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It would be better to talk about how we have been treated in Armenia

Interview whith Rima from Baku. She lives in Armenia for 30 years.

– There was a conference at the Writers’ House. Larisa Alaverdyan, Kharatyan, and some priest came to tell us what happened to us in Baku. I got annoyed and said you don’t need to tell us this because we saw it with our eyes. It would be better to talk about how we have been treated in Armenia over the years. Nobody talks about what is happening now. I got up and left, and many of the refugees followed me.

My mother is 90 years old. Last year when the revolution was happening, people were walking around in the yards and the poor woman was wondering, ‘Is it possible they will come now and kill us?’ I said, ‘mom, they’re not Azeris, they’re Armenian, they’re just changing the government.’ I said ‘relax, no one is going to kill you.’

I wrote many times in my letters to Serzh Sargsyan, ‘You are creating the artificial conditions for a natural death.’

When we fled and had just arrived, we went to our relatives. It turns out that they were told go to the square to shout ‘unite’. We started talking and my relative said ‘your Karabakh’. I said ‘Listen, we weren’t in Karabakh, we lived in Baku.’ He said, ‘Isn’t it the same thing?’ I brought him a map and showed him where Karabakh is. They didn’t even know. Even now many don’t know.

There’s a funny story. My daughter-in-law was in the hospital, and the plumber came and asked, ‘where are you from?’ I said, ‘Baku’. He says, ‘Did your family come here for treatment?’ I just said yes. What do you say? He does not even know what Baku is.

We left Baku on November 26th 1988. The first massacres in Baku began on that day. We came to Armenia via Sumgait and Russia. We stayed with our relatives and registered at the Giprozem Institute. They were already resettling us around Armenia – this was before the earthquake. Quite a lot of cars went to Spitak and Gyumri. It’s not known how many refugees died there.

Refugees are a gold mine for them – a constant flow of money. Once, in early 2000, the Chancellor of Germany came and told us that they had sent so much money that 360,000 refugees could have been provided with housing three times over.

In the beginning, when the war was on we were not so loud. We are all educated people, we understand everything. For us it was somehow shameful that we lived normally and then became refugees. We understood that there was a war, and we did not say anything. We did not even know we had rights. If Armenia accepted us then it means the government has taken on certain responsibilities. But these commitments were not upheld. Larisa Alaverdyan held trainings and I took a 10-day course and learned that Armenia was obliged to provide us with housing within three years or take us out of the country. Nothing was done. Armenia is a signatory of international conventions and has not fulfilled anything. In the thirty years that we have been here, you can imagine the money that they received that was meant for us.

In any case, something should have been done and it should have been done legally. The refugees were left without housing and their money washed away.

There are still people today who are living by renting their housing; some have been sent to villages: Vardenis, Kalinino… They tried to send us as well, but we refused every time because we do not know how to work the land and that was necessary for survival.

The refugees were housed at Sebastia 3A in the former building of the 16th professional school because they had built a new building. It was not a residential building, and all the Residential Code rules were broken. It is impossible to live there but we have been there for 30 years. It is a school with common bathrooms, common hallways; the walls are very thin and you can hear what people are saying, what the neighbors are talking about.

In 2003, the government sold our building to the Mkhitar Gosh Armenian-Russian University. That is when our problems began. Before, when things went wrong, when pipes would break, we went to City Hall and people would respond and fix things. Now they say that the building has an owner, so let that man come to us. But he doesn’t. The owner tells us that the contract that he signed to buy the building does not include a clause about improving our conditions.

When the owner came, he immediately began to kick us out. He literally told us to collect our belongings and move out of the building by the next day. We declared war on him, we blocked his car, and stopped short of beating him up. I called Araik from the Refugee Committee, who was very supportive of us. Larisa Alaverdyan also knew – I told everyone, all the ministries. We also appealed to the Defence Ministry. Can you imagine? And told them that they are kicking us out of our building. We called the police. Three police officers came, and they told the owner that we are the rightful residents and have been here for 15 years (at that time it was 15 years). They asked the owner where he was kicking us out to. In short, they told him that we should be living here. But under what conditions, we do not know. Maybe they paid him, maybe they freed him from some payments.

But we continue to live there and of course we pay our utilities. There are constant disagreements. For example everything we need, we need to get through the owner. If we need documents, we go through him. If we have to go to City Hall, they cannot give us any documents without the owner. In other words, he has control over the refugee lists. The former director forgot to register one of the residents who had been there since 1988. And now the new owner won’t register that woman. We ran back and forth to the Refugee Committee for four years and told them that this woman really lives here. But the owner doesn’t want to do it. We don’t know if there is some internal agreement there, but our agreement clearly states that in case of displacement, the owner is obliged to provide us with housing. An extra person means an extra apartment that he must provide. That is why he was trying to cut our lists down.

