Even punishment should include care for a person

Even punishment should include care for a person

Author: Hasmik Hovhannisyan
Editor: Fëdor Kornienko
Photography: Fëdor Kornienko

Author: Hasmik Hovhannisyan
Editor: Fëdor Kornienko
Photography: Fëdor Kornienko

“If we are against the fact that a criminal should receive education and proper rehabilitation at the expense of the society, then he will just stay in jail at our expense, and sometimes stay repeatedly. We will pay that money anyway. The question is what we will get as an output.”

25 min read

So says a former life prisoner Ashot Manukyan. On January 24, 2020, he was released directly from the courtroom of the Criminal Court of Appeal and became the second life prisoner in the history of Armenia to receive parole not for health reasons, but thanks to his positive behaviour in prison for 24 years.

While still in prison, Ashot entered the University and is now in his third year at the Department of Psychology. He wrote two books: the first is a confession in the form of a monologue addressed to the soldiers in a friendly manner; the second is a collection of poems dedicated to the April War.

We talked to Ashot about how much our punishment system actually contributes to correction — and whether it now sets such a goal; why is it important to have a human attitude towards a person, even if he has committed a crime; how education can help reduce recidivism statistics among convicts; and also about the accompaniment by the Probation Service of a released prisoner and the need for reform of the penitentiary system.

The article was created in partnership and with support from the Council of Europe, Armenia.

Whoever was weaker was going to swing

— How did you feel about the “criminal” concept when you were eighteen or twenty years old?

— I am from Akunk village, Vardenis. We had regional authorities, and I was close to the criminal circle of Vardenis. Some of my friends were regularly released from prison, and some were taken away. And my cousin-uncle worked in the police. I was close to these and those. My lawyer asked both criminals and the correctional officers about me. And he said: “Ashot, I have never seen a person like you in my life. And here they love you, and there. Whose side are you on?” And I replied, “I am neutral; I am in harmony with all” [laughs].

— What were you like when you were drafted? What was your character?

— Nasty. Although, what I call nasty… most guys of my age had such a character – hot-tempered, quarrelsome. Among my friends, probably 90% were like that. It is such a transitional age — the time of self-realization, suppression of each other, achievement of everything by force, through fights. Society assigns you this role of “normal man”, and you start performing it. Whether you play well or badly depends upon you.

Ашот жестикулирует

— But at the age of seventeen, you don’t realize it’s an imposed role.

— No, you have no alternative. For example, according to statistics, 85% of prisoners in Armenia return to jail. About 5-10% may be committing a double crime deliberately, but the rest, I’m sure, does that unconsciously. They get out of prison resentful and embittered at society. Conditions of detention, attitude — everything tells a person: you have committed a crime, you are a scoundrel and you will remain like that. Under pressure (of public opinion), he accepts this role and gets used to it.

It was the same at seventeen or eighteen. We corresponded to society’s perception of us. Someone beat someone, protected his truth by force — he was great. Who was weaker — went to swing.

— Did you want to join the Army?

— I was a teenager when the backbone of the [Karabakh] liberation movement was formed in the village of Pambak in Vardenis. In the tenth grade, I often missed lessons, even missed exams. I met Leonid Azgaldyan, Monte, went to Karvachar, and talked with the guys from the [Monte Melkonyan] detachment. Like many of my friends, I was captured by the movement, of course, and we were also eager to go to the front.

I really wanted to go to the army. I had options to go away with it, like giving a bribe, as it was done then, there were influential relatives, or at least to go to Yerevan, to an excellent military unit, but I didn’t even consider it. I said — I’ll get where I get. My two younger brothers also served after me. Relatives advised our parents to release them from the army and take them abroad, but they did not agree.

— And where did you end up?

— To the city air defence unit in Artik. I served there for nine months, and then spent five months in Mataghis. In December I was transferred to Krasnoselsk for two months, from there — again to Artik. A total of a year and four months were served when that incident happened.

Ashot says either “that incident” or “my crime,” when he speaks about the reason for which he was sentenced to death, which then changed to life imprisonment. His face immediately changes as if it freezes. I am trying not to ask too many questions. He has already described that in his booklet.

In the winter of 1996, the ordinary soldier Ashot Manukyan visited a friend from his former military unit near the village Tufashen. A dispute broke out between him and his friend, who owed him money. Twin brothers that were serving together with his friend interfered in it. The dispute continued the next morning near the Pemzashen area, a base where anti-aircraft missiles were guarded. It developed into a fight between Ashot and three guys. Ashot grabbed the AKM, stored in the room, and opened fire.

The bodies of three soldiers were found only the next day. Ashot himself was found in Yerevan three days later. He confessed to the crime and also showed the storage location of three AKMs assigned to the killed soldiers. The duty officer was absent from the security post, as well as the fourth soldier, who was also supposed to be on duty that day.

Ашот говорит, фото сбоку

— How did you move so freely from one military unit to another?

I warned the deputy commander of the battalion that I would be absent for ten days. During the roll-call, he was not calling out my name. My uncle was one of the guys who fought [in Karabakh], and then the military mostly consisted of them. I served in Krasnoselsk, all the regiment commanders knew my uncle, and I never had any problems. I then left home every Friday and came back on Monday. I washed, walked, and came back.

But if the officer on duty had been in place [at the base], the crime would not have happened. I don’t want to justify myself in any case. Yes, I have committed a crime, and I had to serve my sentence. But we had fifteen lifers [in war crimes], and now there are fourteen. If we study their individual cases, we will find officer negligence in one way or another. But in all cases, only soldiers were punished.

Even if punished for negligence in their official duties, officers were either given conditional punishments or were temporarily suspended from their job. There was a boy with me in prison, Zakar. He was jailed because he used to keep and beat a fellow serviceman in a military depot (kaptjorka) for one week. A nineteen-year-old hot-tempered boy — yes, he was guilty. But where were the officers? Didn’t anyone notice that the soldier was absent during the roll-call for one week? There, first of all, all the officers should have been put to jail and then Zakar.

Now it is strict [in the army]: If a soldier does not turn up during the roll-call, they immediately notify the military police.

— And why didn’t the soldier who was beaten by Zakar complain to the officers? Is my question naive?

— Soldiers do not complain to officers. The mindset of “a good guy doesn’t complain” is at work here. Besides, there is no precise mechanism that an officer would be guided by. A soldier went and complained of another soldier. The latter was detained for five days in a guardhouse. The term expired, and he returned. Is the person who complained protected? No. While the first one is serving his time, his friends can push the other [the one who complained] to commit suicide or even kill him. The street culture that has infiltrated the army, and fear, these keep the soldiers away from complaining.

— That culture also sneaked into the prison.

— Naturally.

Коллаж из 3 фото, чашка кофе, Ашот, руки с сигаретой

You will all be killed

— Do you remember the first day in prison?

— I do very well. For the first four or five days, I was kept in the military police, then for fifteen days in the garrison. From there, I was taken to “Nubarashen” [penitentiary institution]. I was taken to a place called a “box” and left there for a few hours. There is nothing there, even no place to sit. Nowadays, one or two steel plates are attached to the wall in one or two boxes. There is a small brick-sized window on the wall. I thought that’s the cell, and I thought in horror, “How am I going to live here?” Then they took me, took my fingerprints, and escorted me to the actual cell.

There were three iron beds — you know, with springs, and on them a thin mattress that pierced into your body. It was better to sleep on the floor. There was also a small iron table nailed into the ground and backless benches on either side of the table so that two people could sit.

In “Nubarashen” — and all death row prisoners were held there — there were five cells for those sentenced to death. Until 2000, in each cell, it happened, there were six or seven people, then five more cells were added, and there were three or four people in each.

Now lifers are kept in these cells — the beds were set to normal, the toilet in the cell is now closed — in my time it was open. They have made the windows bigger. Then there was a narrow gap, with four layers of netting and metal bars, through which it was possible to look only up at the sky. We almost used to guess what time of day it was. The lights were on all night. It is a form of psychological pressure. A guard walked in the corridor and looked through the peephole into the cell every twenty-thirty minutes. During the last years, when I started to study psychology, I understood how badly the constant light affects the person. I was secretly breaking the lamp. One needs to sleep in the dark.

— You spent seven years in such a cell. I try to imagine what it means to think every day for seven years that this day may be the last.

— Those were painful and cruel days. There were rumours about an unwritten order of Leon Ter-Petrosyan [the first president of Armenia] not to carry out the death penalty. When the guards wanted to oppress or punish us for bad behaviour psychologically, they said: “The order will not be valid starting from the next month, you all will all be killed.” And no one knew if it was true or not.

Ашот улыбается, фото анфас

—How did you communicate with the outside world and each other?

— Communication with the outside world was not allowed. Visits and home deliveries were prohibited. They didn’t even take us for a walk. We used to communicate from cell to cell, but we didn’t see each other. We were only taken to the bathroom every six months to take a bath. They were taking us from the fifth floor to the second floor. However, that was mostly a formality. “They are scoundrels sentenced to death. They don’t need to bathe or even to eat. The sooner they die the better.” This was the attitude of guards towards us.

We were given eight half-litre bottles of water for three or four people a day. There was a faucet in the cell, and they turned on the water from 7 to 10 and from 18 to 21. We used to break a razor, screw wires to two razor blades, and make a boiler. We heated the water and washed ourselves like that.

A human being adapts to any conditions. When it seems that there is no hope, you would think one should sit tight and wait for death, but no, washing the body is still relevant.

Each person received one “loaf” of bread, millet, and pickled cabbage. During the first twenty-three years of [my imprisonment], prison food consisted of grain and cabbage every day. In two or three [correctional] institutions, food has changed since last year, and now the food is supplied by a private company and is similar to the one we eat in freedom. They bring four types of food, and one chooses. The prison staff said that the food, which is much better than the previous one, nevertheless enabled them to save 200,000 drams per month. Can you imagine how much they used to steal back then?

The bread was then with a hard crust, and inside was raw dough… like a liquid. We only ate the crust, it was impossible to eat the crumb. If angry, the correctional officer would cut off the top layer and give us the crumb only.

— Did anyone die because of that food only?

— If my memory serves me right, about thirty people have died in seven years, from food and beating. If the verdict was the death penalty, the guards could enter [the cell] and beat even if the person hadn’t done anything.

— Did they beat you?

— Very few times. I was lucky. I had relatives and friends both in the law enforcement and prison system, which did not allow me to be beaten. And those who did not have such acquaintances had miserable fate. [The guards] could enter the cell and hit me lightly on the shoulder, allegedly pulling me aside, and beat the others. And you cannot defend them anyway, because you will also get it. I tried to interfere several times and was beaten up.

Рука Ашота с сигаретой

— And if people died because of the beating, what did they tell to the relatives?

— Various diseases. They didn’t die right away. Some two months after the beating, for example, there were problems with the internal organs.

— How can one not get crazy in such conditions?

— There were people who went crazy. We still have prisoners who are in a state of insanity and are in prison. They get psychedelic drugs there. Keeping them there, I think, is inhuman. They must be in a psychiatric clinic.

Invented another reality

— I read in your booklet that you never thought about suicide. I didn’t believe it.

— Yes, that’s not entirely true. I thought a couple of times very seriously. But it never came to action.

— What was stopping you?

— Thinking about parents, first of all. I thought a lot, talked to myself — am I really so weak that I can’t stand it? I have so many things to do. I thought that I needed to earn the forgiveness of the injured party…

… and suicide wouldn’t be the best way?

— Yes.

The parents of the killed soldiers forgave Ashot and petitioned for his parole.

— How did you manage to get the forgiveness of the soldiers’ parents?

— It took years. All the time, while in jail, I was dreaming of speaking to them.
As soon as I got a phone, I called. I didn’t start talking to them immediately but spoke with relatives, neighbours, common acquaintances. My parents did meet them. My lawyer went to them, and the mother of the twin brothers told my lawyer, “Just as I didn’t meet my sons from the Army, Ashot’s mother didn’t meet up with her son. But as he is still alive, I would like at least her to meet her son.”

— And were there any people sitting with you who committed suicide?

— Yes, not from my cell, but I remember a few cases from neighbouring ones. There was a small hole in the top of the toilet, a window with bars on it. It was not clear why they put bars there; only the hand could be inserted, as if those were made explicitly for hanging. That’s where they hung themselves.

— Four men are locked together in a small room for years. What are they doing all day?

— Most of them used to make something from the inedible part of the bread. They even made khachkars (cross-stones.) They could work on one khachkar for a whole month, from morning to night, working on the details. Then they gave it for example to a prison officer for a pack of cigarettes.

I used to read. I wrote projects, for example, about agricultural development cattle breeding. I threw away 80% of what I wrote. I knew it was stupid.

— Did you write this when you were in the cell, from where you could be taken to death every day?

— Yes, I perhaps invented a different reality for myself so that I could somehow break away from the one I was in. I think I did it subconsciously. Only then, when I began to study psychology, was I able to analyse what I was doing and why.

I read a lot during the first seven years. Books saved me. I’ve loved reading since I was a child. My grandfather had a large library, and he gave me books from there.

Books saved me.

Nothing was allowed in death row, including books brought from home. The guard used to bring some books from the prison library of his choice, if you don’t want to, don’t read.

—And what books were in the prison library?

— There were a few hundred old Soviet books, for example, many books about the Patriotic War, nothing exciting. Armenian and Russian, then English books appeared from the “Red Cross” (by the end of 1990, the Red Cross employees were provided the right to visit the prisons — Kalemon). There were also Iranian books in “Armavir,” provided by the Embassy.

After a while, they started to hand me the books sent from home secretly. Some employees were bringing books as if for them and giving those to me during the night and getting them back in the morning again. There were cases when they forgot to take the books, and the books stayed with me.

One day the guards found my books and started kicking them out of the cell. I remember it very well. It was very painful to watch them kick the books out.

— Was there any book that you were impressed with and wanted to be like its hero?

— There were no heroes. But The Golden Man (a novel by Hungarian writer Mora Jokai — Kalemon) was very impressive — a wonderful book. I read it back in death row my grandfather sent it to me. The hero, his actions, had a very strong effect.

— Can one get used to prison?

— One adapts to any conditions. It would be an exaggeration to say that one does not think about freedom. But a person has a very strong ability to self-deception and the ability to adapt to any conditions.

That is why, after seven years, the punishment is meaningless, because after seven years a person feels himself completely a part of this environment. He no longer perceives isolation, the lack of space as a punishment, does not feel the pain of separation from relatives. What then is the meaning of punishment?

— So, it seems one becomes kind of dull after seven years?

— Yes, when I was released, the next day I went to the village and I went to the grave of my grandparents. We were very close especially with my grandfather. I was his first and favourite grandson. I must have sat there for an hour and cried in anguish. I was just choking. I felt the same yearning for the first seven years. And the other seventeen years I was kind of … cold. As if the organ responsible for the senses had not worked all those years, but now it has suddenly revived.

Drink borscht water and you’ll be alright

Armenia became a full member of the Council of Europe on January 25, 2001. In line with Article 13 of the National Assembly Conclusion № 221 (2000), it undertook the commitment to adopt the second (special) part of the Criminal Code, through which is de-jure abolished the Death penalty.

In 2003, the new Criminal Code of Armenia was adopted, according to which the death penalty was abolished and replaced by life imprisonment. The Council of Europe has declared the abolition of the death penalty one of its top priorities. For many years, the organization has struggled to ensure that the death penalty throughout Europe loses its legal force and that its renunciation becomes universally recognized. As a result, no executions have taken place in the member states of the Council since 1997.

Protocol № 6 to the European Convention on Human Rights abolishes the death penalty in peacetime. It came into force on March 1, 1985. Europe’s position regarding the legalized murder has shifted from permitting to banning in line with the Protocol № 6. Protocol № 13 that came into force starting July 1, 2003, prohibits the death penalty, regardless of the circumstances, including crimes committed during the war and the imminent threat of war.

— In 2003, the death penalty was abolished, and you were transferred to a lifers’ cell. Did the conditions improve?

— From 2003, wooden beds were placed in the cells, and cabinets were allowed. Before that, there was a cabinet in “Armavir,” but not in “Nubarashen.” There was something made of iron, and the inmates called it “ghshabun” (a pigeon nest), which was comprised of some small cages where the plates could be put.

Руки Ашота с сигаретой, чашка с армянским кофе на столе

“Armavir” is more or less furnished, but there are problems there as well. The most important is the problem of ventilation. There was no ventilation system there. There was a small window, but once could not open it in the winter, as it was cold. And the heat was terrible in summer. In “Armavir,” buildings are located opposite each other. So, each cell is closed on all sides. In “Nubarashen,” they opened a peephole on the door, and together with the open window, at least some kind of airflow was created, but in “Armavir” this was not the case. Now, I think, they are going to resolve this issue.

Back in 2003, when I was transferred to a cell for lifers, I was allowed to have a refrigerator. We kept the food sent from home in it. It was common in “my” cells, everyone shared. Sooner or later, we would get a lot of diseases just because of prison food.

— By the way, about diseases. What was the situation in the prison healthcare system? How were you treated?

— Improvements have been seen in the system since 2003, thanks to international organizations such as the Red Cross, the Council of Europe and the Human Rights Defender. Prisoners began to be transported to civilian hospitals for treatment.

In 2003-2004, the dental room was quite well furnished, but I personally didn’t like the dentist, to be honest. I had a dentist friend. If I had dental problems, I would call him, and he would come.

Before that, we had a clinic where, unfortunately, only methadone was distributed as a treatment to those who was hooked to it.

