No such thing in Armenia
“With one hand he was tightly squeezing my arm, with another he was dragging my bicycle. I’d known already it was pointless to resist: he was both faster and stronger. I felt slightly relieved when I realized we were in the village — cause it’s where people must have been, I could call out for help.
The door of the first house was wide open. I pulled my hand out and ran towards it. I rushed inside, where a family was sitting and having dinner, and asked them to let me stay for a while. I explained there was a man outside, who wanted to rape me.
But they yelled back: “This is impossible in Armenia. Get out of here!” The housewife pushed me out and slammed the door.
I sat on a chair beside it. I had to calm down and stop shivering. All this time I kept hearing the rusty sound of my bicycle’s brakes: he was somewhere near.
The woman opened the door again and drove me away from my chair.
I ran towards the neighbouring house. There were two men busy fixing a car. I shouted that I needed help, that somebody stole my bicycle. One of them approached the gate and suggested — in a coarse manner — that I should call the police. I asked him to do that because I didn’t have a phone with me. But he got angry and told me to go away. I became aware that even being in a village among other people wasn’t going to help me. I was still a foreigner, and nobody needed the problems of a foreigner.”
Eva is a painter from the Czech Republic. She’s a very social person and known by her friends and family to be easy-going, always captivated by new cultures and traditions. She hitchhiked throughout half the world, the other half travelled by bicycle. She was volunteering as part of the EVS program in Vanadzor, Armenia for almost a year until the day she describes above.
Lively, laughing eyes of hers grow somewhat faint when she — maybe, for a hundredth time over again — recollects what happened that day in Gugark village. Sometimes she pauses as she speaks, and shakes her head slightly as if trying to chase away pictures that get too vivid in her memory.
I know you want it
It was the first day of March. Eva was cycling near Vanadzor, enjoying the fresh air: the scent of her surroundings held a promise of a not too distant spring. Shadows made by the day’s dying light softly lay on the ground. Sounds gradually faded, giving way to the silence. Eva felt calm and merry. But mountains drew nearer and cottages became few and far in-between — only to suddenly disappear completely in a few hundred meters. Eva got lost.
Looking for a way back, she decided to turn around the hill and come back to the city from a different direction. Horses that pastured near an abandoned house were startled by Eva’s bicycle. She had already been past them, when she heard a man’s voice. Eva thought that he was soothing the animals, but the sound was getting closer, so she assumed he was shouting something to her. Eva tried to ignore the man and sped up on her bike. But the road was damaged by trucks and rain, and the wheels kept getting caught in tracks.
The man caught up and seized her arm. He quickly seemed to understand that she was lost, and offered to show her the road to Vanadzor. Eva tried to explain that she had already found the way, navigating by city lights. But her poor Armenian made it difficult for her to express herself. Further exacerbating the difficulty, he spoke neither Russian nor English.
Sparing words, he grabbed her and pulled her off the bike. Eva tried to run, but he got hold of her from behind and painfully squeezed her breast. He then threw her to the ground and tried to kiss her face. He smelled of horse. She was yelling, but he only laughed and wheezed: “There is nobody here, nobody’s gonna hear you”. It wasn’t a lie: she could only see long abandoned buildings under construction around, and somebody’s orchard.
With two hands the man took her under the armpits and dragged her to one of the buildings. She thrust her legs against the ground in front of her, but to no avail: he simply forced their way further. Near the entrance he got tired and stopped to rest.
“I fought back, kicked him, screamed, but he put his hand inside my mouth to muffle it. Then he managed to take off my pants. He put his hand on my neck and started to choke me. Before this I had been certain that I was strong enough to get out. However, when I realised I was suffocating, it struck me that he could kill me just like that, and nobody would come for help.”
The man pressed against her with all his weight and took his pants off. Eva managed to set one hand free, seized his penis and twisted it with force. Stunned from pain, he let go of her for a second, and she jumped back on her feet. But in a moment he seized her again, this time by the head, and bent her down to his penis.
“His penis was slapping against my face, my mouth. He said something like: I know that you want it.”
“It was abominable. I didn’t feel like I was a human anymore.”
Not a minute passed without constant beating, kicking, grabbing, pulling, tearing, punching, and biting. They were getting more and more exhausted as time went by. All of a sudden, he threw her on the ground and told her to shut up. He said he wouldn’t touch her anymore, and they would go to the village now. Eva thought it was better off obeying him for the moment before they would be safe among other people.
