Yerevan, Armenia. Near the Cathedral of Saint Gregory the Illuminator. 11:20 p.m. December 24, 2004.
Around the world, much of mankind was celebrating Christmas Eve, raising champagne glasses and wishing each other well. But I wasn't thinking about Christmas, until our British photographer, Onnik Krikorian, reminded me that it was coming.
A man and a woman were standing next to a garbage dumpster. The man was some forty years old, the woman about the same. The woman was holding two bags, one full of empty bottles, the other of food scraps. We introduced ourselves. The man's name was Robert, the woman's Gayane. Robert is from a village near Spitak, Gayane is from Yerevan. They are homeless.
When the Spitak earthquake struck in 1988, Robert Baghdasaryan was in the Soviet Army, in Kharkov , Ukraine . He still had a year to serve. "When I heard about the earthquake I deserted the Army and came back. I felt pain, not so much for my relatives who were killed, as for our people. It was terrible. But we managed to recover. I got married and we were living in Bagratashen. I had a job, I was cultivating land, taking care of gardens, and I was helping all my relatives." Robert began telling us the story of his life, after drinking three glasses of vodka in our presence. When the war in Karabakh broke out, he, like many others, went to protect Armenia's borders.
"My child was born in Noyemberyan. My commander, Sashik Maksudyan, gave me a one-day leave. I went to the town and my child was born that very day." He had sensed that his wife was going to give birth. He described in detail how the contractions started when his wife was taking a shower, and how he took her to the maternity hospital.
Then Robert moved to Karabakh to continue in the army. He was decorated for good service. He didn't go home for nine months.
"And how did you come to be on the streets?" I asked.
"Do I look like a warlike guy? Why did I fight?" Robert started to cry. "I was gone for months. I had everything - a home, a wife, a child. What woman could stand it if her man was away for nine months? Maybe I'm stupid. I slapped my wife in the face couple of times, then the court, the sentence. I was sentenced to four years in prison. I spent three years in jail in Sevan. My wife got married to a guy from Idjevan. They took the child and moved to Ivanovo in Russia ."
Robert had come home on a leave of absence to discover his wife was having an affair. He beat her up and was sent to jail. He is sorry for what he did, and says he should have been more understanding.
"I'm sick of my life," he said. "I don't want to do anything. I feel abandoned. My relatives will see me, but they don't understand me. I have sisters, brothers, a lot of relatives in Noyemberyan, Spitak, Yerevan ."
I asked how the police treated him. "They take me in and say 'We know you're a hard-working man-give us some money.' They say, 'You can't stand here, it's a prohibited area. Pay a fine - 2,000 drams.' I don't give anyone any trouble, except for collecting empty bottles. My grandfather, who was a refugee from Mush ( Turkey ) used to tell me 'Boy, this nation has always betrayed its sons, and will always betray.' I am the descendant of a refugee generation. I can't change my blood."
Robert is haunted by the past, and he drinks. He drinks to forget, and he drinks not to freeze, but in vain. He can't forget the past, and the past is a chain of dreadful stories.
"The Turks [Azerbaijanis] set up an ambush. Our guys entrenched themselves. My comrades didn't shoot that boy. Who could imagine that that nine-year-old boy would throw a grenade right into the middle of the group of us? It was in Karabakh. A little nine-year-old boy with five sheep, like he was taking them to pasture, approached us. Suddenly he threw a grenade and ran away. He just was running away," Robert said with tears in his eyes.
"Did you shoot the child?" I asked.
He began sobbing. He became small and pitiful.
"Did you shoot him?" I asked harshly.
"It was an awful death, I did it with these hands. Shoot me, kill me. How can I live? I did it with these hands, with my AKS machine-gun," Robert Baghdasaryan, once a soldier, now a homeless man, sobbed at one o'clock in the morning.
"Do you remember that boy often?" I asked.
"I have a boy too. I had a child who died, too. My first child died," Robert said. "I lost my family when I went to the battle-field."
"But you were a soldier," I said. "Why can't you get over it, get yourself out of this situation?" I asked.
"The soldier is dead. What kind of a soldier? I've lost my personality. No one understands me. No sister, no brother, no one understands me."
We began walking through the streets of Yerevan . Robert promised to show us places where other people like him live.
Photos by Onnik Krikorian