When someone needed a doctor, the latter was asking the reason for being jailed. If he “didn’t like” the crime, he would tell, “Drink borscht water, and it will pass.” He called borscht the pickled cabbage (sauerkraut) and the pieces of potato and carrot floating in the water, which we were eating every day.

A couple of times it happened when someone had appendicitis cut out. They used to operate in a regular city hospital and bring the people back immediately with the wounds, which inflamed. It was a miracle that people survived; the instinct for self-preservation was very strong.

When I was still in the death row, if someone had a toothache and the tooth needed to be pulled out, they kept them with cheeks swollen for a few days to suffer a little more. Then they took them to a dental room, which, together with its butcher-dentist, looked more like a torture cell, and removed the tooth without anaesthesia.

— Were there any lawyers visiting you then? Did you complain to them, or were you afraid?

— Let’s say we complained. Where would our complaints go? Who cared about us? Then, as a result of international organizations entering prisons, the situation improved. Writing letters was allowed. The “Red Cross” employees were passing our messages. They had particular forms, on which we used to write. At first, there was such censorship! It happened that you received a letter from home, and some of it was deleted so that the meaning would be incomprehensible. What kind of forbidden things could the relatives write about? They were just nasty.

— You have an open mind, a literary language, and a bunch of plans. You break the stereotypes prevailing in society about a person who spent 24 years in a closed world with its own strict rules. Is the fact that you have maintained your mental health and your mind’s clarity only your merit, or is it due to the system called to correct it?

— I’ve worked hard to avoid temptations, such as drugs or gambling, which are very common in prison. Also, I was lucky to have met such people, as … I got in touch with Armenak Mnjoyan (“Dro case” lifer who passed away in hospital in 2019 — Kalemon), let him rest in peace, Arsen Artsruni (“Dro case” lifer), young guys, who were inspired by me and I was inspired by them.

And the system … it has always been and remains divided into two parts. There are employees in prison, even graduate psychologists, who think that a person can change, and there are also those who believe that he cannot, and they should not work with him. Unfortunately, the latter are the majority.

There were employees in the prison who helped me. For example, in 2009-2010, when we were allowed to get a higher education, I was asked where I wanted to go. I wanted to apply to the Gladzor University Administration and Management Department but was weak in math. One of the social psychologists started to teach me during his working hours and even during breaks. And in “Nubarashen”, “Armavir,” “Sevan,” where I spent only two months, there were other employees who tutored the problematic subjects to me for hours.

But there were also other guards. For example, when my friend Arsen Artsruni was teaching me English, and we were staying in different cells, Arsen was writing down the tasks. I was completing those and sending them back to him with the help of the prison staff. They had to take those papers a few meters only, but the papers were always “getting lost.” They had such a communist mentality that the person who committed the crime is a scoundrel, no matter what he does.

They looked at the criminals as the dregs of society who would not be corrected. Why should he develop, gain knowledge?

Die first, then be free

— Nevertheless, you managed to get into University.

— In 2011, I applied to Gladzor. But they demanded a bribe from me, and I refused. Then I tried to apply to “Yerevan Mesrop Mashtots University” and Yerevan State University (YSU), but the Faculty of History this time. I loved history very much and knew it well.

In “Mashtots,” they honestly said, “we are sorry, but we won’t go to prison, there is no desire for it.” And in the YSU Rector’s office — I think I talked to the vice-rector — they told me, “Boy, what are you talking about? Do you at least understand where you called?” I replied that I had the constitutional right to study remotely at any HEI and that I will study, write papers, and they are obliged to provide conditions for me, in particular, to send the lecturers to prison to examine me. We already had a computer, but there was no Internet.

The YSU also refused, while Arsen was already studying for a Master’s degree at Urartu University. The rector of the University, Professor Sedrak Sedrakyan, willingly agreed [to accept me]. I am already in the third year of “Pedagogy and Psychology.” I study on a paid basis. Now, as I am already out, I shifted to day-time studies. When I was still in prison, one lifer also applied to “Urartu,” after my release, three of them applied too.

— When you were getting an education and reading, did you think that one day you will get out? Did you prepare yourself to live in the “free world?”

— No. There were people sitting with me in prison who had been sentenced to life for one murder or even complicity. I saw that such people were not released, and I thought that I would not be released. But I didn’t know that they would stay and I would leave.

I always thought that I needed education in prison because when you are educated, you even write a simple application competently.

This happened when I was in “Sevan.” Someone was given juice from home, put behind a “tumbochka” (side-table), and forgot. The guards found it and wrote that they had found a “self-made brew.” They filed a case and were going to incarcerate him for a week. He told me this in despair, and I told him, “go and explain to the guard that they sent you juice from home, and it went sour. How could you have made it yourself? Out of what?”

Ашот, фото сбоку, луч света

He went and told them. The head of the shift said, “Ashot taught you that” (laughs). That is why the basic knowledge is needed. Otherwise, the prisoners do not know their rights, and they obey out of fear. And the prison staff has to show their bosses, “Oh, I worked, I found a disorder.”

But each such punishment puts off the possibility to parole for six months.

— How effective is the system of sanctions and encouragements used in prisons? What were you punished for?

— I was punished for five times only, all in 2008-2014 and all because of having a phone. They were not allowed, still are not allowed, but there were even more of them than there were chocolate in prison.

That was the time (2008 — Kalemon) when I wanted very much to speak to the injured party, and wanted to get their forgiveness.

I also wanted to keep in touch with my parents. After March 1, my parents had to leave Armenia. (On the night of March 1-2, 2008, as a result of the clash between the police and the citizens led by the first President of Armenia Levon Ter-Petrosyan that were complaining of the falsification of elections, ten people were killed, and more than 200 people were wounded – Kalemon.) My brother had taken part in the demonstrations and was injured and sought [by the law enforcement bodies,] and my parents took him out of the country.

Since 2014, I had been trying very hard to avoid any penalties. I tried not to keep a phone on me. I consider the legalization of phones in prison very important. Let the prisoner pay 5,000 drams a month for a regular telephone and 10,000 drams for a good internet-connected phone. And that money can be used to educate prisoners.

— And what else are there sanctions for?

— Fights, swearing, disrupting the order.

Employees are also fined for swearing and even fired. This depends upon the prison chief. There are such prison heads that are strict and demand that employees treat the prisoners following the law. Some swear and set a bad example.

— And in what cases are encouragements given?

— I had two — for exemplary behaviour and for participating in the cell repairs — painted the wall. But in recent years, the Prosecutor’s Office has strictly banned encouragements. My behaviour did not change, and on the contrary, I also published a booklet for the army, a collection of poems dedicated to the April war. I entered the University, and I study very well. The University petitioned for encouragement. But they did not encourage, they said there weren’t enough grounds.

Our law on incentives is not clear. For example, Arsen and I have researched, that in Italy, when a prisoner takes a book from the library and hands it back, the librarian asks him questions to understand if he really read the book. If yes, then three days are taken out of his term. If a prisoner enters a University, six months are taken out of the term. When the prisoner transfers to the second year, three more months are taken out, graduated — another six months.

While in our country, they only write on paper “have incentives,” and that is it. The only use of that encouragement is that when one applies for parole, they refer to it. Five points are credited to your account by the credit system for more than two incentives. It’s the same if you have two or five. I think it is stupid.

— And why did the Prosecutor’s Office not welcome “encouragements”?

— The Prosecutor’s Office does not appeal against one out of a hundred cases of the parole applications. If the prisoner has the encouragement, the court takes that into account, making it more difficult for the prosecution to appeal. Our Prosecutor’s Office has remained in the old way of working. It just wants to punish, and that’s it. First, it forbids the encouragement. Then it tells, no parole, for example, you have not got any encouragement for the last three years. Even if the person is sentenced to imprisonment for a few years, and has behaved well, the Prosecutor’s Office believes that he/she shall serve a sentence until the last day.

After twenty-year imprisonment, I was not introduced to parole. According to the law, they were required to do so. I appealed against that to the court. After the court session [during which I was rejected], the young prosecutor approached me. “What freedom for a life prisoner? Your freedom is death. When you die, you will be free.”

Ашот говорит и улыбается

Care in punishment

— Have you met criminals whom you yourself “sentenced” to death for their crimes?

— Yes, there were such cases, but those were only moments, I did not let them last. I said to myself: who am I, what right do I have to judge him?

Perhaps all of us would get angry when seeing a person who had committed a grave crime. However, a person that represents the state does not have a right to get angry. That person has precise functions. That person shall forget his feelings and perform his duties.

It is clear that the person who committed a crime must be punished. But even in punishment, there must be a concern for a person. Isolation from society, from family, and friends is already hard in itself.

If a person self-corrects and acts in a way that should be encouraged, and the Prosecutor’s Office doesn’t do that, I think they commit a crime, meaninglessly keeping him in prison at the expense of society.

Our [prison] system is not very efficient and needs to be reformed. OK, let’s put to jail and isolate the person from the public for severe crimes. But there was a person jailed with us for stealing six skewers, which he even didn’t steal. He was drunk and climbed drunken over the neighbour’s wall, took the skewers from the garden barbeque place, made the barbeque, and put the skewers back later.

A rich neighbour did not like him because of his drinking. He was very hardworking, he made tombstones, but he was also a drunkard. And then the neighbour took the opportunity and called the police. He was sentenced to six years in prison. Can you imagine six skewers? He is still in jail.

Another case. Six Pakistanis were in prison. Because I know English, I used to communicate with them. They said in Turkey that they wanted to go to Germany. Near our border. The Kurds there perhaps understood “Ermeni” and pointed to the border. The latter passed the border and were arrested. Each of them was sentenced to three years in prison for illegally crossing the border. Calculate that 180 000 AMD was being spent on each of them, multiplying it with three years, millions. Why not put them on the plane and send them back home?

And I have seen so many people like this during twenty-four years that are in prison for senseless crimes and senseless terms. I always had a question. Well, our Government has been feeding these people for years, spending so much money in vain, and in those conditions, so many lives are being ruined. And we feed them at the expense of our elders, children, soldiers, on whom we could spend that money.

— What happened to the Pakistanis?

— They served their sentence until the end and got released. Two of them were wandering in the city being hungry, have reached to Norq, stole phones from two girls, and ran away. They were caught and sentenced to five years in prison and sent back to jail.

— True, absurd, about keeping the prisoners. Many people are outraged when they hear that at the expense of their taxes it is necessary to improve the conditions of detention of prisoners, or those prisoners should be treated with respect. Why should the public be interested in caring attitude to and normal conditions of prisoners?

— And what shall we do with them? Shall we burn them all?

— Well, let’s keep the minimum conditions, and that’s it.

— Once I refused to go to the next court session from “Sevan.” In the next session, I was asked why I did not show up, and I replied that I did not want to go through those humiliating conditions. They used to bring me to “Nubarashen” some seven-ten days before the hearing, to a so-called quarantine, without a possibility of a shower, without clean linen, to a dirty room with stinking mattresses that never change. The room was never cleaned, and the dirt on the walls caused nausea. The conditions were so terrible that I did not want to be present in the session although it was critical for me.

When you oppress a person, keep him half-starved, half-naked, give him the worst food, he becomes evil. And to whom? If he gets out of prison, he won’t go to the Prime Minister’s Office to steal. He will go to an ordinary citizen and spill his evil on him.

We have about 3,000 prisoners in our cells, and not all of them were born criminals. According to statistics, 15% do not commit a double crime. If they work with people, that number will increase. We’re always talking about 85% recidivism, but isn’t it better to focus on the other fifteen?

— Do you think there are people who are born criminals?

— I study psychology and I can’t believe it. Conditions, circumstances, they are decisive. I will also start working soon, and some amounts from my taxes will also go there [to prison]. I would very much like this money be spent on education. Quite a number of prisoners have a sixth or seventh grade education and cannot do basic work with a spade.

— By educating prisoners, does society seem to provide a higher likelihood of its own safety if the prisoner is released from prison?

— Yes. When a person commits a crime, the system focuses on the punishment rather than discovering the cause of the crime. The system doesn’t think about working on getting the person back to the public so that the latter can get back the money spent on him through work.

“If we are against the fact that a criminal should receive education and proper rehabilitation at the expense of the society, then he will just stay in jail at our expense, and sometimes stay repeatedly. We will pay that money anyway. The question is what we will get as an output.”

Individual approach to everyone

— Is the physical violence in prisons that you mentioned at the beginning of the conversation still one of the “correction” methods?

— Cases of physical violence have been rare since 2004-2005. This is also due to the visits of the representatives of the Red Cross, the Council of Europe and the Office of the Human Rights Defender.

Most importantly, something has changed in the minds of the prisoners. Before, when the correctional officers were beating, the prisoner was thinking. “You’re a man, keep quiet.” Now the prisoner thinks, “No, I am not an animal, so they beat me, and I silently tolerate.” People have started protesting, demanding the exercise of their rights, and correctional officers have become more careful.

— How is psychological help provided in prison? How many prisoners does one psychologist get?

— One psychologist has 300-400 prisoners. Some psychologists have honestly told me that they often write a conclusion based on a photo without seeing a person’s face.

But the reason is not that everyone is terrible and doesn’t care. In “Armavir,” for example, there were good psychologists in “Nubarashen,” too. But they did not manage.

A  psychologist can accept two or three people a day. If more, they would need a psychologist themselves.

It takes time to analyse a conversation, find a problem, or just relax from so much negativity. The work of psychologists in correctional facilities must be strengthened, starting with the police department and ending with the Probation Service. I also do not think that they are paid well. The correction officer with a bludgeon gets more than a psychologist.

The Council of Europe is currently implementing the “Strengthening healthcare and human rights protection in prisons of Armenia” project. The project supports the national authorities in reforming the regulatory and operational freamwork of health care for prisoners in Armenia following international standards.

The project targets the following areas: the right of people with mental health problems to receive medical care in penitentiary institutions, preventive healthcare, in particular, sanitary-epidemiological and hygiene conditions and control mechanism, treatment of transmitted diseases, inpatient / specialized medical care and services in penitentiary institutions, training opportunities for the Penitentiary Medicine Centre, awareness and knowledge of prisoners about preventive medicine and hygiene.

— And what about the Church?

— The role of the Church in prisons is quite significant. Many live in the name of God and prayers. At least once a week, priests visit prisoners. They talk to the prisoners, both individually and in groups. The priest speaks about God tells the story of the Church, the Christ.

For some, it is helpful, but priests are not professionals who work with the person or the inner world. All over the world, if a person has interpersonal conflicts, he goes to a psychologist, not a priest. There are people whose problem originated in childhood, in an episode that they don’t even remember. Still, a good psychologist gets to the point where a person discovers and relives that episode, and the problem is solved.

— You and your friend want to introduce a personality assessment test in the correction system to help the psychologists in their work.

— It is a well-known MMPI test (Minnesota Multidisciplinary Personal Questionnaire — one of the most popular psych diagnostic methods for the study of individual personality traits and mental states — Kalemon), which Arsen translated and adapted to our national mentality with my support. We made three copies; Arsen’s family bore most of the expenses. Each print cost about a hundred dollars, including the cost of proofreading and printing.

By testing the prisoner with this method, the psychologist can see quite reliably what risks and problems need to be dealt with. One of the prisoners may be aggressive, the other may be associative, and the third may be prone to crime. Or, for example, in case of a tragic accident or negligent murder, the perpetrator also needs compassion. Everyone needs an individual approach.

Ашот, коллаж из четырёх частей

— Suppose the Ministry of Justice approves the use of the test in prisons. But do we have professionals who can work with it?

— Rector of “Urartu” University Sedrak Sedrakyan is ready to provide space for the establishment of the Department of Correctional Psychology (a branch of legal psychology that studies the characteristics and conditions of re-education and correction of offenders  Kalemon), where students will also learn working with the tests.

Mr. Sedrakyan sent a letter of motion to the prison and the Ministry of Justice requesting that Arsen be transferred to a semi-open regime to head the Chair. Arsen has already defended his doctoral dissertation and is published in psychological journals.

Arsen and I conducted the test with 180 prisoners. Many did not read the test correctly. Everyone knew how to read, but some did not understand the meaning due to lack of education, and Arsen or I explained.

— How do you feel about different workshops in prison? Do prisoners learn something there that, in addition to psychological recovery, they may need as a way to earn money after being released from prison? I saw ceramic works in the probation service. There also was a shop at the Vernissage where various items made by prisoners were sold.

– These groups are re-socialization projects, and don’t bring money. Yes, there is an exhibition-sale once a year, and if something is sold at that exhibition, there will be some money. I was once present at the presentation of my book. There were thirty or forty prisoners there, but works worth of about 7,000 drams were sold.
I will bet that if a person gets out of prison, he will not even touch the clay. And then they don’t teach in those groups to get quality. I wouldn’t give a hundred drams for that work.

Prisoners usually go to these groups only to collect parole related scores. It would be better if the money [which is spent on the specialists running the circles] were spent on real education. But they don’t want to spend money or time on it.

For example, for more than three months, Arsen taught English to the prisoners in “Nubarashen.” They provided a room with chairs, tables, and a blackboard. Twelve prisoners have expressed a desire to participate twice a week. Arsen found the books himself. He held the classes and the exams.

And suddenly, there was an order from the Board to ban those classes, because Arsen does not have the appropriate education to teach. He is from Beirut and speaks fluent French, English, Arabic, and Armenian. He speaks English even better than some graduate teachers. He had students who had studied English in a prison group before becoming his students and didn’t even know the alphabet.