On the way back the man picked the bicycle up he had left there before, took her by the hand, and started asking — as if nothing had happened — what her name was and what business she had in Armenia. Even more unexpectedly, he thought they absolutely had to take a selfie. To do so, he had to let go of the bike and Eva’s hand to set the phone camera up. Eva tried to run off again. He caught her, this time taking disposable gloves out of his pocket.
“I thought he wanted to put me on the ground again or even kill, and not leave any fingerprints. He didn’t seem to understand he had already left plenty. But he took my hand again and dragged me along. He played with me like a cat would with a mouse.”
It was taunting. At some point, Eva did escape from the villain and tried to get help from the villagers — with no luck. When she stumbled upon him again, he was angry; he yelled and called her “suka” (the Russian translation for “bitch”).
One more time — and again in a flash, he calmed down, and promised to let her go this time for sure, but… only in exchange for a kiss. While Eva was staring at him, shocked and bewildered, he called somebody with his cell phone and asked them to come over— Eva understood that much. They had already reached the motorway. Eva thought that since he hadn’t managed to rape her on his own, he was calling his friends — and she had to get away quickly. She tried to stop cars passing by. One of them did and she asked the driver to take her to the city center. But when the attacker approached, the driver exclaimed: “Armen, hello, how are you?” They talked, and soon the driver left.
Eva jumped inside the next car that stopped and locked the door. At the same moment, Armen’s friends appeared in another car. One of them came to the window and started talking Eva into getting out of the car. The attacker explained his version of her behaviour to the driver, which had something to do with “stress” and that she wasn’t in control of her actions. “The driver asked me to get out of his car. I said they wanted to hurt me, but he didn’t listen.”
Eva got out. One of them gave her the bicycle back. She hopped onto it immediately and rode off, followed by the men for a while. Near Vanadzor they stuck their heads out of the car’s windows and whistled. The car turned back. They disappeared.
Do you like Armenia?
Upon coming back home, Eva discovered that she was soaked with rain. Turns out it was raining heavily, but she didn’t even notice. Her flatmate said she was sure Eva had found a shelter — hence her reason for not worrying about her long absence. Eva was too exhausted to talk. She needed time to come back to her senses. To think over the nightmare she lived through. To accept that it was real and wouldn’t go away with the break of day.
The next morning Eva went to Gugark police station with her coordinator. They arrived at noon and left at midnight. The following five days consisted of the same routine. She was forced to repeat her story over and over again.
In the beginning, she told it to police officers who stood at the entrance, inert and lethargic, having a smoke. Then — to a policeman inside. Then — to the Lori region investigator, with whom she went to the scene of the crime. She remembered both name and appearance of the culprit. The only person who fit the description was 24 years old Armen F. He had a young wife and a little child, it turned out. Police arrested him. During the identification process, both rapist and victim stood in one room, face to face. He had the same clothes as on the day before.
Police decided to arrange the face-to-face meeting so that every side would tell their version of what happened. The conflicting sides often settle disputes peacefully before appealing to trial, they explained.
“I was shocked. What kind of a peaceful resolution could we talk about? In my country victim’s testimony is recorded once, and they neither have to repeat it again nor meet with the abuser face-to-face. I was being interrogated for several hours, I was exhausted, and I didn’t even have a chance to eat. Police agreed to wait until the next day. When it came, they interrogated me until midnight once again, and then brought him in.”
Eva had to spend several hours locked with the assaulter in the same room and repeat the story — now in his presence. While she was reciting the facts, the interpreter assigned by police was translating. The investigator wrote everything down — on paper.
Then Armen, the assaulter, set forth his version of what had happened. Allegedly, he met Eva when she sat on the ground to rest. He sat down, too, hugged and then kissed her and “everything was going great”, — until “something went wrong”. Amiable and inviting before, Eva had suddenly turned defensive — and he cut his actions short. How did bruises and scratches appear on her body then? He said she pinched him playfully, and Armen — being ticklish — tried to break free and accidentally shoved her — she fell and grazed her skin against the stone.
Apparently, she must have fallen and tumbled a dozen times, judging by the number of bruises registered on her body.
“The most absurd thing was that he didn’t realize he’d done something wrong. Even in police custody he kept behaving inappropriately. When I mentioned the fact he called to somebody, he shouted that it was not true, not realizing that police must have checked his outgoing phone calls already. When I identified him, he said he would have never even thought of raping me, because, quote, only lazy doesn’t know that half of Europe has AIDS.”
When they were given an opportunity to ask each other questions, Armen asked Eva:
— Do you like Armenia?
Why were you laughing
A forensic medical expert was in the process of registering bruises and scratches on Eva’s body. Several other men sat in the room. They were smoking. Eva heard street sounds from the open window.