I have not accepted Armenian citizenship. I am still a refugee. There are three people in our building who have not been granted citizenship. Our neighbour wanted to go to Russia. To do that, you must first go to the Russian Embassy, where they must give you permission to enter Russia, after which someone from Russia, from the city you want to go, needs to send a visa, which for some reason costs $130, and only after than can you leave the country. Although in our refugee travel document, it is written that this document is valid in any foreign country. Perhaps this is the reason why most refugees were granted citizenship – they did not realize that one cannot be both a citizen and a refugee at the same time.

The UN is now working only with those refugees who have kept their refugee status. There is also a non-governmental organization called Mission Armenia. Before, they gave all refugees free medication, but now, they only give to those who have kept their refugee status.

When the new government took power in May 2018, we wrote a letter to Pashinyan about our housing issue. Of course, he began to work on it. We said that we’ve been writing for 30 years, and that the response has been that no money has been allocated for our housing. We asked for an intervention. Back then we were dealing with Yeganyan, who left after a month, and Armen Ghazaryan came to take his place. We met Ghazaryan, he listened to us, he responded to our letter but said the same thing as before: there is no money. He added that the subsidies that Armenia gets for refugees go into the state treasury. Where does that money go? Once in 2014, a working group comprised of four ministries came to us and re-registered us. And here they began offering certificates. “You want certificates?” “Yes, we want certificates.” They left and then called again. “You are sure you want the certificates?” We said, “Yes”. They said that the issue would be resolved by April 20th (it was February). And they started to ask us for copies of our passports. I, of course, said that nobody will give you a copy of that because you could do something in our names. Things can be done with a copy of passport. April 20 came and went and on June 20, I wrote a letter and Bakhshyan, from the territorial administration, replied that there was no money. I again wrote asking if there was no money, why did the working group come and offered us certificates? He told me that it was meant to count the number of refugees. But there is a refugee committee to count refugees, where you can press three buttons to get all the information you want about all the refugees. Then I learned from my sources that in that year 70 certificates were issued, but none got to us.

Of course, the Refugee Committee made a lot of money. I have acquaintances, who even in Gyumri received cottages three times … Gyumri has until now been in a catastrophic situation. If different people received housing, there would have been less refugees … But they also get, sell and share with those who have provided them. During Yeganyan’s tenure, I asked him, where is all the money that the UN receives? He said that the money goes to different programs for sewing, for learning different languages – English, Armenian – although no one could use it. Even when an elderly person applied for these courses, they would tell them that they were too old. All this was done for money, money laundering. Because the United Nations is, at least our UN, is the funniest organization today.

We cannot work here. Those who came 30 years ago are now 50 years old. When we came, we did not know Armenian well. Yes, we could interact, we could speak, but not read and write. Paperwork was suddenly translated into Armenian. We had a language barrier. That’s why many have left. There were 56 refugee families in our building. At the time our building was sold, there were 34 families. And then some people died, some of them were kicked out of their housing. If there were no people in 3-4 months … let’s say, the person went somewhere to work or do something else, they would take their belongings and dump them in the gym. This is the 22nd apartment, here are their things, this is the 23rd apartment, here are their things. That is how refugees were kicked out who were not around when the building was sold. If a person was gone for three months, their things would be thrown away. Today, you could free up several rooms because of the people who have gone abroad, to Argentina, Canada. It would be possible to free those rooms, but they are just closed. I do not know why it is in the owner’s interest to not free up those rooms. Probably, there are some benefits. When I appealed to the Refugee Committee, we were three people living in 13 square meters – a small room with three people living in it. I said, “Free up those rooms and give them to me.” They said, “What are you saying, they are refugees, they are registered in our country.” What kind of logic is that if you are thrown into the street for being gone for three months, when here, people have been gone for 15 years, but their rooms are kept closed? They have long been citizens of either Argentina or Canada or wherever they have gone. I have nothing against them, but we live here. People are suffering here.

They knew that refugees were living here. This was in the first years, probably 1997, 1996. They came to our building and asked, “You haven’t been selling your birth certificates for money, have you?” Well, I don’t know who sold what, but ours are here. Oh, there are so many people who go this way, by someone else’s certificate. That’s why I say it’s triple accounting. Once I wrote to Yeganyan that we would not be surprised if we were told that we had already received five flats. He immediately called me in to his office to talk. I said, you come to the dormitory, and we’ll speak; your refugees live here.