— What happened to the students?

— Arsen continued to teach remotely. The employees took and brought the papers with tasks and homework, but very soon, only I remained. Everyone got tired of remote learning, especially when the employees were losing the papers either intentionally or because of negligence.

In 2006-2007, Arsen spoke with his brother to finance the renovation of five empty rooms on the sixth floor of “Nubarashen”, closely connected to the yard. Arsen’s brother had to bring some woodworking machines. Some prisoners could work with wood and teach others.

Arsen even wrote a project proposal, and the brother said he would organize the export and sale of finished products in Europe. According to the project proposal, about a hundred prisoners would be employed. They could even make small wooden sculptures in their cells. They could work together on sculptures, it would be a real profession, and after leaving, they would be able to work in workshops.

Everyone was happy. The prison administration said “no.”

The guards had to take the prisoners in the morning at half past nine and bring them back at five or six in the evening. I think they refused to avoid this movement. It turns out that the employees are too lazy to work to keep the prisoners busy.

Sometimes the prison officers were not enough in number to take us for a walk. And they just didn’t take people out. That was how the problems were solved.

Ашот курит и говорит

Freedom without documents

— Did you serve your term until the end or were released on parole, what awaits you?

— Recently I spoke about this at the police station. The local policeman phoned me and was calling for the fourth time. I asked him how I should get there if they didn’t yet give my passport, I don’t work, should I walk for ten kilometres.

Thanks, God, my parents, and my brothers help me until I find work. However, some people get out and have nothing. It is not that they cannot adapt, but that they are not given that opportunity.

My passport was given a month and a half later. It’s paperwork. Others may get theirs even later. Look, I came out with no job, no document, and no money. Let’s say the family turned their back to me. What are my options for existence?

— To beg for money, to steal something and sell it, to dig up trash cans. In all three cases, you are not seen as corrected in the public eye.

— Yes. Thus, a person is being released and cannot integrate with the public. Thus, 85%. What do they do? They commit a crime again and get back to prison. When I was in prison, I got angry with those who returned, “are you crazy, or?” They kept telling me, “you will see when you get out.” I got out, and I saw it.

I want to suggest to the Probation Service that prisoners released on parole continue to receive money from the budget for two or three months as if still serving their sentence. Until they get a passport, they won’t find a job. You can’t even get a job as a janitor.

At the moment, the Council of Europe implements a project to help the national authorities to support the probation concept in practice, by providing the necessary legislative, institutional and operational basis, thus contributing to the increase of public security and the administration of justice.

— You are the first life prisoner to be released under the supervision of the Probation Service. Probation service begins the work still in prison. The probation service provided to you a positive opinion, as opposed to prison, isn’t’ it ? How was their work going carried out?

— 80 days before applying for parole, the Probation Service has time to meet the prisoner and the prisoner’s family for a few times.

They came to me twice, and were asking questions, what I will do when I get out, and how do I treat the crime I committed. They were assessing my behaviour, encouragements, penalties, contacts with the staff.

Ашот, фотография сбоку

The prison gave a positive description when it sent the papers to the [Punishment Execution] service. But the Service considered that my article was heavy, and there was a risk of recidivism. I think they were more concerned with their “non-functioning” than with the likelihood of recurrence. I mean, they weren’t sure they worked with me enough to correct me.

Until last year, the issue of getting a release on parole was generally taboo. During the former times, when I applied [for parole], both the prosecutor and the judge kept telling me that there is an order from above not to release the lifers. There should be an order from the President’s Office. I said that I was not such an important person for the President’s Office, and that there was a law. And they were telling me, “the law is the law, but the top leadership is the top leadership.” But in 2018 we had a revolution, in 2019 the heads of the Probation Service changed, and this time they did everything according to the law.

What are you going to do?

— I want to complete my studies, get a job, promote the test in correctional facilities, and participate in the opening of the Chair of [Correctional Psychology]. I also want to go around the military units, share my story with the soldiers, tell them what, for example, a stupid argument can lead to, and in any way contribute to the prevention of internal crimes in the army. I have already been to one military unit, the another visit has been postponed due to the epidemic, but I hope to carry ion after the restrictions are lifted.

The article was created in partnership and with support from the Council of Europe, Armenia.

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Doctor with a tail

Doctor with a tail

Author Hasmik Hovhannisyan
Editor: Fëdor Kornienko
Photos: Fëdor Kornienko

[post_published]
[show_post_categories show="category" hyperlink="no" parent="no"]

The diary of a therapy dog that was written randomly in bits and pieces, being constantly interrupted by the cat climbed the dog to sleep on its back, by passers-by who had to be barked upon from the window, by delicious smells from the kitchen that infiltrated the nose and dissipated the remaining thoughts, and so on.

15 min read

The day I met a girl with chime-like laughter

At the sight of a blue bag with a mouse and a cat drawn on it, I immediately jumped up from the chair and ran to the door. A blue bag means a beautiful collar — green with flowers or blue with a butterfly, kids hugging me, and a bunch of goodies.

As always, she rushed about the room, collecting things into the bag. Standing on my hind legs and stretching out my head, I observed and made sure that Hasmik would put as many heart-shaped dog ​​candies with multi-coloured jelly there as possible.

Along the way, she: poured water for the dogs and the cat who stayed at home; put turtle food into the aquarium; shouted that we were getting late; checked the kitchen door so that Puchur, our cat with chronic kidney failure and on a strict diet, wouldn’t climb into the kitchen and eat up all the things that were harmful for kidneys; at the last second, she realized that a skirt could correspond to her self-awareness more today than the shirts she was wearing and ran off to change her clothes.

She kept shouting as she hit a door jamb, then through the window she saw Lotta, the cat who disappeared in the morning and who needs to get daily drips of artificial tear into her eyes since she herself can’t produce one; uttered a word that I, as a well-bred dog, would not allow myself to repeat; flew back to the kitchen and began to fumble in three huge packages with medicine in search of drops…

Fedor and I sat on a wooden chest by the window and, having become wiser with experience, silently waited until Hasmik’s tumultuous activity would dry up so that we could proceed into the car.

We entered the narrow white door of the orphanage exactly 12 minutes late and immediately ran to the gazebo where children were waiting for us. Both children and educators reacted to our lateness with understanding: everyone knows that we have a lot of different animals and it’s not so easy to get out of the house.

They surrounded me and rushed to stroke several hands at once. I seriously began fearing that they would tear me to pieces, but then Maneh appeared.

She confidently took me in her arms, just like an adult. Children often squeeze under the neck, choking me because their hands are small and weak, and I’m too heavy for them. But she neatly took me up and put me on her lap. I relaxed and covered my eyes: no matter how I love children, it’s sometimes difficult with them, especially if they rush me with the whole group, but with this girl, I feel good and calm. She realized that I like it and gently kissed my forehead.

She is 15 and her eyes cannot see. She is feeling me. She doesn’t stroke like other children, she’s just feeling. In our first meeting, she was asking questions about me: which parts of my body are coloured of honey, and where I am white; did I cut my hair or was it so short to begin with; what kind of flowers were on my leash and whether I was smiling.

Maneh didn’t always live in the orphanage. Once she had a family and a dog with whom they were born on the same day. Maneh said that she was sad and really missed her dog, but she says that since she met me, life has been much more fun.

It’s cool in the gazebo where we are sitting. Maneh gently runs a palm over my face and says: “Mickey smiles indeed, really-really she does.” And laughs. Like a chime.

Children surrounded me, pushing each other, trying to pat me on the head. I close my eyes again and start counting imaginary chicken bones up to ten. This helps to survive in the chaotic noise of any orphanage. Chicken bones are my favorite treat from my previous life when I hadn’t been a therapy dog yet. Now I’m not allowed to eat them. Because I can have that… that… stomach perforation, that’s it.

I try not to look at the black little bag with refreshments thrown over Hasmik’s shoulder. So that nobody would think that I work because of the food. No-no, it’s out of pure love for it. But it wouldn’t hurt to have a meal or two: I’ve been doing my best for 16 minutes already!

Maneh takes control of the situation. She strictly tells everyone that they’re going to squeeze me to death like that, so they must take turns petting me. Children’s obedience lasts only for minutes, but I am still grateful to her.

We have a new boy, and he is afraid of me. Maneh takes his hand, gently and quietly persuading him to simply touch me with one finger. He takes his finger and gently runs along my back. After a minute, the whole palm of a laughing child strokes me.

Valya really wants to walk with me, but she is in a wheelchair. Maneh pushes the wheelchair, and Valya takes my leash. Since Maneh cannot see the road, she often goes in the wrong direction and leaves it, so Hasmik tells her to listen to the clatter of my paws, as well as feel for the direction the leash is stretching to. Since I know how to walk in a straight line, it mostly works, and I try hard not to look at the grass, where the huge grasshopper is begging for me to eat it. Here’s my education for you.

I will not be able to return Maneh’s vision no matter how much I want to, but I can help her feel the surroundings.

— Who wants to feed Mickey Mook? — Hasmik finally brings up an actually good idea.

Maneh lets other children feed me, and she goes to Fedor. She once told him that she had a dream — to learn to take pictures, and Fedor started teaching her from time to time. It’s pleasing to look at them: Mane tries to find simple Armenian words so that Fedor understands her, and Fedor tries to explain to her how to feel something that she cannot see. Judging by the photograph of me that she took, they will do great over time.

The day I was treated to a piece of chocolate

Today, we were six minutes late because the groom didn’t lock the Sorbonne’s door, she ran out and, as always, started chasing the dogs around, throwing kicks left and right. Sorbonne, if you look in her passport, appears to be a horse, but between us dogs, we call her the red devil — she’s that annoying. Sorbonne was successfully brought back into place, and we went to the orphanage.

The children sat in a semicircle — some in their wheelchairs, others on the grass, — waiting for us. Today I had to work with all of them, but especially with Suzy, Narek, and Varduhi.

Susie, as always, gathered branches and folded “fingers” out of them. Susie has autism.

She lives in her own world, which is hard for others to understand, and it’s difficult to drag her out of it. She does only what she wants, otherwise she starts screaming.

She can scream for a long time and quite loudly, too. Susie stubbornly refused to pay me any attention for the last three sessions. Her eyes couldn’t focus on anything.

Someone else would have left her alone long ago, but I decided not to give up and just follow her everywhere. When I was almost desperate, Susie’s wandering eyes suddenly stopped. She looked at me and saw. Susie smiled, and her hand reached out to stroke me. Finally! She seemed to like it. She even laughed with pleasure. Of course, she would! Hasmik spent all morning bringing beauty and softness to my coat, almost tearing my skin off with an inquisitor’s tool, which she calls a brush, and the process itself — combing.

When Susie looks into my eyes, strokes me and laughs, I have a feeling that I am helping her to get out into our world. As painlessly as possible.

Narek watched the process of working with Susie and smiled a little. For the first time, he had to stroke me alone, without a tutor. Narek has cerebral palsy. He strains from any strong emotions — both joyful and sad. When we first met, he generally refused to communicate with me. He made a frightened face, pulled his teacher by the sleeve, and kept saying: “Let’s go from here”. Then he agreed to stroke me, but only with the tutor.

Today, the teacher was on vacation. Another teacher promised to make a video and send it to his tutor, showing “how well Narek was doing by himself”. The boy liked it. He began to stroke me so well that my team decided: it’s time to put Mickey on Narek’s lap!

My team is Ardem, Hasmik, and Fedor. Ardem lives in Canada, he came here for only three months. He knows that in order for us to work well, we need to fully eat and live in comfortable enclosures, so he helps us with food and all kinds of dog household needs. He also accompanies me and our other dogs for therapy and generally makes our life at Centaur Animal-Assisted Therapy Center better. And we can focus on providing care for the children who live in orphanages.

I like to drive in a car with him from one therapy to another. He sits on the seat delicately, does not push around, and always leaves me a lot of space so that I can lie down comfortably. I always leave a bunch of my hair on his trousers, but he just smiles at it.

Fedor takes care of us, takes photos and videos, helps children overcome their self-doubt, and answers their never-changing question: why is his hair so long, even though he is a man?

Hasmik makes sure that I have less fun and work more. Really. If at least one child continues to be afraid of dogs by the time we leave, her mood goes down the drain.

Hasmik and Fedor live with us and love us. They love us most when we silently sleep. I’m pretty quiet, but the remaining 40 or so dogs love to arrange howling concerts late at night. For me it’s nothing, but people claim that they are slowly going mad.

So, these nice people decided to put me on Narek’s lap, which neither I nor the boy completely approved of. When Narek strains, he pushes himself out of the wheelchair. I’m afraid I won’t keep my balance. Narek, on the other hand, was scared by the very prospect of being in such close proximity to me.

But who asked us? I was picked up and put in the wheelchair. The boy had an unhappy face, his muscles were ready to stretch like a spring, but he really wanted the teacher to be proud of him. He squinted at the phone: do they record it already? He gently stroked me, then again, and again. I found a position convenient for maintaining balance: Narek’s wheelchair is not designed for the two of us.

Narek became bolder more and more. Soon he hugged me with one hand and fed me with the other. Then he hugged and kissed me on the forehead. His muscles were completely relaxed. In my opinion, we did a good job.

With Varduhi, things were more complicated. She is terribly afraid that I will bite her. As soon as Ardem picked me up and brought me to her, she clenched her fists and covered her face in disdain. She closed her eyes so as not to see my “terrible jaws.”

Hasmik herself was very scared of dogs for a very long time, and in general, of all animals. She always tells the children how bad it was — to be afraid of something so much, and how glad she was to overcome her fears.

It works well. A person who has never been afraid of us cannot fully understand what others are afraid of, and often says nonsense. For example: “Are you a boy, aren’t you ashamed?” Or “You are so big but so afraid of a tiny dog?” Of course, this approach will not help anyone.

And now Hasmik looked at Varduhi thoughtfully and in a serious tone asked: “Are you a human or a bone?” “Human,” slightly confused Varduhi replied. Hasmik sighed in relief and assured the girl that she should worry, for Mickey Muk, that is, I, only eats bones. I have already learned to play along with this and portray an absolute disinterest in children in terms of food. Varduhi opened her fists and stroked me.

After therapy, we went to a cafe on Cascade, where everyone knows me, and I always get a bowl with water. All their attempts to sneak a few snacks to me, unfortunately, stumble upon Fedor and Hasmik’s formidable frowns. But today I got a huge — by their standards — a piece of chocolate cake the size of a human finger. Well deserved, I must say.

The day we changed minds

Today, the children have walked me a lot. Walking me is their favorite pastime. It would be fun for me, too, if it wasn’t for my people. They carefully observe that I don’t disappear suddenly into the grass or run to see if there are any mouse holes around. I am sure that if they took off the leash from me, it would have been better for everyone. I would teach kids how to catch mice.

Since other dogs are unlikely to read my writings, I will share the secret of how I do it. Mouse households have two holes — entrance and exit. I stick my head through one hole and start sneezing frantically. From the raised dust and noise, the mouse jumps through another hole in horror, and there I catch it. I’m sure the kids would love to try it, too. But my team has a different opinion on this matter, and we keep decorously strolling around.

Narine sat in her wheelchair and looked at us with a sad expression.

— Want to take a walk with Mickey Mook? — asked Hasmik.

— I can’t.

— Why not?

— Maybe you didn’t understand, but I’m not sitting here for my pleasure. I can’t walk.

Narine is very tender, but also very stubborn and strong-willed. Sometimes she can be harsh. In addition, she only acts on her own will, and if she isn’t the initiator, she won’t do a thing. It took a few lessons before we got her to touch me first and then to pet me.

On the first day, she didn’t even let me approach her. She said that she did not like dogs, that she hated having dog hair on her clothes. Narine looked gloomy and perhaps sad back then. She just returned from home, from her family that can’t decide if they should abandon her completely or “take her back” instead. From time to time, they took her back into the house, only to return her in a couple of days.

Now she smiles when she sees me. She hugs me, gives me food, and stoically endures it if I accidentally lick her finger while taking the treat. She really doesn’t like dog saliva. I understand it and try to be careful.

Hasmik told her that she doesn’t know the extent of her capabilities herself. And that with me she can walk even in a wheelchair. Hasmik asked for volunteers to help Narine, and we had a lot of raised hands, so some casting was in order. While Narine was holding my leash, one child was pushing the wheelchair, another was watching for wheels not to jam my paws, the third was pulling Fedor by the sleeve, and pointing for good photo possibilities.

Although usually everyone is supposed to walk with me only for one lap due to time limits, as well as not to exhaust me too much, this time everyone agreed that the case was special and an exception can be made. So we made three laps with Narine.

Her look somehow changed. Usually, when someone walked with me, the rest ran after, cheering, measuring the circle, making sure that everything was fair. But the guys in wheelchairs just sat in the gazebo and waited for my escort to return and tell them “how cool it was”. They waited meekly, accepting how the things stood, but not even thinking that those things could be different.

Walking with me, Narine was part of the party that she used to look at from the gazebo and which she wanted to belong to.

She had a look of surprise and free, undisguised joy from a sudden understanding: if she could walk with me like other children, then there must be a bunch of other things that she could do if she wanted to.

It was a very special day. I usually get very emotionally tired with Narine, but today I felt very light. Do you know why? Causing a smile on a child’s face or relaxing their muscles is important, no doubt. But to help them rethink themselves and their abilities, “I can” and “I can’t” — that’s why we are doing this therapy! From this day onward we started walking with children in wheelchairs, too.