The expert observed Eva heedlessly, not in the slightest believing that she was harassed unwillingly. He read her witness statement and asked where did she know Armen from.
“I replied that on that day I saw him for the first time in my life and that I hope I’d never get to see him again. The medical expert absolutely ignored me and asked again: ‘So for how long do you guys meet each other?’”
After Eva described the event a dozen times over, the policemen asked if she was sure that Armen wanted to actually rape her — and not to, say, rob her?
“I had a feeling they hadn’t listened to me at all. He didn’t try to steal my backpack or get into my pockets.”
“His hands were inside my underwear. What did he try to steal? My arse?”
A criminal case was initiated. Eva was told that Armen, who had denied allegations previously, admitted his crime in the end — and the trial wouldn’t take longer than one or two sessions. But it took months.
The first two hearings never happened, because Eva’s new interpreter was absent. On the third trial, the defending side was not ready — because he took back his confession. Then the lawyer refused to continue defending him due to a financial disagreement. During the next session, the new lawyer hadn’t been ready.
But it was the last time Eva could attend. A couple of days after, she would leave Armenia for Czech.
The defense was allowed two hours to prepare. Having come back, the lawyer started interrogation by mentioning that during the first hearing Eva burst into laughter. He asked: maybe it could imply that she wasn’t in stress as a result of the alleged assault, as she tried to portray?
“During the first hearing, Armen was very aggressive. He kept interrupting me, shouting that he should speak first. He wanted me to hear his side of the story and admit that I was wrong. I laughed at that. It was the first court in my life, I was stressed, and my laughter was a nervous reaction to the absurdity of his behaviour and his words. In 5 minutes, while testifying, I had already been crying.”
From the very beginning, Eva was amazed at how indelicately the Armenian police and judicial system dealt with victims of sexual harassment. During the trial, the defense inquired if Armen’s penis was hard enough to penetrate the vagina. Otherwise, he couldn’t be accused of an attempt to rape, they said.
“I think the subject of rape — as well as everything sex-related — is such a tremendous taboo, that Armenian women reluctantly report such cases to police. The worst thing is, police don’t really know how to deal with them.”
Eva’s lawyer: Inessa Petrosyan, works in the Sexual Assault Crisis Center that offers judicial and psychological support to victims of sexual harassment — for free. In reality, Inessa says, the main problem of sexual violence in Armenia is that the police always try to blame the victim first.
“They thoroughly interrogate the victim: why she got in the car? Why she went to such a place? Why she laughed so much? Why she put on a short skirt? A lot of people can’t stand the pressure and give up on pursuing a criminal prosecution. They tried to gather compromising materials on her, too. But she was lucky to know her rights, so she fought and saw it through to the trial”.
Eva insisted on hearings to be held open for the public. But after a few sessions, the judge decided against it to protect the family of Armen. His first lawyer argued that the court shouldn’t forget about the culprit’s wife and child. The moral sanctity of a proper household and family should not be compromised with disgrace.
Think about his family
The press cared about Armen’s family the most and ignored the victim’s rights or concerns of her family. Shortly after what happened, the Armenian yellow media website “Shamshyan” reported the case. They stated Eva’s name, age, working, and residential address — everything in full detail. The culprit’s name was mentioned merely as “Armen F.” The article had roughly around 10,000 views. In such a small city as Vanadzor, — this was enough to make Eva famous.
“Both the police and I signed a non-disclosure agreement. The leak could only happen from their side, of course,” Eva said.
The repercussions were immediate. Armen’s brother began stalking Eva. He told her translator to send her a message: she must reconsider and take her statement back. He hinted they still had other ways to solve the issue — peacefully. He urged Eva to think about his brother’s child.
“A lot of people appealed to my sense of empathy and conscience: a child should not grow without a father, things like that. Nobody thought that the father should have thought about the child himself first! People asked me to take back my testimony because Armen would get raped violently in prison by his own inmates for what he’d done. The most absurd thing I’ve heard was that nothing really happened because he hadn’t managed to!
I know that violent conflict resolution is a custom in Armenia. But for me personally it’s never been the right way. For me, it’s important to go through a court, to spread the message as far as I can to those like him — that he committed a crime, therefore he must be punished. His family couldn’t afford to try to bribe me, they are very poor — so they decided to play with my feelings.”
Eva didn’t know what the possible outcome of her refusal would yield, and she didn’t feel safe in Vanadzor anymore. Changing flats was of no use — just asking around about a girl with “weird hair” would be enough to find her again anywhere in town. She left for Yerevan. The trial proceeded.
