“In December, three homeless people that we knew died,” says Seryoja Vardazaryan, himself relegated to living on the streets. “Zaven, Gelo and Murad all slept outside and died,” he says, adding that every night he prays before he goes to sleep. “I say, My Lord, protect us. Give us our daily bread as you are our only saviour. We pray to you so that we might live to survive this winter. Watch over us so that we do not die."
Seryoja was born in1948 in the village of Artsvaberd in the Shamshadin region of Armenia, but now lives with two others, Susan and [Russian] Sergey, in a dilapidated boiler room near the main train station in central Yerevan. “I was one-year-old when my father went to the army and came back with another woman. Then he took me to Baku,“ he remembers.
“My father constantly beat me, and my stepmother argued with me,” Seryoja continues. “I was trying not to go home, but missed my classes and was sent to juvenile prison. When I was released I didn’t return to my father, but instead ran away to live with my mother in Armenia. I worked at the railway station, and for a while was a conductor on a train.”
Then, says Seryoja, he went to the army, was injured, and returned to Yerevan 11 months later. “I have never stolen in my life,” he says. “There are no thieves in my family, although when someone else steals something, they take me, beat me up and force me to confess. They did that and I was in prison for six months. After that, my name gets periodically mentioned when something happens, and they come and take me.”
During our visit, Anahit Gasparyan came to see the three homeless people. Seryoja says that she helps them sometimes. “I am from Kharberd and met them accidentally,” she explains. “I cook them dinner and bring whatever I can.”
Anahit also visits other homeless people, mentioning the names of many that we already know. We ask her why she helps these people.
“What else is there to do but help them?” she replies. “I feel pity for them so how can I not help. If we don’t, the Armenian nation will disappear now that there are so few of us left. Shall we allow that handful of Armenians to disappear, especially when it is these people that need help and not the wealthy?
Let the wealthy give a tiny piece of their fortunes to build a shelter for the homeless so they can survive. How can they be left in this state? Where is the state? When they say we created a state, where is that state?, she asks angrily.
“What type of life is this?” interrupts Seryoja. “We sleep on the ground, burning polythene, shoes, and whatever we can gather so that we don't freeze. We collected about seven hundred [plastic] bags, for which we can receive 25 drams apiece, and we also collect bottles, for which we receive 10 drams each. Today we collected some copper and got 600 drams.”
Some of the bags had to be burned recently as Seryoja says that they wouldn‘t have survived the cold otherwise. He also says that he found Susan in the street and brought her to the boiler room so that she didn't freeze. However, for the duration of our conversation Susan kept her head bowed, becoming nervous whenever we spoke about her.
She works as a cleaner in one of the markets and didn’t want her friends to say anything about her. She also refused to be photographed.
”She’s a little bit strange,” admits Seryoja. “Her husband has been missing for nine years and now she’s like this. This is how our kingdom is,” he adds with a deep sigh.
Where can the state find the money?
Another homeless person took us to see Hrant Hovsepyan, who lives in the basement of a high rise apartment building in Yerevan. He moaned as he lay on a makeshift “bed” put together from pieces of wood. Seeing him like this, I asked if he would go to hospital if we called an ambulance. “Who will pay for that?” he replied.
After explaining that the state is obliged to cover the medical costs of the most vulnerable in society, Hrant remained unconvinced and said that it was better to stay in his basement. “How can the state can pay? Where can the state find the money?”
Hrant left Baku with his family in 1988, and his parents moved to Mazdok in Russia. He moved with his wife and daughter to Kapan, but then divorced. “I have a 17-year-old child, and for I've been living like this for 7 years.”
He says his relatives know that he lives on the street, but it is a woman from a neighboring building that brings him food and the candle that serves as the only source of illumination in his pitch-black basement. “If it wasn’t for that woman I would have been dead long ago,” he says, pronouncing his words with some difficulty.
Hrant says that wherever there was work he went to find it -- whether in Goris, Talin, or Karabakh -- but now the 50-year-old stays on the street. In Baku he had a four room apartment and a car. He was a goldsmith by profession and says that he can work in almost any area of construction.
“If you can find somewhere for me to work, I will do it,” he says, before adding one final sobering note. “My feet are cold and I can hardly walk. I can’t feel anything now, so maybe they are already frozen. ”
Photos by Onnik Krikorian