I suppose I could get treated some chocolate cakes on this today, too, since changing people’s minds is such a labourious task, but, unfortunately, it was only me thinking so. The rest seriously worried about my liver and eyes, which could get damaged from the sweets.

After therapy, we went to change the minds of people on Yerevan streets, too. Walking the streets before going home has long become our habit. Hasmik calls this part of the educational process.

People in our country don’t always treat animals well. Most of this comes from ignorance. Many people are sure that we only know how to bite. And that they are so delicious that we will definitely want to take a piece of them. They also think that we walk around the world, collecting all kinds of infections, so that when our internal pantries are getting full, they will pass them on onto the people.

So many people shy away from us, demand to put muzzles on us, and leave as soon as possible. Our educational process is not to bark at them in return, but to smile in a friendly way and talk. For example, Hasmik says that we are therapeutic, that we never bite, that we regularly go to the veterinarian for health checks, that we help people. It’s very important for them to know that they can somehow benefit from our existence. Only then Hasmik says that we are all former street dogs, and mosts of us are not purebred.

The main thing is for them to prick up their ears. Then they will certainly accept and love us at some point, and maybe this acceptance will extend to other street dogs. Once, a mother on the street allowed me to put my head in a baby stroller and lick her baby. Aggression won’t get us anywhere.

Идём подкрепиться

Then we went to a very pleasant establishment where Hasmik and Fedor buy dog food for us and where the host always has a treat or to for me. Since the whole back seat was occupied by 20-kilo bags, I moved forward to Fedor’s lap, and we drove home. I stuck my head out the open window, swallowed the wind and, I’m not gonna lie, I was very pleased with myself.

The day we were all ourselves

Today I noticed that the children became more caring with each other. Having always been reserved, Christina suddenly began talking to me open-heartedly, and Archie made friends with a lilac elephant.

It was in a crisis center for children from difficult families. In general, we go to therapy two days a week. We have two orphanages, one crisis center, and one rehabilitation center for children. Several times a year we go to all sorts of children camps.

I like my work, but it’s not easy. My children are very different. Some need a very gentle and patient approach.

Children may get scared, scream, want to kick me, and I should lie still and never bite them back (sometimes I really want to).

Barking isn’t an option either. One has to endure even when a cat is looming in front of my nose. Don’t get me wrong, I treat cats nicely, one of the cats in our house even sleeps on top of me. I don’t eat them, but I really like to chase them a little bit. But I can’t. After work — whatever you want, and during therapy — strict discipline and endless patience.

There are six of us, visiting dog therapists. The rest are engaged in therapy at our center in Ushi. Most of us had a difficult life, and we all went through therapy ourselves before starting to help children. We are also going to go to adults, but in the future: now we do not have enough people on the team that would accompany us on long journeys.

People in the orphanages we go to usually have severe physical disabilities. In the crisis center, children mostly don’t have them, but there are a lot of emotional wounds that we try and help to heal. Here the children live temporarily until difficult situations in their families are resolved.

In the early days, the children tried to take me from each other, pushed and kicked — everyone wanted to be the only one to have a chat with me. And today they are much more considerate of each other, making sure that even the timidest kids have a chance to spend time with me. If anyone is scared, Hasmik is immediately informed about it and with all their might they work with the fears and get rid of them.

I think their care for each other stared from taking care of me. Well, see for yourself. The first thing they should do is filling my bowl with water and making sure that it stays full throughout the session. We play in the grass, and thorns can get tangled in my coat, so they pull them out. And in the season when I shed, children comb me. If I’m tired, then we don’t do walks: everyone knows that I need to be taken to a shady place to rest.

Moreover, children are engaged in our studies. They’ve been through a lot in their difficult families. Often they have a feeling of uselessness and insecurity. And suddenly they are entrusted with an important matter: to help train a therapeutic dog. That gives an immediate self-confidence boost!

For example, last week they came up with a game for our plump Tatik, who needs to move a lot in order to lose weight: the children stood in a big circle on the basketball field, and everyone had a treat in their hand. They took turns calling Tatik, and when she came running, they gave her refreshments. I think that sweets immediately replenished the calories that Tatik spent while running, but, as always, no one was interested in my opinion. In addition, it is beneficial to the process to have a personal interest in the training.

Today it turned out that Archie is mortally afraid of the big lilac elephant that stood in the middle of the walking path. I immediately realized that the elephant is a toy, but Archie has a distorted reality, and he always confuses it with his fantasies.

If the dogs knew how to laugh, I would roll with laughter, watching half of the children leading Archie to the elephant with baby steps and the other half pushing the elephant to Archie under Hasmik’s leadership, who kept saying: “Good elephant, look, Archie, as I pet him like a dog.” And they did it. By the end of the day, Archie licked an elephant, rubbed against it, and wanted to take him home with us.

Hasmik, knowing that I always give iron slides a wide berth, came up with a real test for me: the children led me up the stairs on top of the slides, while she stood below and called me to come down. And the only way to so os to slide off.

I think it looks like blackmailing of some sort, but Hasmik thinks that the therapy dog should not be scared of anything. And she knows, after all, that I will go to her no matter what, I can’t stand it when she is far away.

It was really scary. I started licking my nose quickly. I always do this when I’m stressed. I don’t like instability and heights. Not higher than a chair, please. The children cheered me up. They surrounded me and ensured me that I was safe from all sides. In the end, I made my mind. Oh my go-o-od! Hasmik caught me and everyone applauded. And I got a lot of fine refreshments as a gratification.

We tried a few more times. It’s not that I’m not afraid at all anymore: I’m still scared, and I’m not showing off by hiding my horror, but I’m sliding down nevertheless, I’m overcoming my fear. In my opinion, this is what real courage is.

Then Christina walked with me for a long time, and in the end, we sat on the grass under a tree. She combed me beautifully, then hugged and talked for a long time about her life and experiences. Christina loves me and our other dogs very much. She wandered from one institution for children to another for almost her entire life. When you talk to her, it may seem that Christina likes to manipulate in order to get sympathy from you. But I know something more: in fact, she wants attention and love, which she always missed greatly since being little.

But Christina doesn’t need to pretend someone else to be with me. She knows that dogs in general and I will accept her for who she really is. It doesn’t matter to us if a person has any kind of problem. She knows that we don’t pity, something that every person with physical or mental trauma hates. We just accept. Kristina hugs me, and it becomes easier for her to just talk, and be herself.

The day when I thought about my life

When you are eight years old, which is already pretty decent, you are occasionally visited by all sorts of thoughts about life, the reason behind our existence, and your place in the world.

Today I ran away from home. Sometimes I do this when they let me out to the toilet. Because I really like catching mice in the field, but at home, there aren’t any mice around. But today is different: I went down to the brook and just lay there and gave life plenty of thinking. Sometimes I have nostalgia. It seems that I live for a very long time and have already had several different lives at least.

In my first life I was a puppy. I lived in a rich city house, ate from the owner’s hands, and slept on a couch. Once we drove in her posh car and stopped to buy apples along the way. There was a bush on the road, and I was suddenly interested to see what was inside. I slipped out the open door while the hostess was paying. She did not notice this, and while I was sniffing enthusiastically, the car left.

I was picked up by the boy who was selling apples and carried to his home. Thus began my second life. I began to guard his house and seven more houses around. The owners could leave and not lock the doors, since no one would have thought to meddle with me. At first I was sad, and I missed my sofa, but then I got used to it.

Now I lived in the yard, and everyone was scared of me. When guests came to the owners, they either tied me up or locked me in the basement so that I would not eat anyone. But I just barked at strangers, as any normal dog should do.

Once in the winter, the owners closed me, pregnant, in the basement and forgot. They left for their relatives in another village for a few days. I gave birth and killed my puppies. We, animals, if we see that our cubs cannot survive or that they will be doomed to torment, we don’t force them to live. I had no water, no food, and therefore no milk to feed the puppies.

When people returned, they were in horror. The landlord tied me by a string and dragged me to a dilapidated stable nearby. It was here that Hasmik saw him passing by. The landlord told her that he was tying me to a post as a punishment: “So that she would die of hunger, because what kind of mother would such a thing?”

Hasmik took me away from him, saying that I’ll be good, and he’ll be unfortunate to lose such a fine dog. The next morning the man couldn’t get up from bed for a whole week— he twisted his back, and he told everyone that Hasmik spelled a curse upon him. The following morning a line of people formed in from of Hasmik’s house, and everyone was asking advice on how to properly take care of their dogs. They were afraid that Hasmik would also curse them. Hasmik wasn’t against such reputation: the dogs were only better off.

Thus began my third life. I followed my new owner everywhere. But as soon as she disappeared from my field of vision, I immediately ran away to my previous house. I didn’t go inside, but lay in front of the gate and just looked. To tell you the truth, I missed only one person: my master’s son, who picked me up. We were friends with him. But he was in the army back then, and still didn’t serve his time. I kept running back to my old house for some six months and then stopped.

At first, I peed and pooped in the house, not realizing that such things should be done outside. But then I learned. I couldn’t unlearn to jump onto a sofa, though. As soon as everyone goes to bed, I must admit, I still immediately jump and make myself comfortable on a soft sofa or a chair. Sometimes in the morning, I forget to jump off, and people catch me at the crime scene. But they cannot get angry for a long time: I immediately lie on my back and raise my paws up (I learned how to manipulate from children), and everyone’s hearts are melting.

My life once almost ended. I ate a large amount of rat poison by catching a poisoned mouse. I was shaking and running from side to side, my muscles got tense, and I couldn’t relax them. It was nighttime and we didn’t have a car. Hasmik woke up our fellow taxi driver from Ashtarak and asked him to come urgently.

The driver was mortally afraid of dog hair. He was sure that every hair is a source of echinococcus. He also hated driving at night, especially when he already went to bed. But he arrived, and we went to the clinic. I had a terrible stench from my mouth, Hasmik tried to simultaneously hold my shaking body and a plastic bag, in case a miracle happened, and I would throw up, and the phone to call the veterinarian and ask him to come urgently to the clinic.

The driver took out a snow-white handkerchief and covered his mouth and nose with it. Sneakily, so that I would be offended. I didn’t care much, though, since I generally didn’t understand what was going on, but I wouldn’t mind either way: the stench was truly was abominable.

The vet said that the chances are low, but he would try. I spent two nights at the clinic. They injected into me everything that came across and didn’t let me eat. It was terrible, but I survived.

Now I live in a house, I have my own chair and delicious food. Everything is fine, but I have a panic attack when Hasmik leaves me. Even for five minutes. I know that she won’t abandon me, but I still panic and start to lick frantically. Orphaned children also have the same feature, by the way. Every time they have to ask: “Will you definitely come the next week”? Which truly means: “Or are you ‘temporary’, too?”

The day I almost gave up

Sometimes it happens that you can’t help feeling discouraged. Despair settles in your soul, and you cannot deal with it even by mouse hunting or eating snacks. Today in the orphanage met a new child — Maria, and today is such a day.

Maria has thin bloodless fingers. Cold, despite the August heat. Hasmik has to stroke them for a long time and taps on her wrist so that fingers that are clenched with spasticity into a strong fist would open up and touch me. I wait patiently in Ardem’s arms.

Maria likes to stroke me. I can see it in her eyes. Only eyes. Maria cannot walk, cannot move her hands, she has no facial expressions. But she has an absolutely intact intelligence. She has the ability to feel and perceive signals from the outside world, to experience and process them. And only eyes to express to the world what she has inside.

No one will ever tell her that she has cute dimples when she laughs. Because she doesn’t laugh. No one will ever like her sweet expression, because she has no expressions.

Behind her lively eyes is a huge world, which, perhaps, will not be revealed to us even in a hundred years.

Neither I nor anyone else can change this. Tear yourself up as much as you want. Maria is my first child with whom I feel powerless. Hasmik says how good she is, looks into her incredible eyes, strokes her shoulder, and smiles.

We finish the therapy and get into the car. On the way we buy tomatoes — bright, juicy, full of sunshine, people discuss busy traffic and crazy drivers on the road as if this is the most important thing now. We drop by friends, I meet other dogs there, and all of them think I’m antisocial.

I try my best, but I can’t communicate. My people skip from one topic to another, as if afraid to shut up. Probably, only sad thoughts emerge from silence.

We diligently pretend that everything is fine. But there is Maria who stayed in the orphanage. Maria who only has eyes. Everything breaks down and falls to pieces. It’s easier for people: they invented gods so that there is always someone to blame or ask for protection. We dogs don’t know how to do it. The only thing I want and can do is to run away into a dark corner and howl.

Being a therapy dog is sometimes extraordinarily difficult. You need to prepare your heart for the fact that it won’t always work out, that there will be days such as this one, to learn not to give in to despondency. Tomorrow I’ll tell all this to myself, but today I can’t. Today I am very sad.

The day we faced the epidemic of pity

Today was definitely Archie’s finest hour. He is the exact opposite of me. For example, I never understood why I have to give paw or lie down as soon as someone wants to look at it. Proper communication happens when you look into each other’s eyes and stay silent. Or you embrace each other and sit quietly, and you feel good.

Archie is too noisy for proper communication. He is spinning this way and that, and all he needs is playing, kissing, petting, and doing exercise at all times. He sits down and gives paw, and lies down, sometimes even somersaults, and to get petted and treated with dog sweets.

Today, we worked with Leo at the orphanage. Leo has Down syndrome, and he is too sensitive. Any touch of a new “matter” for him can be traumatic.

Leo is a therapist on his own. At first, he came, sat nearby, and looked at me. Then crawled closer on his bottom. But as soon as I made a move towards him, he ran away immediately. On his bottom, too. He is aware of his fear, but he really wants to overcome it. And so, step by step, he moves towards the goal at his own pace.

I immediately warned Archie that you need to be patient with Leo and not meddle with him right away too much. But Archie, of course, missed everything. The day is not over if at least one person remained indifferent to him. Therefore, he confidently approached Leo and poked his nose into his knee.

Leo froze in surprise. Then he brought the fingers gathered like a bow to his face and made a booming sound like a steamboat — the sign of incredible confusion. Having recovered, Leo thought it was time to run away, got his will back, and stayed. He even took Archie’s leash in his left hand. Archie lay beside him. So they studied each other for a while. After a couple of minutes, Leo slowly crawled to Archie and suddenly poked on Archie’s side with his finger. Then again he boomed desperately and quickly crawled back, communicating us with his whole self: something stunning just happened!

When we went to the crisis center later, there was a new little girl who was brought in the morning and didn’t say a word since then. Neither she smiled. Older children and educators recommended leaving her alone for today, suggesting that she might not be able to speak. When Hasmik offered her to pet Archie, the girl frantically shook her head. But when she was suggested to look at dog cookies with multi-colored jelly inside caused a weak interest.

Seeing the cookie in the girl’s hand, Archie didn’t stand ceremonially but jumped up and licked her on the palm of her hand. The girl looked at Archie and suddenly burst into laughter. Archie liked her and wanted to let her know that by licking her hands and face even more. The girl laughed louder, and started to pat Archie on the back, brought him water, combed his ears (which Archie courageously endured), fed him a million treats, and said that “the dog was good.”

By the time we got to the city center and walked down the Northern Avenue, Archie was so captivated by the consciousness of his own importance that he would give autographs left and right — that is, if he could write. But the city didn’t greet him the way he expected.

Archie has bent forelegs, a consequence of the calcium problems he had in childhood. When he got to us, it was too late to do something, and since Archie could barely drag his legs because of this, Hasmik conducted a lengthy course of physiotherapy with him.

Now he walks, runs, and jumps. He just can’t dig the ground as we like to do when it’s hot. But Archie is an old bird. He waits until someone gets out of their hole to drink, or vice versa, to pee, and immediately takes a vacant place. He also needs to have rest from walking more than other dogs. Actually, that’s all there is to it.

But people don’t know about this.

For some reason, to them, it seems that it’s important to feel sorry for Archie, to be connected to the world of “suffering”. Some even say “thank you” to Hasmik for taking in the “poor and disabled” dog.

Archie doesn’t care about that, of course, but Hasmik does. Today, the city was especially prone to sentiment.

— God, the dog barely walks, and she forces him to, — one girl moaned, when Hasmik, already panting from the run, tried to stop Archie as he was pushing forward to get to a poodle in the distance — to say “hi”, evidently, and get to know each other.

— Gosh, mama jan, — muttered an elderly woman with a stroller, then tilted her head to the shoulder and … bit her dress. A few meters later, another woman did the same. This gesture in Armenia means something along the lines “May this horror pass and not affect my children.”

— Poor dog. Tormented. Sick. But is it worth keeping him in this state? This is not love, but egoism, — someone dived deep into the thinking process behind us.

— Let me go blind! — making huge eyes, a girl in uniform whispered to her friend, also in uniform.

— You don’t have to go blind, — Hasmik told her back. But the girl already had deep grief imprinted onto her face and remained indifferent to us.

Even a dog as joyful and full of life as Archie was discouraged by the barrage of compassionate exclamations and whispers addressed to him for some reason. Especially when he went to the next girl for pets and strokes, and she jumped away from him, put her hand to her heart and whispered: “My poor thing.” He glanced helplessly at Hasmik.

Hasmik began to explain to him for a long time that people are different, that they generally have problems accepting you as you are, and that you need to be patient in order to change this. But Hasmik couldn’t finish sharing her wisdom.

Archie saw a drinking fountain nearby, and the water from it was pouring onto the sidewalk. Archie absolutely loves lying in fountain puddles. Thus, his memory went blank again and switched to the newfound entertainment as he pulled the leash towards the water.