To master the fear
Most of Eva’s friends from Vanadzor were men.
“It has always been difficult to find female friends. They were impossible to meet with, difficult to catch after work. Everyone hurried back home because parents didn’t allow them to hang out until late. They advised me against it as well — because ‘it’s dangerous’.”
But Eva didn’t intend to accept the unspoken rules of the patriarchal way of life like a lamb: don’t wear short skirts, don’t drink alcohol, don’t get in “his” car — even if it’s a taxi, don’t hang out when it’s dark. “If you don’t want to get hurt.”
“I always loved strolling along the streets in the nighttime. It is the right moment to contemplate the passing day, be alone with your thoughts and reflect. By following the rules and staying “out of danger” you give men the right to abuse you — whenever you disobey.”
Blame the foreigners
If Armenian society had any mercy towards local women — victims of violence, there is not much left when it comes to foreigners: shaming gains ground.
When police interrogated the residents who refused to give Eva shelter, they admitted that they had shut the doors in front of her. They said they didn’t trust her, because “everybody knows” rapes don’t happen in Armenia, and if they ever do, foreign women provoke men themselves.
Eva experienced this kind of prejudice everywhere she went when she was hitchhiking and travelling in Armenia, while using public transport or walking around.
Strangers commented on her looks after she passed by, gazing lecherously, — especially because of her hair. In public buses young men would constantly approach her, forcing her to take their phone number, offering her company, hinting about the only logically possible outcome of such a get-together.
Those who were more upfront had asked directly if she wanted to have sex.
Just like buying a piece of bread.
“A car driver was showing me pictures from his smartphone: ‘Here’s my wife, my children, look how beautiful they are, — and then, casually — do you like… this?’ Of course, it was a picture of his penis. Once a man gave me a lift to the city. He asked me what I was doing in Vanadzor. I replied and asked in return what he was doing in Vanadzor. He answered, that he was driving me there because he wanted sex. I was furious and offended, he was surprised: ‘But I’m gonna pay you!”
When Eva discussed the situation with other foreign girls, it turned out that harassment towards them wasn’t something unthinkable of or even rare. A lot of women complained that men treat them like objects, not people. And as if that object can easily be obtained.
“A lot of men were astounded when they saw my reaction to such offers. They explained that the Czech — they are practically almost Russian, and Russian women are ready to have sex 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, with anybody who wants it.”
Another common belief about foreigners is that they are prone and willing to destroy a “good guy’s” life. It seems like they allure men and catch them into their insidious nets so that they can sue them and gain money later.
Eva believes that Armenians carefully cherish the myth that Armenia is the last place on Earth that’s not been swallowed by dirt, crime, and vulgarity. She says many of them are eager to attribute all deadly sins, including lack of values, loose morals, and dissolute behaviour, — to foreigners. So that the illusion of the last safe harbour doesn’t break.
Turns out, in the Armenian world rape is not a crime, but punishment for “undignified” behaviour.
For them to speak up
Following the start of the investigation, there were women who told Eva to take back the testimony so as not to “put herself to shame.”
Shame, as well as disbelief in the Armenian judicial system’s ability to resolve such matters, legal unawareness, fear of family vendettas and of social disapproval, long-established tradition to solve conflicts with physical abuse — these are the reasons why the majority of rape cases remain unspoken of by the victims themselves.
“I don’t expect my story to change the mindset of Armenian women in an instant. But I’ve decided to state my case publicly to inspire others and break the silence. That’s important, knowing you are not alone. Knowing that it is not your fault, and you must not be ashamed of anything. On the contrary, you must go to the police and make them find the offender and punish. Victim’s silence implicates the impunity of a lawbreaker, thus creating more and more room for violence.”
During the last court session where Eva was present, Armen “attempted” to cut his veins. He had been removed from the court, the session postponed until later — again.
On yet another session Armen’s defense appealed to release him on bail of 1,000,000 Armenian drams (~2,000 USD). Relatives paid for him, and Armen was able to enjoy freedom — until the court makes the final decision.
Armen’s child is around 1 year old. The defense expected that that would be enough of a reason for Armen to be granted amnesty and released, but it didn’t work out.
Then the defense showed evidence of the culprit’s being released from service in the Army due to his mental health issues, and the Court decided to run an examination. The verdict has been delayed once more.
Eva began healing and moved on with her life, but she waits for justice to be served. In the end, this precedent maybe even more important to Armenia than it is — to her.
Update: Soon after the article came out Armen F. was found guilty by the court and sentenced to three-years imprisonment for sexual violence.