-law's house. And that house collapsed. My brother-in-law was also registered at that house. Later they gave us a four-room apartment for all of us. My mother-in-law and my brother-in-law and his family live in that apartment. I went to the mayor's office and they told me that we all were entitled to one apartment," Alisa explains.
The family has been living in this abandoned lot for three years now. "At first we were renting an apartment. I was working; I was doing business. When business got bad, I couldn't pay the rent, and we had to come here. My friend told me about this place. She lives here, too, now, in the shack next door. There are scorpions living here with us, all I ask is that they move us out of here-the ceiling is falling in, the dirt is pouring in on our heads, we shiver with cold all night long. One day it's going to collapse on my children's heads. The other night some dirt poured in and I thought the ceiling was falling down-I shouted to my children to get out. So the kids scrambled out, it was four o'clock in the morning. When it stopped pouring we went back inside," Alisa says, crying.
Last summer Alisa's son Arthur fell into the canal that flows by the shack. They barely managed to save him. In the summertime, all the kids here have intestinal diseases. These people get no medical assistance since they are not registered anywhere. "I handed in my passport in Spitak to replace it but I can't get it; I don't have the money to go there, and besides I have no place to be registered at. I don't know what's going to happen to us. I haven't gotten anything from anywhere. My youngest child doesn't have a birth certificate. Now my health is no good, I can't do heavy work. At night, I talk with my oldest daughter, Hamest, for hours. She is a big girl now, she understands everything. She says: 'Mom, I wish we had a house with a little yard where we could live, and we didn't have to go and scavenge in the garbage dump,'" Alisa says.
Photos by Onnik Krikorian