The day when I lay in my chair and thought about different things

Sunday. I have a day off today. It was raining in the morning, so it was cool and fresh. I stretched out in the chair and was enjoying my life. With Puchur on top of me, of course. He doesn’t really care whether you have a day off or not. I often even doubt: is he aware that I am a living creature, or does he think that I am a pillow that was put in place specifically for his convenience? Since he has chronic kidney failure, we all try to make his life as nice as possible.

On Sundays we almost always have visitors. They say it’s very nice here, and that they leave full of joy, and rested.

Today we had one, and Hasmik was telling him how she came up with the idea of ​​therapy with us in 2010. Back then people brought their children for therapy only with horses and considered us dogs living here to be useless creatures that only created more work and expenses. So as I say, it’s really important for people to know that everyone is beneficial to them in some way. And then Hasmik thought that it would be great to save street dogs, help them heal up the physical and mental injuries that they usually have, and then teach them how to help people overcome their problems in turn. This way people will think that dogs can be useful, and they will treat them better.

Hasmik shared this idea with a dog psychologist in Poland. The psychologist was unconditionally against it. It’s impossible to predict, he said, what behavioural problems can come up in a mutt. And he offered to give Hasmik a trained labrador and bring him to Armenia.

But Hasmik didn’t want a labrador. Purebreds are usually well off in life and get more affection, goodies, and care than us mongrels. I’m still lucky, I’m crossbred with a corgi. Everybody loves corgi. They even say some kind of queen loves them.

In the end, Hasmik decided that if the dog is calm, loves people and other animals, is not afraid of loud noises and tolerates being in the car well, then it does not matter what breed it is. She would just need more time and patience training the mutt.

For example, I was indifferent to people when I first got here. And hated cats. It took Hasmik a few months with me to teach me that cats should not be chased after and that people can be pretty decent.

But not everyone is as intelligent as I am. Hasmik fumbled with Malysh, another of our therapy dogs, for two years. But Malysh’s life was a nightmare. She was born in Yerevan. Her brothers and sisters were quickly adopted, but nobody wanted to take her because people considered her ugly. Most of all she was hated by a former KGB colonel who once even chased her with a gun when she was three months old. Hasmik adopted her to the family with two children and was happy for her. After all, everyone in that family was squeezing, kissing, and stroking her, which is usually a good sign.

Then Hasmik went on saving other dogs and stopped going to check on the puppy.

Six months later, it turned out that Malysh was kept on the balcony on the second floor (she is scared of heights to death) on a short leash, fed only with dry bread, and children sometimes were beating her with iron rods.

Hasmik immediately went there to pick her up. Malysh bit her hand, hid in a corner, and began to screech in horror, thinking that Hasmik would beat her up now, too. Hasmik had to throw a blanket over her to pick her up to avoid injury. She still made a lot of scars to other people and dogs afterward. She was scared of everything — even sounds; danger seemed to be everywhere.

Hasmik did not punish her but gradually taught her to trust people again. Even though it took two years, it was worth it. Now Malysh is the most affectionate dog in the world. Children do whatever they want with her, but she won’t even make a noise. Malysh is a living proof that there is nothing impossible, there are only lazy people.

Coming back to my Sunday morning, Hasmik was telling the guest that the Polish psychologist came to Armenia three years after that conversation, observed our work with children and adults, and said that he was amazed by results. He also added that apparently Armenian mutts in some ways were special. Ha!

At first, children and adults were only visiting therapy in our village. We only started going to other centers and orphanages in a few years’ time. At first, everyone except the crisis center refused to work with us, making some kind of “sanitation” and hygiene as an excuse… As well as “fears” that children may experience. Now there are so many places where they want us, but we simply don’t have time.

Hasmik and Fedor went with the guest to the kitchen to drink tea, and I moved to the kitchen door. I’m not allowed to enter the kitchen. I sat on the invisible threshold separating it from the living room, right in front of the guest’s chair, and began staring at his mouth, not blinking. When someone eats something, I can do this endlessly. I would easily become a champion in a no-blinking staring competition. Rarely does a mouth withstand such pressure for a long time. Crumbs, or even whole pieces, begin to fall from it. But this guest was impenetrable. I got only two tiny pieces.

Fedor put a bowl in front of me so that, as he said, I wouldn’t beg from the guest for leftovers. I sniffed the dry food, stood on my hind legs, and voiced my protest with a short “Woo!” At least on weekends you can give me a chicken bone or a piece of pork! But my protest, of course, was ignored.

The guest asked if we can jump over the hoop and do other tricks. But we are therapy dogs, not circus dogs. It’s a pity that I can’t explain to him in human language that tricks are something that gives you laughter for a few minutes, then you tell others what you have seen with amazement, only to forget about it later. And me — if I sit on your lap and let you hug me, and we stay like that in silence, you won’t forget this incredible feeling for a long time. Something inside you will definitely change.

Why did I decide to share my diary with you? So that you can learn about my home and the very important business that we do. “Centaur” is a home for horses, dogs, cats and a turtle. We all had our own sad stories. Once people helped us change our lives, but now we help them. We are changing the way people think, their state of mind, and their relationship with themselves.

You can also participate in this important matter: for example, you can adopt some of us. But it must be a good happy house so that we are not very sad to leave. You can volunteer, helping to take care of us, over 50 animals living here. Or you can become our sponsor by sharing the cost of our meals, care, training, and medical care.

And then more people will be able to use the services of doctors without white coats, but with four legs and a tail. They don’t know how to give injections, prescribe the right pills, or cut with a scalpel, but they do have their own methods of treatment, sometimes helping better than traditional medicine.

Some names have been changed

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Translation of the article was supported by the civic society support programme in Armenia by NESEHNUTÍ (Transition programme of Czech MFA)

Девушка улыбается в темноте

Why me

Why me

Text: Hasmik Hovhannisyan
Photos: Fëdor Kornienko

[post_published]
[show_post_categories show="category" hyperlink="no" parent="no"]

I live in imaginary worlds from books. All characters are either knights or villains. It’s easy to distinguish the villains: they feature a stern face with a fierce look, and always wear dark clothes. But it turns out that in the real world even a villain can wear a soft smile and a light shirt.

10 min read

My fault

I’m thirteen. I love Freddie Mercury. Every Friday, I get on a yellow bus and drive off to “the faraway lands”, as it seems to me, for forty minutes. My destination is precious to me, it is a small underground booth that sells music cassettes, including Queen’s. They are gradually moving into my big box.

I am sitting in the back seat of a crowded bus, sandwiched between two adults, firmly pressing my hand to the side pocket of the backpack, where I’ve got the money for the purchase, and smiling.

A full-figured woman sitting next to me is chatting with her friend, and her body bounces with laughter, almost throwing mine into the air. But soon the unusually strong April heat wears them out, and the crowded bus slowly submerges into the state of sleep.

I also start getting dozed off for a while, but then I feel a hand touching my knee. I open my eyes. The hand of an elderly man sitting next to me. I remember him smiling warmly, as a grandfather would, as he moved to the window seat to make space for me when I got on the bus.

A wrinkled palm slightly squeezes my bare knee, and then moves closer to the shorts. I turn my face to the man. He is looking out the window, his face impenetrable. His hand halts. I strain my leg and release it from under his palm. Then I secretly look at the people around. No one is looking at me. No one saw anything.

The hand reaches for my knee again. The man smiles with the same warm expression and again turns to the window. I squeeze myself deeper into the seat. My own palms are sweating from horror. What do I do now? Should I confront him? But what if he gives me a surprised look and says that I imagined it all, only for me to feel very stupid?

Shake off his hand again, I’m telling myself. So that no one will notice. I shouldn’t have worn shorts. It’s good that at least I didn’t put the blue ones on, those are even shorter. Then get off at the next stop. But what to do then? Where even am I? The “faraway land” should be, well, still far away, and the rest of the route is unfamiliar to me. I only know how to get to the cassette booth from the bus stop near the metro station.

And I stay on the bus to the very end, releasing my foot persistently from under the sweaty wrinkled palm. I take off at my stop and run, choking with disgust and despair.

Девушка за рулём экскаватора

I am a timid girl with an exaggerated sense of responsibility and in a persistent state of guilt, life’s fitful fever. Almost in anything bad that happens around, I manage to see punishment for my own wrongdoings.

The bus incident is no exception. After all, what happened could happen only to me, and only due to my failures.

Every summer I’ve been wearing shorts and T-shirts. I can’t stand the heat so much that I would tear my skin off if it was possible. Among our family friends and relatives, literally no one ever missed the chance to reproach my mother for my inability to dress more “appropriately” — since I was eight.

Obedience, modesty, and some kind of special “quietness” are qualities that people usually cherish in girls. They need not draw attention to themselves — so that a good boy’s parents would notice, admire that, and plan marriage for when they grow up. Girls have to always keep their appearance and behaviour in check since they are to be future wives and mothers.

On the bus, I had at least one of the attributes of the “bad” girl I was warned about — the ill-fated shorts. Thus, there isn’t room for doubt — the adversity on the bus was my fault.

I’m thirteen, and I still don’t know that other girls — completely different from me — are also “touched”, that they, too, squeeze themselves into the seats and secretly look up to see if anyone noticed. It is easy to spot them around — usually, when they grow up they become women who carefully pick the people to be around their daughters — be it a swimming coach, a dance teacher, or a massage therapist, and they make sure those people are exclusively women.

Ashamed and scared

I am eight years old. I often stand in hours-long queues to buy bread with ration coupons. Sometimes impatient people squeeze me from both sides. It’s difficult to breathe, but otherwise, everything is normal. But suddenly I realize that that adult from behind somehow “isn’t right.” I begin feeling uncomfortable. It is not easy to explain and it’s scary to admit even to yourself, but you know for sure that something is wrong. It is difficult to give a name to this obscure anxiety, and to act on it, too.

I’m fourteen. We, the girls, are gossiping together in the classroom about those “maniacs” who have appeared in the city. They are terrible, disgusting, and they “do this and that…”

One day I’m going to school past the Lambada Bridge. Near the stone wall, there’s a man with his pants down. He is standing with his back to the road and I can feel that he’s doing something obscure, unpleasant, and terrible. It will take many years before I hear the word “masturbation” for the first time, as well as everything else about sex.

I lower my head and pick up the pace. Others — both adults and children — too, as if nothing is happening.

I see “maniacs” quite often. They have a lot of faces, but the man on the bridge shows up most often. One day he tries to chase after me with his penis that’s sticking out. The man has an infantile, unhealthy appearance and dirty mustard-coloured pants. It’s hard for me to run, I’m gasping in disgust and horror. Near the school and the neighbouring military base, he starts lagging behind.

After that, I start going to school by bus only for a few days. But then I decide that I don’t want to live in fear — and go to the bridge again. Sure enough, when approaching the Lambada bridge my feet are starting to walk faster and then run against my will.

Very soon I met that man again. He starts following. But then the fear that’s built up inside me suddenly turns into rage. At the underpass, I notice a thick tree branch with many little branches lying on the ground. At the time, the book I was reading at home was the second part of Romain Rolland’s “Enchanted Soul”, and I was very impressed by Asi, the Russian revolutionary rebel.

I stop, wait until the man comes closer, turn around, and strike him with all my might.

Enraged, I hit randomly without aim, but by luck, I hit the right spot. The “maniac” howls in pain, tries to protect himself with his hands, but the demon that woke up within me continues to whip and whip without mercy.

Then I drop the branch and run. I never knew how to run fast, but now I’m flying. It turns out that maniacs are not as scary as they are portrayed, it turns out that I am strong and can stand up for myself.

However, euphoria from my newly discovered strong self doesn’t last long and quickly gives way to despondency, guilt, and shame. Like then, on the bus.

Why didn’t I scream to the whole bus? To the whole street? Why didn’t I tell my mom when I got home? Because I am ashamed. How can I put such a thing into words? How not to die of horror at the moment when I open my mouth and begin to describe… this?

In addition, putting into words what happened to you, pronouncing these words out loud, you as a child irrevocably accept the fact that your world is no longer a safe place. Scary things happen here. And others — relatives and parents — will also have to admit it, and then act. I imagine my mom with heart drops in her hand and my dad who kills the “maniac” and gets imprisoned for life. It’s easier not to think, not to choose — and not to speak.

Девушка пьёт чай из большой кружки

Many children walked along the same road: I don’t want to be a girl, I don’t want to be myself. A few seconds before I picked up the branch, the man muttered: “Delicious body.” I don’t fully understand what this means, I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but I want to get rid of this body, to stop identifying with it.

I start to dream that I am not myself. I imagine how the soul leaves the body and flies far, far away. In crisis situations today, I still do it sometimes.

Sometimes I’m self-loathing. I take a knife and cut my hands. Not the veins, no. I don’t want to kill myself. I just try to hurt something that I hate.

Inside, I have endless dialogues. I call myself “you”, as a different person. I separate the me-good, with whom shameful things cannot happen, from the me-bad.

You misunderstood

I’m sixteen. “Do you love me?”, the man asks. He is much older than me, he is one of the closest people to our family. Parents asked to bring a bag with ripe peaches to his house. I am mixed up. Anxiety appears. I immediately think that I am wearing shorts and a T-shirt.

“At your age, it’s time to dress more modestly,” a neighbor said in the morning, having seen me in the house yard. “Why do you always go outside half-naked?”, she looked disapprovingly at my regular clothes. Because it’s summer. I still can’t stand the heat.

The man gently strokes my head. He says I have a beautiful body. And pretty shorts. My anxiety intensifies. Again there is a desire to disappear, not to be. I don’t like standing here. I don’t like his smile. I want to turn around and leave. But I remain standing — with a tense body, and sweating palms — and smile stupidly.

“So show how you love me,” says one of my dearest people.

He throws me on the bed and presses me down with his whole body. I’m lost. I don’t understand what to do and what’s going on. “You are fluttering like a hunted beast,” — mentally me-good, watching from the side, says to me-bad.

This voice makes me wake up. The girl with a thick branch, violently beating the “maniac” flashes before my eyes. I bite my teeth into the hand near my face, with a force that wasn’t mine I hit with my knee into his stomach, and push his body off me. Surprisingly, the body crashes on the floor.

It’s the ground floor. Get up. Open the window, for it doesn’t have bars. They will install it only next week. Get out.

My legs are trembling. The first attempt to climb onto the windowsill fails. The man, apparently still in shock, rises slowly. Desperately, I gather my strength and jump.

Children playing in the yard shy away in fear. My left ankle landed unsuccessfully. Pain. Horror for a few seconds gives way to excruciating anxiety — has anyone noticed? I wave to the children with my hand — everything is fine, this is such a game — and limping, I run to the bus stop.

Twelve years until the death of this man, I came up with all sorts of excuses so as not to go to him during family visits. I will never see him again, not even at his funeral, but for all these years, the fear of accidentally stumbling upon him will always follow me.

Why did I just stand and smile like a sheep? Why didn’t I leave the moment I realized something was wrong?

Why? Because for well-behaved girls and boys, an adult is an indisputable authority. The defender who punishes you only if you did wrong. The meaning of “bad” and “good” is also decided by an adult. Because he is not a villain from a book, but a close person. The thought that a loved one may feel something shameful towards you is so terrifying that you dismiss it hastily.

Because in the society that encourages hypocrisy, we are not used to living our feelings and desires, and even more so to declaring them. We make excuses and justify ourselves. And we feel awkward — instead of just saying “I don’t like it” or “I don’t want to”.

Because girls and even adult women are often afraid of expressing disagreement with someone’s bodily or verbal creeps, to stumble upon the mocking “Are you so full of yourself?” and “You’re mistaken”.

And often you can’t prove it. You can, of course, say: “Even if you have nothing bad in mind, I don’t like how you look at me / touch me / talk to me. Stop it”. Without further explanation. I just don’t like it.

I got to know all that only when I was thirty years old.

I will manage

I’m eighteen years old. A strange teacher of an incomprehensible subject asks for help to take the papers to his office after the exam and sit with him for a bit. He has a tired face. He closes the door. I sit on a chair — in a strict brown skirt and white blouse. He sits down beside me. He looks at me and smiles. I feel uneasy. This desire appears again — to leave immediately. But I squeeze my hands and smile timidly. I am still a stupid naive girl with great faith in humanity. I still can’t say no.

“I heard you draw,” he says. “Draw me something.”

With a trembling hand, without thinking, I outline an embryo. I often painted embryos back then. In a curled up, self-defending posture. The teacher looks at me in amazement. He did not expect such a picture. And suddenly he squeezes my face between his palms and begins to kiss it. He asks me not to break free. With excitement in his voice, he says how lonely he is and that he doesn’t have anyone around him. And that I have is a beautiful body.

I start punching him quickly so that he doesn’t have time to recover. He is trying to grab my hands. I sweep away a pile of books and an electric coffee maker from the table, and again the horror of what is happening gives way to an alarming thought: has anyone heard the uproar? I will break free from him myself, I know now that I am strong. People, just don’t come here and don’t make a scene out of it.

Either from the machine-gun fire of my strikes or out of surprise, the man loosens his grip. I break out and run to the door, get out into the corridor and run. When I get home, I try to wash off vile sensations from my face, like they do in horror movies. I don’t know about movies, but in reality, it doesn’t help much.

In my head, paralyzed with disgust, only one thought is ticking: summer, vacation, and then another year to spend with him.

After that, for two semesters I tried not to go to his lessons, and if it didn’t work out, I just sat there like a wooden doll, unmoving and dull. He treated me the same way as others, not showing that anything had changed at all. Only once he caught my hand on the landing with nobody around and asked why wasn’t I attending his lessons, and whether he offended me somehow.

