Seven years after the mystic disappearance of one of Armenia’s most powerful and starving-activists-turned-to-multimillionaire-oligarchs, Interpol’s webpage still has him listed as “Wanted.” The missing oligarch – Vano Siradeghyan – is rightly accused of orchestrating many political assassinations.
And as rumors persist that this former interior minister and mayor might be still living in his native region of Armenia’s north sponsored by supposed enemies like current president Robert Kocharyan, the return of former president Levon Ter-Petrosyan – a close friend of Vano – to the political stage makes one wonder whether the wanted oligarch may be pardoned if Ter-Petrosyan returns to power.
Whatever the case, Vano has relatives living in Armenia. And I have often hypothesized that Vano’s relatives might still be enjoying some protection and sponsorship – whether or not the sinister oligarch is in Armenia or not.
But a recent encounter by my sister with a relative of Vano in September of 2007 shows that I might have been wrong, at least in the case of one relative. Here is the unpublished account by Arpi Maghakyan.
“Oh, when is that day going to come, aunt Sveta?! We don’t know, but hope it will come soon,” interrupts a short woman entering the store. She is the third floor neighbor, Narine, with two children who go to school.
Like Narine, many from Dilijan – in Armenia’s north – have no idea when the day will come for them to have income again to pay off shopowner Sveta for goods that she loans to neigbors. Artyom, an unemployed 60-year-old, says all his family can do now is to wait. “This summer we moved out from our house to rent it out to tourists in order to make some money; we stayed in the streets and now wait for the next summer.”
Renting out during the peak season has become a tool of survival for many in Dilijan. Past summer a day’s rent was between 4,000 and 8,000 drams, roughly $12 and $27 in U.S. currency. Sveta’s neighbor Narine, her husband and their two kids had left Dilijan for the nearby Vanadzor city to stay with some relatives. “We managed to rent the house out three times this summer. With the income we made we paid off most of our debts to aunt Sveta; we bought clothers for the children with the rest of the money.”
Narine prides that her son sings very well and that whenever there are outside guests to their school he is asked to sing for them. “I want him to have normal clothes when he sings. I may be wrong, but it is important to me.” As she speaks, Narine’s eyes catch her son running in the street. “Artavazd!” she suddenly screams, “you have just come from school – go change your clothes!”
She then remembers that they won’t have much to eat in the winter. Although Dilijan’s forests provide their residents with lots of free goods – pear, apple, raspberry, and rosehip – she cannot make jam or other sweets with these because her family doesn’t have sugar. “I won’t beg for money, but I am begging for work. I want to be able to have hope tomorrow.” An older neighbor resonates with her and tries to appease the young mother, “We all want the same, dear Narine.”
In the Soviet times, there were many in Dilijan of different kinds. Locals say in those days you would not see a poor person in the town. But now unemployment is omnipresent.
You will find few apartments in lights at nights: many are out of town, others out of the country. Even the central street in downtown is not full of people in the evenings. “People leave for Russia or other places with their families. Many husbands or sons are abroad to send money for their families to survive here. And now, since the U.S. dollar has depreciated in Armenia, the oppressed are becoming even more oppressed and it is the people again who loose,” complains an old man.
A group of people who have been following the conversation are ignited with anger being reminded of the dollar’s depreciation. Their discussion is mainly to find the guilty: some accuse Armenia’s president Kocharian, others America’s Bush. Another one suggests that the head of Armenia’s central bank is in guilt for artificially depreciating the dollar.
Getting tired from politics, Narine and I leave the crowd in front of Mrs. Sveta’s shop and walk to the Memorial of the Unknown Soldier. It’s a daily path in Dilijan for locals to walk to the Memorial, and they do so with white buckets. Need for clean water rather than patriotism drives the locals to the memorial – there is a natural spring next to it that people take from to cook and drink. The water that comes through their sink is brown several days a week making it even impossible to take a shower. “The water from our sink is sometimes all black – you need to let it run for a while for it to become more brownish. But as the water runs so does the meter, right? And then comes the big bill.”
Unlike many others, Narine’s family doesn’t have a relative abroad and, hence, no help from outside. Instead, her husband Samvel Siradeghyan, a veteran disabled in the Artsakh war, receives 40,000 drams ($115) a month. “The hardest thing is that sometimes we don’t have money for a piece of bread. I mean not for meat, milk or honey – the things that kids like – but for an actual piece of bread. Samvel’s pension is not enough. I used to cook cakes in a café but it closed.”
Samvel is from nearby Noyemberyan region’s Koti village. In 1988 he got involved in the Artsakh liberation war and manufactured home-made weapons with his friends. “They are four brothers and all of them have fought in the war. Samvel was almost killed during testing his own brothers’ made bombs,” says Narine. She talks of her husband with love and pride, but warns that he doesn’t talk much and is not fond of questions about the war. He also refuses to register as a “Yerkrapah,” a political organization of former volunteers that provides some benefits for its members and could eventually help Samvel’s children with tuition. “That’s not what I fought for,” says the veteran whose face is covered with scars from the burns.
Samvel and his family moved to Dilijan after the war of the early 1990s. He married there Narine and had a decent job and helped many others. Narine reveals that Samvel’s uncle is the infamous Vano Siradeghyan, a former Armenian oligarch now sought by the Interpol.
“When Vano was removed from power my husband was fired. They didn’t take into account that my husband was disabled and had two children. They could have at least given him another job with less salary,” complains Narine. Her husband wants to do construction, but his health doesn’t permit him. She then asks why her husband should be fired for his last name, “wasn’t it with the same last name that he was fighting for the homeland?”
Depressed and appeased, she apologizes to me for complaining too much. One can see the two personalities fighting in her. One is hopeless and oppressed; the other is powerful, proud, happy and full of hope. She never reveals the first one to her kids.
Their apartment has one bedroom and a living room. It is clean and all white. The kids show off the computer in their living room. “This is a gift from our aunt. It has two games but we haven’t figured out the rest. It is Pentium II.” As they turn it on, the old monitor displays a menu with two games and no programs. It is impossible to look at the gloomy screen, but the kids are used to it. “I keep telling them to stop killing their eyes in front of the computer, but they don’t listen to me,” says Narine brining traditional Armenian coffee from the kitchen.
But the kids turn off the computer after their mother directs so. Artavazd gets ready to sing, and little Zepiur runs to bring her certificates of appreciations from school. They are both straight A students and also attend dance classes outside their primary school. Artavazd even finds time to go to a separate chess school. His sister Zepiur dreams of taking painting classes that are not otherwise offered at their primary school. Yet she also knows that her family cannot afford another expense.
Narine recalls the days when her husband helped everyone and didn’t let a child in their town go hungry. “I tell my husband that he helped others so much that today his own kids need help but there is no one giving a hand,” quietly murmurs Narine so that her children don’t hear her.
Artavazad leans to a chair and starts singing a traditional song about the mountains. He has clear voice and bright eyes that he now closes from being shy. Narine is full of tears of happiness. Her singer son, as many Armenian children, wants to become president when he grows up, but before that he dreams of having an electronic piano. “When I have an electronic piano,” he says, “I will compose my own songs and play the traditional songs I know.”
“Today I saw a teacher from the painting school and she said that, according to their rules, the first four years are free for our daughter,” Narine breaks the silence. Little Zepiur, who hasn’t known the good news until that point, startes jumping up and down on the sofa from happiness. It only takes the future painter’s Mom a look to stop her jump on the sofa.