One day we were invited. I went with my neighbor. I always take someone with me so that what is said will be confirmed. It turned out that Arman Melikyan was there, and Eleonora, his lawyer, and some other women there. They presented us with a document and told us to sign it. That document was very strange. It was an appeal to the President of Karabakh to restore the property left in Azerbaijan. First, yes, we admit that Karabakh is a separate country, but that legally there is no such country. So naturally, there is no president. So what does the Karabakh president have to do with the property that remained in Azerbaijan? You know what a contradiction this is? Karabakh is a separate country, but it is responsible for the Azerbaijani property. I said we will not sign this. Let’s go to Putin instead for what we left. What does this third country have to do with Armenia and Azerbaijan? Arman Melikyan said that all the refugees were citizens of Karabakh. It’s funny now, but at the moment I was just angry. I said, how were we citizens of Karabakh? We all were citizens of the USSR, born in Azerbaijan SSR. What do you mean, citizens of Karabakh? Arman Melikyan spoke about a program where each refugee gets one hectare of land in Karabakh and how they want refugees move there. I said we were against it. I never speak in the name of my dormitory because there are 34 families there, but I say that in this case we are not going to go there. Not because Nagorno-Karabakh is a horrible place, but because we came to Armenia, and now you are giving us Karabakh. Then I turned to Araik and asked, what kind of document is this? He said you don’t need to sign it. I appealed to the Karabakh Refugee Committee, they said that they had 11,000 refugees and that they couldn’t resettled them in Armenia.

Regarding how we were allegedly citizens of Karabakh. There was a woman there, and I don’t remember which dormitory she was from, and she said, “Oh, I signed on behalf of our dormitory. So one person signs for all the residents. I told her that if she had lived in my dormitory and signed up, she would not be sitting here now. What right do you have to sign up for someone else? So here’s how to collect signatures. A normal person would never sign a ridiculous document for the Karabakh president. On one hand, they confirm that Karabakh is a separate state, but at the same time they say that Karabakh is responsible for the property left in Azerbaijan. In other words, the opposite is that they apply to Azerbaijan. This is such a funny document.

People would love to live well and adapt, but … for example, I learned to read and write in Armenian with my children. They went to first grade here and I learned from them. There is an age problem. The younger you are, the easier it is to learn a language. Many russophones came at 40-50 years old. There was no time to learn the language, they had to work to feed the children. That’s why many left. People were able to work, but they did not know the language and could not find a job. You know, we were mostly technical engineers – city people. I’m a technical engineer. I can sit down and draw it all out but now it’s all programmed. I want to say that people had professions but couldn’t find a job. Half of our workers are now living in Surgut. They went there and established their factories there. It was my expertise, I know about it. It was the linguistic barrier and the fact that everything was closed at that time that we didn’t have a place to work. They were just pastry shops and so on.

They broke our windows. They threw rocks at the glass and called us “Turks”. They did not accept us. We met you at the “Sebastia” hotel – another dormitory next to our building. So they started construction works there and people complained, that at least they stop the construction at night. They caught one of the refugees in the entrance, put a sack over his head and beat him. That’s why everyone started to be afraid. He was one of the people who signed the document complaining about the construction. People were scared. I sent several journalists to Sisian Street to a dormitory that was an old musical school that had no foundation and people lived on the ground. The journalists went and no one opened the door. People were scared because they were settled there by force.

At that time, I wanted my eldest son to go to a Russian school. But they told me that you are Armenian, your husband is Armenian, and so your child should learn Armenian. I spent six hours a day doing homework for the first grade. First we translated the problems into Russian, we did the task was in Russian, and then translated it back to Armenian. We sat with the dictionary for 6-7 hours.

To this day people do not like us. The authorities say “the refugees are here again” … We wrote a letter to the municipality once again with a housing issue and they invited us in for a chat. They told us that the problem did not concern them. But we are not refugees from Hoktemberyan, we are refugees from Yerevan. Isn’t Yerevan your jurisdiction? Then they us why haven’t we left, that we should go to Russia. They said everyone who went to Russia is doing well. I told them: you have already taken our money and now you want to send us to Russia? We will stay here. My children do not want to go. My two older boys do not want to go to Russia. This is the City Hall. This is the government’s attitude.

When the 2019 draft budget was approved last November and Armen Ghazaryan said that it was a big problem that refugees are without a home, a Deputy Minister of Territorial Administration said: what refugees from Azerbaijan? We do not have refugees. We quickly moved through all the dormitories and made placards saying. We are here and we are alive, and we stood in front of the Government building. So they see we really exist. Only an incompetent person could say that there are no refugees in Armenia.

By the way, the refugee guide states that the privatization process must be free for refugees. But it cost 42,000. At that time, it was good money. They paid 42,000 to privatize the area. They were forced to. Through fear, strangling, pistols.

Most of the refugees got citizenship so that they could simply go see their children and friends. If someone, God forbid, dies, I am not able to leave the country. That happened. As I said, there is triple accountancy. The UN provides certain figures, but here they give us different figures. Here, we are few, there, we are many. So that they get more money.

I did not apply for citizenship on purpose. I said, when I have a home and am a fully-fledged person of my country, I will become a citizen.

Many of our grandmothers say, ‘We may just die like this, and they take us away to burial from the dormitory.’ And that is how it was. These people never got their homes, and many were taken to the cemetery from the dormitory. A sad note.

As Medvedev says, ‘There is no money. Hang in there.” And we are hanging in there.