I broke free without answering. After that incident, I became uncomfortable using elevators, stairs, and being inside rooms with doors closed.

Девушка разбирает вещи чб фото

My hatred towards my body that’s able to push people only to “this kind of thoughts” is intensifying. Every summer is a nightmare. I hide my body in wide trousers and spacious T-shirts. My male friends don’t understand why I began to shy away from them. Even a casual and fleeting touch of someone else’s body becomes torment. The embrace of even the closest people — as a fulfillment of a painful duty. The only relief is to push my soul out of the body, sending it on a journey. So that it exists separately.

Only one man whom I have known for many years and who is an older, much older friend, I continue to trust. He is the only person who I really want to tell about what happened to me and to hear that I shouldn’t blame myself.

I am sitting on the couch, listening to another story from his adventurous life and thinking that, perhaps, the world is not all shit, and that I can handle it.

A few years after that, he locks me in one of the rooms and says that he has always liked me and that I am very “interesting”, both as a person and as a woman. It’s okay that he is married, that his wife is also dear to me, and that occasional flirting with me will only strengthen the marriage by pouring fresh colours into it. That I have a beautiful body, and he thought about it from our first meeting. And I thought with horror that at the time of our first meeting I was only ten years old.

These years flashback in my memory in reverse order with the speed of lightning. Like in movies again, when the hero falls down from a high rooftop, and life flashes before his eyes. All our communication, talks and touches — I remembered everything in the smallest detail. I was so blind, wasn’t I.

I want to smash this Humbert Humbert’s head onto the electric stove where he’s warming his hands as he tells the story, but the impulse lasts only several seconds. Fatigue comes after it, and I don’t care anymore. I want to get out of here, disappear, fall asleep, and wake up with different memories. Halfway through the story I stop him, get up, slowly put on my jacket, take my backpack, and demand to open the door with a calm voice.

Just as calmly I say that I won’t tell his wife and anyone else about this, I will say “Barev” if we meet in public, but he will not dare to bother me. My indifferent and calm voice creates a stronger impact than tears and screams. He silently opens the door.

I get in the car and drive along the night streets for a long time. Through fatigue, joy emerges. I haven’t frozen in place, weighed down by chains of imposed behaviour. I haven’t smiled stupidly because he was “a family friend”, or because “I misunderstood”. I haven’t pretended that I didn’t hear anything, and didn’t try to wrap it up as a joke. I stood up and left.

I’m not a little girl anymore. I can now say “no” and “I don’t like this”. Without a reason or explanation. I know how to turn around and leave. Do I still have traumas?

Yes. In the form of phobias, which I have to constantly work on. For example, I still sleep with the lights on. It can be frightening to be indoors or walking alone along unlit streets. It is scary when I walk along the sidewalk, and a car slowly drives along the street. Even if the driver is clearly looking for a place to park, I start to panic.

I will scan your house as soon as I enter it. Even if you are a 14-year-old girl, alone at home. I check windows for the presence of a grill, remember which of the three locks you used to lock the door. I don’t live in constant tension, though. I do all this instantly, for the most part unconsciously, according to a habit developed over the years, even before I can stop myself. But there are victories, too: for example, I stopped putting sharp-cutting objects in my pockets, bags, and car doors.

Девушка улыбается в темноте

It’s not your fault

A few years ago, I started working with horses in the village of Ushi (30 kilometers from Yerevan). For the first time, I went to the village on the last day of July during the extreme summer heat. I was wearing a T-shirt and shorts. It was a fifteen minutes walk from the bus stop to the stables.

In the gazebo at the bus stop, men played cards for money. Near the shop, others drank beer and smoked. In the courtyard of a large two-story house, firewood was sluggishly sawn for the winter.

Suddenly silence reigned over the village. Everyone abandoned their affairs and stared at me in amazement.

A month later, those rare women who treated me well advised me to come to the village in more conservative clothes.

“Only prostitutes dress in shorts.”

“We know that you are a good girl, but you should consider men as animals. Their main organ of thought is not in the head at all, and your shorts will only push them for one thing.”

“You can’t possibly accuse a man of his desires and actions when you stride in front of his eyes like this? You should have taken alcohol in your hands, too!”

It turned out that generally, the only way to get raped is to be a drunk whore in a miniskirt.

This is the way we defend ourselves by blaming the woman’s appearance and behaviour. If we are “good” and “right,” and nothing will happen to us.

There is no such magic wand or spell by which all the “maniacs” will become saints or disappear from the face of the earth. There is no woman who would be safe from being in the wrong place at the wrong time, regardless of her intellectual, social level, or behaviour.

Only the rapist carries the blame for the violence. When choosing a victim, they are guided not by its attractiveness or level of emancipation, but by the possibility to remain unpunished.

The best defense for the rapist is the silence of the victim. The irreparable damage may not happen if parents teach their little daughters to speak with them on any, even most sensitive issues. They must know that they will be believed and trusted and that their parents will do all the right things. They must never ever be faced with a question like this one: “Why did this happen to you?” Because the real answer to this is our silence.

I can imagine how scary it is to hear from your child that he was being harassed. Even more so if it wasn’t some psycho from the streets, but a person whom you know very well. It is scary to accept it and to act. You might want to stick your head in the sand and pretend to be deaf.

It will be difficult, but a child won’t stand a chance in such a situation without your protection and trust.

It would be great if parents could resort to the help of a professional child psychologist. But, unfortunately, in Armenia, there is no specialist working with the little victims of sexual harassment.

It would be great if people from a young age learned to set boundaries, to trust their feelings, so they wouldn’t have to come up with words and excuses to justify their “no.” I just don’t like it. I don’t want it.

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Untouchable

Untouchable​

Text: Hasmik Hovhannisyan
Photos: Fëdor Kornienko
Translation: Fëdor Kornienko

[post_published]
[show_post_categories show="category" hyperlink="no" parent="no"]

What is better for children — an orphanage or a mother attached to them, whose ineptitude to be a parent, however, can lead to sad consequences? One solution could be a crisis center for parents and children in difficult life situations, but in Armenia no such center exists.

23 min read

To get children back

Mariam pours a dry milk mixture into a baby’s bottle with her swollen, scarred fingers. She gently fills it with water and shakes for a long time for it to mix well. She brings the pacifier to baby Arthur’s mouth — but then stops abruptly. She’s frowning now, trying to remember something important that she’s forgotten. Then she smiles in relief, and applies the bottle to her cheek: she has to check the temperature of the milk.

Mariam was taught this and other ordinary maternal routines at the hospital from which she had just returned. The doctors there helped the baby gain weight. Mariam tries very hard to memorize and put everything into practice. She believes that if she does, her other children will be allowed to come back home from the orphanage.

The room on the third floor of the dorm is fairly dirty. There is a mountain of dishes with traces of fat, and colonies of mould in unfinished tea on the “kitchen table”. Beds, chairs, unclean floor covered with rags of what used to be a carpet — are all inundated with junk. Old large windows with crumbled paint are protected from the wind with polythene sheets that are torn here and there, but it is still cold in the room. There is a “burzhuyka” stove with a broken door, in which, according to neighbours, Mariam burns anything that comes to hand: from firewood to shoes and clothes.

Mariam grumbles that she left the key to her sister and asked to clean up the room before her arrival, but in two weeks her sister did not bother to do it. Mariam’s sister lives on the first floor of the same dorm.

“Mariam jan, tomorrow morning we’ll tidy up here so that everything is clean when they come from the authorities. We’ll make a ton of food, too.” — says Christina, a neighbour. “To get your children back.”

Кухня Мариам в общежитии

In two weeks we visit Mariam again. Without warning her. Here is little Arthur in a pram, wearing neat light-colored pants and a jacket. While holding a baby bottle, he’s stretching another hand towards me and smiling.

Mariam is also happy to see us. The room is clean now, and there is food on the table. Mariam’s hair is gathered in a neat bunch. She’s telling me the latest news: the baby has added another half a kilo, and she has written a statement to the regional administration with a request to bring her children back home. This is the first time I see her having such long and coherent speech. I notice that the deliberately submissive expression had disappeared from her somehow enlightened face.

Мариам улыбается Артуру

Mariam asks me to find her a job. “I don’t want others to help me all my life. I want to support my children myself ”, confidently, like her own, she utters the phrase that I had repeatedly told her at each of our meetings.

I promise Mariam that I will try to, and I find myself thinking that since the beginning of our communication she has grown close to me and that I am very concerned about her and her children’s future. And I really want her to become close to those who will read her story. To break the everlasting rut of public rejection where Mariam and her big family found themselves in, what they need is an non-judgemental and supportive milieu.

Taught to be a mom

We meet with Mariam for the first time in a hospital. It is crowded in the lobby in front of the children’s department. Head tilted to the side, Mariam is listening to my questions, taking long pauses and when she does answer, blinking often and never looking straight at me. Her answers are brief, terse and often seem to be made-up. Judging by her gloomy, expressionless face, it is hard to determine how old she is. Maryam says she’s thirty-nine.

From time to time Mariam reminds me that her children won’t stay in the orphanage forever, and she will pick them up as soon as her youngest gets better and is able to leave the hospital.

Мариам и ребёнок

Arthur and his mother were brought to the Arabkir Medical Center by ambulance from the Vanadzor hospital. The child weighed only four kilograms, gaining only one kilo during the first six months of his life.

The only social worker at the medical center, Anna, abandoned all her other patients and would leave little Arthur’s room only for a quick snack.

Mariam came there without a change of clothes for herself and the child, nor with diapers or baby food. On the first day, a nurse lent Mariam her uniform. A young mother from the next room sent her husband to buy diapers for Arthur. The medical staff shared the food with Mariam, and Anna asked for help from Lala Manukyan, the Vanadzor blogger.

Using her facebook page with a lot of following, Lala writes about people in need. She organizes and provides them with both material and psychological support, often creating impact comparable to the work of a few ministries and NGOs.

Lala’s post on facebook had just in a few hours gathered a huge amount of clothes, diapers, baby food and food for the mother, as well as a lot of disapproving comments.

“Deprive her of parental rights immediately, and give the children to an orphanage,” “Why give birth at all, if you can’t take care of your kids?”, “People like her gotta be neutered,” the commenters were outraged, rushing to save the baby.

A day later, Mariam’s hospital room looked more like a warehouse, and the department for children under one-year-old looked like a crowded marketplace with lots of visitors with large bags and all sorts of things in them.

Mariam had to learn the elementary skills of motherhood. She neither knew how to prepare the milk mixture properly, nor could fathom that the bottle should be washed, and that the nipple that fell on the floor should be sterilized before putting it back into the child’s mouth.

She didn’t know how to deal with diapers, put rags under the baby’s bottom, and threw away the used clothes, “cause it was dirty”.

Mariam was taught to do laundry and wash the child’s clothes, and — when the baby got somewhat stronger, — to cook porridge for him.

“Arthur doesn’t reach for a toy, he doesn’t try to sit down, and if you sit him, he falls like a rag doll,” says Ziba Georgievna, head of the department for children under one-year’s old. “But it seems no one tried to teach him. Mariam doesn’t take him in her arms, neither does she play with him. “

In his early days, the child spat out the milk. “We had a feeling that he didn’t know what it was,” says Anna. “He only drank water without issues. Now he has rosy cheeks, he’s smiling. He has a bunch of diapers and dry mix. Mariam has already learned the correct feeding regimen. But even then she knows that we can show up at any moment and check. And when she returns to the dormitory, will someone control her hourly?”

During the two weeks in the hospital, the child gained almost a kilogram. After a heap of examinations and analyzes, he was discharged with a diagnosis: developmental delay and microcephaly.

When Anna, the social worker, asked Mariam how she was going to go home with all the things that people had brought — easily enough for one small truck, — Mariam thought for a second, bowed her head and, without looking at Anna (she never looks straight into your eyes), confidently replied:

— I will ask Narek to come for us by taxi.

Narek is her six-year-old son. He, his brother and two sisters were temporarily placed in an orphanage when the baby was sent to the hospital.

Two homes

In the end, we decided to bring Mariam and Arthur back to Vanadzor. We squeeze the packages with aid into our small Golf’s cabin. Two huge bags completely close the rear view, the photographer Fedor puts on his lap everything that didn’t fit elsewhere, and one of the bags falls either on my shoulder, or on Mariam who’s protecting the baby with her hand — all the way to Vanadzor. The ballistics of the bag depend on the size of bumps on the road, and whether the left or the right wheels are getting bumped.

Mariam’s phone is exploding because of calls. Calls from her husband, the sister and Vanadzor social worker: Anahit. For each new call, Mariam responds with a loud sigh and a grumpy tone.

Every ten minutes, Mariam makes a call herself. It is to the orphanage — to remind them that she and the baby have already been discharged, and on Monday she will definitely come to take the children back. She also asks to call for the eldest daughter, so that she can listen to her voice.

“Nara, how are you? Look after the little ones, do you hear me? I will come very soon, just in a few days, and will pick you up.” Her voice becomes soft and her face lit with some kind of warm light.

— Do you want us to go to the orphanage now, and you’ll see your children?

Mariam freezes for a moment, carefully looks into my eyes — for the first time since our acquaintance — and nods timidly. Ice is moving. Mariam no longer has a sullen face, and she doesn’t reply to my questions with harsh, monosyllabic answers.

In the courtyard of the Vanadzor orphanage Mariam’s children, eleven-year-old Naira and six and five-year-old boys, rush to hang on Mariam’s neck. Mariam didn’t show herself as quite a creative person when choosing names for her children — both are called Narek. Once upon a time, Mariam had another Narek. “He was taken away from me by force and adopted,” Mariam says viciously and quickly lists the names of the people “involved in this matter.”

Two-year-old Rose breaks out of her mother’s embrace, then clings to her older sister and cries.

In the courtyard of the Vanadzor orphanage Mariam’s children, eleven-year-old Naira and six and five-year-old boys, rush to hang on Mariam’s neck. Mariam didn’t show herself as quite a creative person when choosing names for her children — both are called Narek. Once upon a time, Mariam had another Narek. “He was taken away from me by force and adopted,” Mariam says viciously and quickly lists the names of the people “involved in this matter.”

Two-year-old Rose breaks out of her mother’s embrace, then clings to her older sister and cries. “Rose, this is our mother,” Naira says sternly and pushes the girl back to Mariam. Then looks at Mariam anxiously, to check if she was upset, and tells her that Rose is just being naughty.

Здание приюта

Naira, Rose and Arthur have piercing blue eyes. “It’s their dad’s genes,” Mariam raises her head. “He is Russian.”
The father serves his time in the penal institution of Vanadzor. The last two children are the result of the parents dating in prison. “He had a fight with someone. Because of jealousy,” says Mariam, briefly and not trying to hide the fact that she is proud.

According to her, it was love at first sight. And it still was burning bright. The husband, whose name is Arthur, just like their last child’s, calls her several times a day: he supervises the family remotely, and demands detailed reports on each and every matter, while providing Mariam with clear instructions for any life situation. Arthur and Mariam are not married officially, so she is listed as a single mother.

Thirty-six children live in Vanadzor’s orphanage. Although the building clearly needs redecoration, the interior is clean, tidy and full of light. Children have the opportunity to engage in hobby groups, as well as their own personal space and, according to the orphanage’s deputy director Harutyun Evoyan, there is enough staff to have an individual approach for each child.

Naira leads us into the game room to talk. Mom with the baby in her arms and the brothers obediently follow her. Naira tells them to stop and wait for her in the hall. They obey with the same diffidence.

Девочка на фоне окна

Naira has laughing eyes and a small thin body. It is hard to believe that this brisk and intelligent, tough girl indeed studied at a boarding school for mentally retarded children.

Naira picks out her answers with caution, just like her mother, who is constantly afraid that if she says something wrong, the children will be taken away for good.

“I like it here,” says Naira. “The place is spacious, I have friends and entertainment.” Then she adds hastily: “I would like to live half the time here and the other half at home with my mother. I wouldn’t want to stay here indefinitely. The caregivers here are sometimes so evil, it is better not to get them at a bad time.” She’s laughing as she says that. “My mom, on the other hand, can get mad, too, but then quickly calms down.”

It seems like some of her answers have been memorized. The story of Seda Gumashyan, coordinator of the inclusive education program of the school number eighteenth, where Naira is studying, comes to my mind. One day during her visit to the family, Narek Sr., fearing that she had come to take them to the orphanage, turned off the stove in the room. She would feel cold and leave immediately, he thought.

“My mother needs me at home, too,” Naira explains. — I come from school, do homework and then help her. For example, when Arturuk is sleeping, mom sweeps the floor, and I wash the dishes.”

Naira has a dream — to become a hairdresser when she grows up, and “make girls beautiful”. “And I will become a wolf,” Narek Jr. laughs when we go down the hall. “To be as strong as one.”

The silent and always serious Narek Sr., whom the deputy director of the shelter foreknows to have a parliamentarian future, gives me an incredulous, even hostile look. Maybe it is the same look he gave to Seda.

Nowhere else to go

A bumpy road leads to the garbage disposal office on the outskirts of Vanadzor. “The Office” is comprised of garages with garbage trucks and several iron containers. Homeless families live in them. Men here are almost all involved in the cleaning of city’s garbage.

