Four-year-old Hovik was sitting on the concrete floor scraping the plastic off of aluminum wire with a knife. "What are you doing?" I asked.
"I'm peeling aluminum", the boy said.
"What are you going to do with it?"
"My father will salvage it," came his answer.
Hovik, his five-year-old brother, Levon, his eight-year-old sister, Alina, and their parents live in what used to be an art school on Artsakh Street in Yerevan . Martin Sargsyan, the Shengavit district mayor, smiles from election posters pasted to all the walls. But the mayor's smile is beyond incongruous in this dilapidated building, in this indescribable poverty and indigence.
Kids in ragged shoes and slippers emerged from every corner, afraid we had come to evict them. When we explained who we were, and why we were we taking pictures and writing things down, they started telling us what was basically the same story, over and over again. If I were a doctor and they were my patients, I would diagnose them with the same illness and write them out the same prescription.
The state knows nothing about these people. They appear nowhere in the myriad studies, analyses, reports and projects on poverty. They are on no unemployment lists; their children are mostly unregistered, no one even wants to draft the boys into the army. These people have been swept out of sight and thrown into this ash-heap, so that no one has to know that they exist, eking out a miserable existence in the capital of Armenia . There are a hundred children living here, children who go to bed every night dreaming about bread, sugar, meat, fruit. These children have heard their parents' sad stories hundreds of times, but they still can't understand how they ended up here, or why they can't go to school because of some papers, why they can't have passports, why they don't get drafted when they turn eighteen.
Hovik's family comes from the village of Itsakar in the Tavush Marz. His mother, Paitsar Harutiunyan, told us she had gotten got married there, but there had been no room in her in-laws' house and so they had come to Yerevan , hoping to find jobs. For three years they lived in a rented apartment; then they found out that there were vacant rooms in this building. They moved into a room on the first floor, cleaned it up, and have lived here for a year now. "We installed electricity," Paitsar said, and went on, "My husband, Armen, is a laborer, he earns 1,000 to 1,500 drams a day. My oldest daughter, Alina, is eight but she doesn't go to school - we can't get the papers we need." Alina has wanted to be a singer since she saw girls her age singing on ALM TV.
As we spoke, a small crowd began to gather in front of the building, mainly women and children. There are many divorced women here, and women whose husbands left Armenia to make money and haven't come back. "We want to be registered here, to be considered human beings, to get the right to vote, " said Anahit Khudoyan, a mother of two. "All we ask is for this building to be privatized and for us to be registered here. Everything else we can take care of ourselves; we don't want money or other assistance from the state, we - all the women here-- will work."
Anahit's son joined the Army four months ago, after a struggle - he couldn't get a passport since he wasn't registered. Her daughter is thirteen years old. Anahit's husband left for Belgium eight years ago and has never showed an interest in his family since. "I used to clean rich peoples' houses, and do whatever other work I could find. For the last six months I have been working at the Ministry of Communications as a cleaning woman. We don't receive any allowance since we're not registered and don't have the right papers. We sold our apartment during the currency exchange time. We sold it for Russian rubles and then the Armenian dram was introduced and there was nothing we could do. For years we lived in different places, renting rooms, staying with friends and relatives. I found out that there were vacant rooms here and we moved in," Anahit explained.
There are forty-five families living in the ramshackle former art school-one hundred and sixty people, more than one hundred of them children. "I am from Yerevan ," Anna Galstyan told us. "In the course of one year, my father and mother died, and I went into debt and sold our apartment. I have three children; my husband is a laborer. I used to work before my children were born. Two of my children have no birth certificates. One is three years old, and the other is one. My oldest has a birth certificate, but no passport, and in a year he has to go into the Army. They say they cannot give him a passport. I don't know what I'm going to do. He does day work in different places. And my passport is an old Soviet red passport."
I asked the people who had gathered whether they had ever applied to any state agency. "We are afraid that if we go to them, they'll come and throw us out of here," they replied.
Narine Avagyan has three children. She lost all their papers and now can't get new ones, since they have no registration. There is no organization willing to help them get their documents back.
Elia Arakelyan is unregistered, too. "I am from Yerevan ," she said. "I used to rent a room. I didn't have any money. When I heard there were rooms here, I moved in. I am divorced; my ex-husband got married again and has a child. He doesn't help us. I have two children. My daughter, Gayane, is four years old; my son Robert is twenty months old. My mother and my brother help us out. My daughter has a strained ocular nerve. I took her to a doctor, the eye-specialist at the Hospital # 8. He said she needed surgery, and that it would cost $250. How could I pay that much money? So I brought her home. I haven't taken her anywhere else." Elia's children are not on the list at any medical organization.
Armenuhi Boyajyan lives here with her four children. She is not married. "I rented rooms for five years. I applied to various agencies, and in the end the Shengavit District Administration gave me a place here. But they didn't give me papers, although Mayor Martin Sargisyan promised they would. My oldest son is fifteen years old; my youngest is seven. I couldn't send my youngest boy to school - they told me to pay 3,000 drams for papers but I don't have it. Sure, it's not a big sum, but I don't have it. I get 16,000 drams a month in allowance and 3,000 drams is a lot of money for me. If there is day work for an unskilled laborer my son does it. But he doesn't have a job. I've been here for two months now; we don't even have electricity," Armenuhi concludes her story.
"Policemen came and say, 'What a group! You came together here from all over the place,'" Anahit added. "They insult us, call us vagrants, they say we are dirty. But we don't even have money for soap. We can we do, we're all the same; we help each other out, come to each other's aid. We are constantly humiliated here; our self-esteem is under constant attack. That's why we help each other. We're good people. We're not bad people; if we are in the grip of poverty it doesn't mean that we're bad."
To be continued.
Photos by Onnik Krikorian