A resident of one of the “houses” Vardush works as a janitor — sweeping the city streets at night. In her rusty container it is difficult to breathe because of the abundance of trash that gives off a foul smell. In the room there are two narrow bed-like constructions. One of them is occupied by a woman with whom Vardush shares the housing. This iron container is a luxurious apartment for her, especially compared to the discarded body of a Ford Transit where she used to live before.

Разбитый кузов машины, дом для бездомных

Smiling serenely, Vardush pulls out a kitten from under the pile of rags and cuddles him to her chest. He tries not to let him out into the yard. There are dogs there — they are not aggressive, though.

Vardush answers questions kind of out of place. Sometimes she nods vigorously, her smile never leaves her face. By the yellow, rare teeth and yellow fingertips you can tell she is a heavy smoker. There are numerous bottles of cheap vodka under the bed, and outside, too.

Женщина с котом

Vardush is Mariam’s mother. Mariam grew up in these slums with her brothers and sisters. For a long time she worked on the garbage truck. Even after getting a husband and four children she continued to live here.

Five years ago, one of the children died. A pot of boiling water overturned on a four-year-old girl, when Mariam, going to work, left the child with her mother. The girl was “treated” by means of traditional medicine, then wrapped in a blanket and put on the ottoman couch “to recover”. She had soon died from the shock.

By coincidence, it was on the day of the child’s death that the junior member of the Vanadzor regional administration for the protection of the rights of the family, women and children, Ani Ghazaryan, made another check-up visit to the Mariam family. According to Ani, the problematic and “socially unhealthy” family of a woman has always been watched over by the administration.

The Board of Trusteeship and Guardianship, having made sure that Mariam did not have adequate housing and living conditions for the maintenance of children, tried to put the family in a dormitory, but “there was no space available and the problem did not get resolved”. In the day care centers for children’s development of various NGOs, children were also not taken due to their preschool age. It turned out that the children who got into a difficult life situation had nowhere else to go except to the orphanage.

Контейнер, в котором живут люди

A senior official of the department Naira Ambartsumian says that poor families from neighbouring cities and villages are constantly moving to Vanadzor. The city does not have a center for social and psychological rehabilitation, and it is unable to provide them with appropriate assistance. The regional administration and the mayor’s office of Vanadzor “dump” such families to NGOs operating in the city, but their resources are limited.

Mariam’s children were placed in the Vanadzor orphanage, but the court refused to deprive her of her maternal rights, deciding that “poverty is not a reason to do so.” Soon it turned out that Mariam was pregnant. At last, she was given a room in the dorm.

Ani says that Mariam kept coming to the administration and demanding to bring children back. She even caught staff members on the street, demanding and threatening, saying that she would bring them home whatever the cost.

Since the court hadn’t recognized the children as being left without parental care, and accordingly, had not determined their official status, they could not stay in the orphanage for a long time. When the youngest girl, Rosa, was two years old, the charitable organization “Aravot” included the family in the program of “unloading” of the orphanages and other care institutions. The program has been working for fifteen years in cooperation with the RA Ministry of Social Welfare.

Under the nonprofit’s responsibility the children were given back to Mariam. Despite the fact that her skills of a housewife and a mother, to put it mildly, left a great deal to be desired.

“The key to our decision was a very strong emotional connection between Mariam and her children,” said Margarita Shahverdyan, the head of “Aravot” NGO. — “There are mothers who put their children in an orphanage and for years forget about their existence. But not Mariam. She visited them twice a week, and every day she talked to them by phone. You should have seen how desperately they cried when they were taken to the orphanage. ”

Mothers and children were provided with a bigger room in the same dorm. Mariam was pregnant with the fifth child.

Мариам в общежитии

Out of the frying pan and into the fire

In “Aravot” they were outraged by the comments under the facebook post about Mariam: people were angry and accused the NGO of negligence. Anahit Petrosyan, the social worker who was assigned to the family, believes that with Mariam they are moving with slow but steady steps forward.

According to Anahit, Mariam’s distrust towards people complicates the work. Every new person for her is an enemy, who will certainly blame her for everything and try to take her children away. That is why, Anahit says, for a long time she refused to go to the hospital with Arthur when he stopped gaining weight. She was scared that somebody would steal the children while she would be away.

Mariam’s aggression is nothing but self-defense against the ceaseless flow of accusations coming from the society. Mariam was tired of blaming, and of the question that popped up in every public conversation: “Why did she give birth?” And the “correct” answer that usually followed: “Surely she did it to be on welfare.”

Anahit says that it took her a long time before Mariam learned to trust her.

“It turned out she can be very obedient. If you give her a task, she does exactly that. Unlike her mother, Mariam neither smokes nor drinks, and all her thoughts are about her children.

She realized that I communicate with her on an equal footing and began to open back up. She learned how to call and consult with me when necessary. For example, she asks me: the eldest daughter is beating her younger brother, what should she do? I advise her to not beat or yell at the girl under any circumstances, and to try to explain that she, as the eldest one, should take care of her siblings. Or, for example, she sent the boy to buy bread, and he spent eight hundred drams out of a thousand on colored markers. Mariam calls me in a rage, and complains. Again, I warn her against punishing the child, and encourage her to tell him about the importance of money, about the fact that he needs to spend it adequately and to consult with his mother. ”

Anahit says that the organization divided the work with Mariam into two stages: first learning everyday skills, then establishing the relationship with the outside world.

“Aravot” paid for painting the walls of the dormitory room, purchased beds, some furniture, and household utensils. In addition to the stove they bought two more electric stoves, especially those that turn off automatically when tipping over. According to the program, Mariam is reimbursed for electricity. The woman has a gas tank for cooking and heating water. She was also given coupons to the public bath.

According to Anahit, Mariam learned to cook, clean the house and bathe the children. From the allowance for children of 55 000 drams per month, she herself regularly pays 5,000 drams for the kindergarten for both Nareks.

“These people who wrote that no one is dealing with Mariam, they don’t even begin to realize where we pulled them from and what kind of progress we accomplished with her,” says Margarita Stepanovna. She also reminds people, who virtually place Mariam’s children in the orphanage from computer screens, that special institutions negatively affect children’s mental development.

It’s hard not to agree with her. Garbage garages are a terrible place, but orphans do lack attention and maternal love. It is worth noting, however, that the dorm where Mariam now had settled, is unlikely to affect anything in a positive way.

Many taxi drivers even refuse to go to the three-story building on the outskirts of the city. Gloomy long corridors, one dirty toilet for the whole floor with three semi-closing cabins and puddles of urine right on the floor. Rows of “apartments” divided into rooms with do-it-yourself partitions made of blankets, curtains and cabinets, stretch along the corridors.

Общежитие, разбитые окна

Behind each door live people who have nowhere else to go. All kinds of people. Someone escaped to here from a tyrant-husband along with a small child, somebody else’s relatives deceived them into selling their own apartment, the other person tries to provide a more or less decent life for a brother with a disability by means of a minuscule welfare allowance. Ex-prisoners also found shelter here, people with drug and alcohol addiction, violent or peaceful, with the hope of ever getting out — or having long since given up on everything.

But even here a lot of people dislike Mariam. “Because she receives so much help,” explains a neighbour Christina, one of the few who treat her well. Christine shares a room with an asthmatic mother and two young sons. She ran away from her husband, who drank and raised his hand on her.

Helping is not easy

The financial assistance comes to Mariam from “Aravot” and other non profits, regional administration, city hall and private philanthropists.

Lilia Abrahamyan who voluntarily helps the have-nots first visited the family in the winter when little Arthur was born. “It was cold in the room,” she recalls. — The children were hungry and dirty. A newborn who wore only a bodysuit drank muddy water from a bottle. ”

Lilia and her friends bought baby food and milk mixture, sweets, warm clothes and winter shoes. Four cubic meters of firewood were delivered to the dormitory as well.

Less than two weeks later, Mariam called her and asked to bring more firewood. Allegedly, the previous wood was stolen by her sister.

When the children appeared in school wearing old torn shoes, the neighbours said that Mariam burned the new clothes and shoes in the stove. The baby food also disappeared.

The family was also visited by the coordinator of the inclusive program at Seda Nairi school. She also points to the fact that the room was frequently cold inside, there was little food, and Mariam behaved carelessly.

“I took the child in my arms, and I felt that the diaper was totally wet. Wires from the electric stove and TV were connected into the same outlet without the plug. I wouldn’t dare to touch the bare cables, but yet a six-year-old boy was briskly turning it on and off. We bought her baby food, but none of us could go to her house every day and check whether she was preparing it properly. ”

Seda says that the eldest daughter returned from the orphanage with fairly developed everyday and behavioural skills. After a few months, it seemed as if the child was totally different. She ceased to maintain her appearance and basic hygiene. Parents of other children began to complain.

Social worker Anahit taught Mariam to keep children clean and bathe them every day. At the same time, according to what Seda had said, once in the middle of winter Naira came to school with dripping wet hair. This is the way Mariam learned that children have to be bathed.

Stolen childhood

Several years ago “Aravot” began working with a girl from a correctional school, who had no mental problems. They visited her mother. The family lived in the garbage garages, too.

“We decided to work with the family through the girl,” says Margarita Stepanovna. — Moving very slowly, with baby steps. We found a private benefactor, and with their help it became possible to move the family, which consisted of the mother and her three children, to the dorm. Now this girl has already graduated from college, she works and maintains the family by herself.

That girl is Mariam’s niece. “Aravot” intends to repeat the experiment with her eldest daughter.

Naira is an independent person and, perhaps, will pull this through. But how fair is to deprive her of her childhood by making her the head of the family at eleven years old? This question is asked by the deputy director of the Vanadzor orphanage, Harutyun Evoyan.

“Naira came to us being such a serious little mom, always caring about her younger sister. When she was coming from school, the teacher would tell her: go and do your homework, and she would reply: ‘First I’ll go take a look at my sister and check if she had her milk.’ When they were brought here, that three-year-old girl didn’t get down from Naira’s hands, and wouldn’t eat from anyone else’s hands, too. A few days passed, Naira saw that Rosa was being taken care of by our staff, and she relaxed, finally started laughing again and acting lightly, like a child should.”

Evoyan doesn’t deny that hard work with Mariam could potentially pay off, but he doubts if the price wouldn’t be too high. “It is important to give priority to the child’s interests. It is quite normal to help the mother, but the girl became a mother herself way before her time. “Aravot” could continue doing their work with Mariam, but before there is any tangible result, let the children stay in the orphanage.”

To take the lead

From time to time Mariam calls me: at first she always asks how I am doing, then informs me that soon she will go and pick up the children. But as a matter of fact, the board of trustees decided to once again appeal to the court with a request to deprive her of her parental rights.

This raises a fair question. Mariam could be deprived of rights for children that she already has. However, what about the new children who may be born again into this family?

Some of the people who help Mariam confirm that there is a strong affection between the mother and children. Others assume that the money that Mariam receives from the state plays an important role in her getting pregnant over and over again. Or that her situation is so difficult because she in reality she doesn’t want to change.

All these assumptions may be true and not mutually exclusive. Life on welfare and benefactors’ money isn’t perfect, but it is easier than an independent and constant search for livelihoods.

Free food and clothes are hard to give up upon. But material assistance, issued free of charge and often uncontrolled, puts people in a certain comfort zone, from where it is difficult to get out. As a result, it does not lead to an increase in their standard of living.

Мариам и ребёнок в коляске

Mariam has very low self-esteem. Even in the dorm, she is like a member of the Indian lower caste, untouchable. According to Christina, she used to be beaten up by her neighbours, demanding not to use the shared toilet, “because she was a slob.”

Even her own sister keeps Mariam in perfect obedience. Christina told about one particular feature of Mariam: she gives away things right and left, especially to people who mistreat her. As if by doing she seeks to earn the goodwill of the “higher castes”.

“I assure you, Mariam has never been deprived of attention in our region,” said Naira Hambartsumyan, senior officer of the Vanadzor regional administration for the protection of the rights of the family, women and children. — Various organizations and individuals help her, and she is signed for many social programs. The administration, city hall, and the police check upon her from time to time. We even go to kindergarten and school to check the children. ”

But somehow, the woman who received so much attention failed to acquire the ingrained skills of everyday life and parenthood, and her child was hospitalized with malnutrition.

Huge grocery bags and cubic meters of firewood and even daily visits for half an hour will not solve Mariam’s problem. Truly, she is obedient. But also easily forgetting, since she does not understand the causal relationship of her actions.

Mariam grew up in the garbage garages of parents who had intellectual problems. Both she and her brothers and sisters studied in a boarding school for children with mental retardation. Mariam doesn’t know how to do things “the right way”, because she had never seen this “right way”.

Therefore, she disposes things in such a peculiar way. For example, a new expensive washing machine that was donated by a charitable organization, Mariam sold for only 100 dollars a few days later.

Мариам и младенец

The conditions in the dormitory are slightly better than in the garages. But its inhabitants are isolated and rejected by society in the same way.

The diagnosis of “microcephaly”, which six-month-old Arthur was diagnosed with, is very serious and requires a long and competent rehabilitation, which he is unlikely to get it at all in the current conditions where Mariam lives.

There are thirty-one children per one social worker like Anahit Petrosyan. Even with all her compassion and readiness, it is hardly possible to devote enough time and attention to each child.

There are families that need just a little push to take them out of the quagmire, and then they will manage by themselves. Mariam is not like that. It is necessary to take her by the hand and lead on. Persistently, and for a long time.

After several days in the hospital, the untidy, poorly dressed Mariam transformed, thanks to new clothes and hair gathered into a neat tail. There she was constantly watched by the staff. She was in a place different from her usual whereabouts, where cleanliness was the norm and it was easier to get used to it.

The husband will soon be released from prison. Once upon a time they lived in a village where they both worked as milkers. A dreamy smile touches her face when Mariam talks about it. Timidly, she asks for help in finding such a job again.

Ступени общежития

I go down the shabby steps of the domintory and imagine the ideal solution for Mariam, her children and other families in a similar life situation: a center for temporary accommodation for people in crisis. It should consist of several cottages, somewhere in the beautiful Lori nature.

The walls and furniture in the cottages are surely bright, the windows are large and sunny — so that the whole atmosphere will be contributing to the dedication to change your life. These houses will accommodate families, and a social worker will live in every such cottage. An individual social and psychological support plan would be drawn for each family.

The task of the center is to prepare people for an independent life in the future. And also to create a community of those who have already overcome the crisis, who, having received assistance, want to become equal assistants themselves.

The center could train people in various crafts, as well as provide them with work on the spot — keeping cows and selling cheese, for example, and other dairy products. Growing things, knitting, sewing, working with wood — in other words, acquiring skills that would help them get back on track with their life. Certainly, there will have to be hairdressing courses. So that Naira learns how to “make girls beautiful” when she grows up.

To help a person gain their own dignity and faith in themselves, to not feel as an outcast of society, but rather as its equal member — and then let them go to the outside world. Having such centers throughout the country shouldn’t be totally impossible, should it?

When we met for the last time, Mariam had milk powder from the charity ration that she didn’t need for her boy. She asked me to give the powder to some other kids.

“They help me so much. Maybe I can do something good to someone else, too,” she repeated several times, as if savouring the feeling of being on a new side of life: the one that’s not asking, but giving.

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Translation of the article was supported by the civic society support programme in Armenia by NESEHNUTÍ (Transition programme of Czech MFA)

When blood doesn’t clot

When blood doesn't clot

Author: Hasmik Hovhannisyan
Editor: Fëdor Kornienko

[post_published]
[show_post_categories show="category" hyperlink="no" parent="no"]

Bim was killed with rat poison. His murder stays unpunished, as well as hundreds of others in Armenia, where killing a dog is considered to be a mere damage to property.

8 min read

Bim is no more 

Noon. Blazing sun. Summer. We let the dogs out, not expecting that anyone would be willing to come outside in such heat. Bim runs out and heads straight to the wire fence; raises a leg and pees, looking ahead thoughtfully. It’s the first thing on his to-do list when he comes out. Then he runs back towards us — shade of a wolf, a deer and a cheetah, as somebody pointed out once — to rub his black-and-white head against our legs, demanding to be caressed and getting exactly what he wanted. How could anyone refuse this fluffy little ball?

9:30 PM. Bim doesn’t eat his portion of dry food. He looks lost and somewhat zoned-out as he walks, as if not understanding where and why. He lifts his leg, trying to pee — but he can’t. Something is terribly wrong: Bim never gets ill, nor does he ever lose his appetite. It was so unusual and scary that we put him in the car and raced over to the vet clinic, scanned and captured by every speed camera along the way. 

At 2:00 AM Bim passed away. Autopsy confirmed: death by rat poisoning.

Bim in a field
Hasmik Hovhannisyan

We went home with Bim’s body on the back seat. Did not cry, didn’t talk. Seemed like it happened a long time ago and it wasn’t true, though only an hour had gone by. Seemed like it was some other people who froze next to the ultrasound monitor and watched the hematoma becoming larger with every minute, relentless, unstoppable. It wasn’t us who were suffocating just as Bim did. It was some other people were counting the ampules of “Vicasol” that went into a trash bin, one after another. It wasn’t our two vets who had been barely there, exhausted after the long and tiresome work day. They should have been back home many, many hours before that.

Ampules were opened, used, thrown away, but the blood still refused to start clotting again. The vet’s dog came and we performed a blood transfusion. She tried to slip past us outside, while everyone was busy. Two times Bim’s brain turned off due to extreme hypoxia. On the third time he didn’t come back. Astonishment froze and stayed in his kind, trusting eyes.

Every evening of every day I decided firmly to get up in the morning and tell myself: Bim is no more. And repeat it until I finally understand what happened. And I collapse in pieces, so as to put myself back together again, even though one piece will forever be missing. I try to live it through, to accept it in its entirety. But I can’t do it, not now. It is frightening.

“Will think about it tomorrow,” — my inner voice whispers. Thus, I normally put dry food into his bowl, too, and take it to his kennel. I stop half way through. I gasp for air, push back the tears. Now it isn’t the time for it. If I start, I’m not gonna be able to pull myself together anymore.

I look away from the empty kennel. I need to move some other dog in there.

Bim lying on the ground leaning against a wall
Hasmik Hovhannisyan

Not long ago I was eagerly telling the many unbelievable stories of how some of our dogs got rescued. Then I paused for a moment. It hit me that that never, ever would anyone hear this again: here’s Bim: he got literally pulled back out from the underworld with the help of a fifty year old cognac.

Bim found himself at our place as a snow-white furry little ball. His owners threw him out because he was dying from CPV, aka canine parvovirus. Our efforts to cure him were fruitless: the puppy was slowly fading away. The vet that had treated our horses before told us to give him cognac. Not any cognac, though — the very best we can find.

There was nothing to lose. My mother had a fifty year old cognac that she had been keeping for at least twenty five years. “For a special case”, she would say. When I brought Bim home, half dead, but inconceivably beautiful at the same time, without a word she put the bottle on the table.

We poured a whole shot into his mouth. The next morning he had already been running like nothing happened. Cured by cognac.

Собака щенок стоит на снегу
Hasmik Hovhannisyan

Mysterious case

The day after Bim’s death we went to the police. We sat on hard surfaces of uniform chairs while writing the statement.

— We brought the dog to the vet clinic, but the same night it croaked, — the police officer dictated. I painfully pressed the pen into my palm and lowered my head, if only to not see his bored face. On the first floor there was a crying woman. She shouted that she’d be coming there over and over again, until she’d be accepted. 

Other policemen were entering the room, asking questions about arrests and court dates, background noise to our ears. The lethargic, bored inspector had obviously been such a busy man that he was so annoyed at having to waste time on some dog.

But the higher-ups told him to take this case seriously, and he did listen to us, and dictated what we had to put on paper.

In the morning we had a meeting with the deputy chief of the Regional Police Department and the Chief of the City Police. The Deputy said that he had a dog when he was seven and that he still remembered the day of his death and visited his grave. He said that only a bastard could do such a thing — killing a defenseless dog. He said that it was a moral obligation and duty of local authorities to solve the case. Such an approach of police executives gave us hope. But it didn’t make a lot of impact on the ways of ordinary police officers.

— The dog died, — I said.

— The right verb for an animal’s death is… — the inspector started to say in an edifying manner, but he caught my glare. He sighed, — OK, well. Write then: “it died…”

The second hour that we spent with police went by. The inspector literally squeezed questions out of his mind as he tried to make up an interrogation. He struggled to find even the slightest clue and was hoping that maybe, if he did insist very effortfully, that we would agree that it was possible for Bim to have ingested poison somehow with the meat that we feed the dogs with. We tried to keep calm, and for a hundred times explained that our dogs eat only dry food.

After three hours passed the inspector reclined in his chair, lit a cigarette and got lost in thought.

It’s not us, it’s somebody else sitting here in this room decorated as dull and hopelessly as the atmosphere itself in the whole department. Somebody else is speaking about a dog, an abstract dog, too. My mind was protecting itself again.

I went out to the corridor and tried to realize that it was me, that my Bim had been killed. My. Bim. Killed.

A few years ago Bim got used to going to our neighbour’s place and picking fights with their dogs while attempting to get closer to the girl dogs. We had to treat and stitch his wounds endlessly. Once when he tried to sneak out again, pretending that he had suddenly gotten deaf and didn’t hear my commands, I shouted at him. I said that he wasn’t my dog any more, and he was free not to come back ever again.

Bim stayed. It was late evening, I was sitting on a big rock, while he was making circles around the yard. When my anger ceased, I called for him. He looked at me, his face distrustful, and came to me — extremely slowly and sideways, with narrowed eyes. He put his head on my knees. I was patting his soft, black and white head, and I saw large tears dropping out of his eyes. I remembered that I was crying the same way in my childhood, when I made my mother sad…

Bim and Ktsan in a winter field
Hasmik Hovhannisyan

On the following day the inspector came to our village. He stood in the enclosed territory with dog kennels. We closed them beforehand, because the inspector was afraid of them. He asked questions, the same questions we had already replied to before. He asked our volunteer, what was, in his opinion, the reason of Bim’s death. He wrote down: Bim was killed with rat poison.

A few days later the district inspector visited us. He sat on a chair, and kept silent for a while. He looked perplexed. He didn’t seem to notice the sweat streaming from his forehead, and the flies that roamed around it.

— A very mysterious case indeed, — the inspector shook his head. — I don’t understand, who in their right mind could kill the dog. I talked to the people in the village — everyone loves you, and they are proud of having such a center in their village.

Well, if you hate someone, you wouldn’t tell it to a police officer, would you?

— Maybe, there was something in that dog’s food? What do you feed your animals with? — he didn’t stop trying to find another angle. — Maybe, the dog was sick?

Bim was nine and a half years old. Since he survived the virus when he was a pup, he had never been sick ever since. The vet said that his organs were strong and healthy, as if they belonged to a four year old dog. He was poisoned when he was on our enclosed private territory. And the police must find the killer. The inspector asked if we suspected anyone.

I tried to imagine a person, who would throw a piece of meat stuffed with deadly granules in cold blood. I failed.

Bim artistic image bw
Hasmik Hovhannisyan
 

Outsiders unwelcome

We came to the village with a strange name Ushi (could mean “ears” if it was Russian) ten years ago. We created the center of animal-assisted therapy “Centaur” — the first and still the only one in Armenia. Horses, dogs, cats and a turtle live here together with people. The animals — all of them rescued in the past from streets or cruel owners, — get trained for therapy with children and adults who experience physical and mental disorders.

We also adopt out homeless cats and dogs, sometimes even horses. “Centaur” is a unique and special world, where people and animals learn to interact with and help each other. From all over Armenia children come here: parents bring them, sometimes by recommendation from medical establishments. 

But it was not always like that. The idea of using animals in therapy with kids was something we had to thoroughly and persistently push through, among parents and doctors alike. A horse is a dangerous animal, dogs are dirty, and you, the therapist — “you create unsanitary conditions”.

The attitude toward animals is still somewhat exploitative, especially in village life. When we first came to Ushi, on one of the wastelands we discovered a pit. The villagers dumped newborn puppies in there. Only females, because boys tend to find owners quite quickly. 

We closed the pit, had a lot of educational talks with locals, even came up with a horrendous “dog curse” that would haunt their descendants for generations lest dogs continue being murdered in the village. That one worked: villagers l-o-v-e curses. Now they secretly leave boxes with newborn puppies under the wall of our stables.

Волонтёр расчёсывает собаку в приюте
Hasmik Hovhannisyan

Our relationships with the locals vary. Sometimes, there are “village life” conflicts over a horse that got loose and wandered into their territory, or a dog that barked at somebody, making them scared. Our dogs are well-behaved and friendly, but very much enjoy gathering in packs and running towards people, barking heartrendingly. They run and turn heads back to us, checking to see if we observed their offering of hard work. 

Mostly people don’t believe us when we, trying to overcome the dissonant barking, shout at them — they don’t bite! Swinging a stick, they yell back — “A dog is always a dog! Will surely bite sometime.”

When such situations occur, they always remember that we are “outsiders coming from Yerevan” who don’t let them walk around freely and sleep at night. Sometimes they complain about us to the village municipality. But conflicts usually don’t go further than that. There is a reason why we chose such a distant location far away from people: so that humans and animals don’t bother each other.

Bim running in an autumn field
Hasmik Hovhannisyan

Two and a half years ago, four Centaur dogs got poisoned with rat poison. Two of them couldn’t be saved.

We went to the police. An inspector came, and for a long time he tried to understand himself why he did come. He assumed that the dogs were purebred and expensive. When we explained that they were ordinary dogs, he suggested that we shouldn’t write a statement about it. If anything really important happened in the future, he said I was to call him on his personal number, “as a sister would call a brother.”

I wasn’t very polite while declining the offer from the caring and “suddenly found relative”, and insisted on police accepting my statement. Police closed the case two weeks after, due to “the absence of corpus delicti (the facts and circumstances constituting a crime).” Nevertheless, the “good guys” from the village resented us for choosing to solve our problem the legal way, and called us “snitches”. 

The head of the village expressed his condolences and advised us to build a wall around our territory. He said that the villagers use rat poison to save their trees from rats, and dogs could just accidentally eat it. The thought that somebody could deliberately condemn a dog to such torture was so frightening that maybe we chose to believe it was a coincidence.

One year afterwards our friends from the US helped us gather the money, and with the help of volunteers we built a fence around the dog territory. Bim ate the poison while he was inside the closed territory.

Pink death

Brodifacoum (one of the rat poisons available for sale) is given away to villagers by local municipalities for free. They tell them to not put it next to living quarters and not to store it at home. Villagers put the poison themselves wherever they would like to, not following any rules and without any warning signs. 

Appealing for pets and kids alike, pink and blue granules are spread in fields, on city streets under trees, inside public entrances to multi-storey buildings of Yerevan and other cities.

Over the past few decades, rats have grown immune to what is commonly called “first generation of rat poisons”. The task of the second generation, which includes much more potent and lethal poisons (brodifacoum being one of them), is to not kill rats immediately, but to affect the blood’s ability to coagulate. The first symptoms of poisoning can manifest a few days after initial ingestion. As such, there is no way for rats to connect the death of their kin with the food they ate.

Symptoms don’t show up immediately with dogs, too, and dogs are in fact the most sensitive animals towards the poison.

If a dog ate a few granulas, you probably won’t know about it until the very end. When it is already too late.

Rat poison gets more effective every year, but the rat population doesn’t decrease. Yerevan (and generally Armenia with its vast deposit of trash), is the ideal place for a carefree life of rodents. 

The situation could have had room for improvement with the help of cats, but the Armenians traditionally don’t like them. In Ushi a lot of people put the deadly pink granules in their own cow sheds, and sometimes the cattle pick it up and die a terrible death — but almost nobody owns a cat.

Bim and a person
Hasmik Hovhannisyan

Unaffordable antidote

One and a half years ago I stumbled upon a Russian online forum where people discussed the only antidote for rat poison — Vitamin K, aka konakion, aka fitomenadion. Brodifacoum gets in the way of the body’s ability to produce the vitamin K — the vitamin responsible for the process of coagulation of blood. The poison causes strong internal bleeding, from which an animal slowly dies.

Konakion is produced for animals and humans alike. The patrons of that forum were talking about how expensive the drug was for people and how next to impossible it was to get for animals. Back then I called all the major Armenian pharmacological networks. There was no Vitamin K.

Why didn’t we stock up on konakion that could possibly save Bim’s life? Why didn’t we order it from France, where it is produced? Why didn’t we educate other pet owners about the danger?

It is very likely that we went through a period of giving up. One of the dogs that died in the first “wave” was Mumu. Mumu wasn’t a dog: he was our stronghold. He appeared in Ushi before us, and lived in Centaur for eight years — a lot of people said that he had been our symbol. There are people and animals who are — it seems  — everlasting. And when they go, you lose the ground under your feet.

Then you immerse yourself in the everyday life of an animal shelter with more than forty permanent residents and all of a sudden dozens of other animals get rescued, treated, rehabilitated, trained and adopted. Some of them need to be seized literally from the hands of death — in the middle of the night, of course, and far away from where we live. Others run out of dry food or hay — we have to find money. Other ones need pills, injections and serums, usually costing more than we can afford.

Konakion had been lost in this Brownian motion.

Bim running in a field
Hasmik Hovhannisyan

After Bim we started to call pharmacies to ask if they had any vitamin K in stock.

— No, and we’ve never had it.

— You mean vitamin B? 

— You sure it exists?

During one of the calls we had a hunch that we should change the query — and we asked about konakion. “Wait a second, I’ll look it up. Yes, we have it, but only one pack.”

Konakion can save a life, human or animal, in case they’ve been poisoned with any of anticoagulant-based poisons. 

When in a fever, when a loved one is dying on a cold clinic table, a lot of people might not remember all other names for the only antidote.

Having called the other pharmacies, we found out one or two more packs. Not enough. A few months later we tried to save someone else’s dog from poisoning and called the pharmacies again, but there was no konakion in stock.

Not every vet knows that konakion exists in Armenia, too. Only one of the specialists we spoke with knew and used the medicine in his practice.

Meanwhile, the availability of konakion doesn’t mean every pet will be saved, simply because it’s pricey. A sick animal may need it regularly for up to one month after the start of treatment, depending on the severity of poisoning. At a minimum, one pack is priced at 6,500 dram (~14 USD). The price for konakion on its own may cost around 30,000 dram (~60 USD) per day, depending on the dog’s weight. With the average Armenian salary being equal to or less than 300 USD, pet owners will likely just not be able to afford this.

Rat poison is given away for free.

Two hundred dollars

A few days after the police started investigating the case, we got a visit from an investigator. Young, cheerful and energetic. He was twisting a pen in his hands and apologized all the time, but protocol must be followed. He understood that the dog was priceless to us, but… in Armenia a dog is considered to be private property, and killing one equals to damaging someone’s property. And it is only subject to an administrative fine. 

In other words, how would I estimate the dog’s cost? 

A child’s mother had died. He became reserved in his terror of not understanding what had happened: he neither cried, nor talked about her. Relatives brought him for horse-therapy only because they had tried everything else. 

The boy would sit on the horse, climb of it when the session was over and go back to the car, always expressionless. “I wish he would show a single emotion. Any” — his grandmother was sobbing.

Once he got down from the horse and went to the car, as usual. Bimok had just been coming back from his favourite pastime: walking alone in the fields. He ran to the boy and, with little thought, flopped his head down to the boy’s feet — to get caressed. For Bim all the hands in the world existed with the sole purpose of caressing him.

The boy stopped, caught off his guard, and started to move his hand along with the fur on Bim’s head. Bim cuddled to him even closer. Suddenly the child got down on his knees, embraced Bim and — started to cry. Out loud, without control. Tears mixed up with nasal discharge fell on Bim’s muzzle. The wolfie squinted as the two cuddled tighter…

— What was his breed? — the investigator was hiding his eyes from mine.

— Caucasian shepherd.

— Two hundred dollars. Can we write two hundred dollars? — he was almost begging. 

In less than one month our energetic investigator languished. He failed to find a suspect, nor even signs of a premeditated murder. When he claimed that he interrogated a lot of people, I asked: did he encounter any dog owners, whose pets died because of rat poison, too? The detective hadn’t found any connection here, as well.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of other dogs in the village that are not ours. If it was in fact the case that Centaur dogs consumed rat poison just by mere coincidence, then one would expect that there would be other, similar cases. Following the logic, we conducted our own investigation. And we didn’t find any case that matched. Turned out that only our dogs were prone to accidentally picking up the poison. 

Бим и армянская девочка
Hasmik Hovhannisyan

We found the dogs that were killed by rat poison in Yerevan. The animals ate the pellets which were disbursed in residential buildings, on streets and lanes, and they were baited by neighbours. Most of the owners knew who had killed their pets personally, but they didn’t go to police. When we suggested them to do so, they refused, as expected. The people are sure that the police are powerless, because there is no law protecting animal rights in Armenia. And they are right — there is none.

The other, even stronger reason not to call the police is the concern of being considered a “snitch”. The so-called labour camp culture, which is closely integrated into Armenian everyday life, dictates firmly: break our enemy’s legs, but police is a no-go.

The fight

We took 2 liters from Bim’s abdomen and tried to find a lab where it would be possible to perform a blood examination for the signs of rat poisoning. We didn’t know at the time that a specific deficiency of vitamin K-dependent blood coagulation protein must be observed in the blood sample. It didn’t matter, though: none of the labs in Yerevan had the necessary experience to do that. The word “brodifacoum” was something the forensic scientists learned from us for the first time.

On the first day in the police headquarters they promised to find the right lab as soon as possible, and advised us to keep the blood frozen. The inspector reassured us that when the time came they would take both the blood and the plastic packaging from the pork sausages we gave them (we had found them in the dog yard where Bim was poisoned), and that it was unnecessary for the police to come and inspect.

The time had come eleven days later. The investigator looked at the bottle with blood and stated ruefully that blood had probably already become unsuitable for testing. “Who in their right mind would keep blood in a freezer?” — he said with a condescending smile.

The results of the blood expertise came from the lab after a month, of plastic packaging — in one and a half. As expected, they couldn’t find anything. Ashtarak police closed the case, making a meaningless promise to reopen the case if any evidence would ever be found.

Bim contemplating
Hasmik Hovhannisyan

But the fight goes on. The fight through the pain, through the dreary thought that Bim is no longer here, and will never be, and that his murderer shall never be punished. The fight for implementing the law on animal rights that will not treat animals as a private property, and which will allow criminal prosecution of those who violate it. The fight to prohibit the free distribution and unregulated usage of rat poison. The fight to change society’s criminal mentality that tells people who share it that beating up is the only right way to solve conflicts, and that doing things the legal way means becoming a snitch.

This fight is hard, but not fulfilling. People can change, laws and governments can change, too, but whatever the outcome of fight is going to be, we have to live our lives knowing that none of these struggles will ever bring Bim back.

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