Empties: The hard life of Armenia’s «bomzhs»
At about 2 a.m., Artur goes to work. His «job» is collecting bottles in rubbish dumps near buildings.
«As soon as you touch rubbish you are a bomzh (vagrant) from that moment on,» says Artur.
Bomzh is a Russian abbreviation for a person with no fixed abode. Artur’s hand touched rubbish and he became a vagrant four years ago when he had no other sources of income and leaving his family and making friends with vodka he crossed the line separating society from vagrants.
«Yes, I’m a vagrant. I’m a person of no fixed abode. I have no fixed place to live.»
In Armenia vagrants appeared during the years following independence — a result of hard economic conditions and of the freedom to choose a lifestyle.
The translation of bomzh is vagrant but that word can be met only in the official statements as modern vagrancy is characteristic of Russia.
During his 33-year career, Head of the Subdivision of Public Order of Yerevan Police Department Sergey Hovhannisyan for the first time discovered vagrants only 10-12 years ago.
«During Soviet times we sometimes heard only on the TV that there were vagrants in Russia,» he says. «Nobody saw vagrants and tramps here. Sometimes it happened when somebody used to come here on a business trip from Russia then started to drink and forgot his home and family finding himself on the streets.»
Parks, deserted places, half-built constructions, the entire city is a vagrant’s house. Mainly they gather in the center of the city, where the rubbish is more valuable.
The main source of vagrants’ income is rubbish. But bottles are the best sources.
At 9 a.m. Karen Mezhlumov’s basement bottle receiving point is already open. Early in the morning vagrants bring their night catch. A poster with Robert Kocharyan’s pre-election advertisement «let’s work together» is attached to the wall. Karen is working together with vagrants. He receives each bottle for the price fluctuating from 10 to 100 drams (from about 2 cents to six cents) depending on demand and size of a bottle then he sells those bottles raising the price for 5-20 drams. He also receives waste paper. From that scrap paper he chooses valuable books and sells them to book sellers. He also receives such things which can be sold even for a few drams like worn-out belts, cheap condoms and other refuse.
«The profit they have from bottles is four times much,» he says, «but I also sell many bottles. So, my profit doesn’t differ much from theirs.»
Karen Mezhlumov is a refugee from Baku. He lives in a hostel and says of himself: «How do I differ from vagrants? I don’t have a fixed abode either.» Last year he opened the recycling station. He also published a collection of science fiction stories. He doesn’t write about vagrants as it doesn’t match the genre he prefers to write.
«Why don’t you write about me? I’m a fiction myself,» asks Artur, who has already taken his portion of vodka and now is sitting in the shade of a tree enjoying his rest and reading «Son of The Counte of Monte Christo». He doesn’t regard a couple of cups of vodka for curing a hangover as drinking.
«It’s not called drinking when we drink now. It’s a fuel to work your legs. The real drinking starts later,» he says.
Artur is his vagrant nickname. He refuses to tell his real name. He graduated from the Department of Economics of the Yerevan State University. And in case someone, who notices his swollen eyes, his blackened skin and senses a smell coming from him, doubts that he is an economist then Artur’s sense of dignity will sharpen and he will forget about dangers of declaring identity and he will tell his real name and last name: «If you don’t believe then go and check the class for 1978.»
Artur knows that vagrants crossed the line that separates them from society, and rubbish dumps are the symbols of that line. He knows about another line as well that he doesn’t cross.
«There are upper and lower lines. I crossed the upper line but I won’t cross lower one. If someone curses my mother I will kill that person. But there are people who don’t care as they have crossed the lower line.»
Artur makes about 3,000 drams (about $5) a day selling bottles. Now he has brought 50 bottles for which he will get approximately 600-700 drams. His «business» drops off in summer, when the population of the city decreases. As autumn starts, so too, does an increase in bottle picking.
The work starts at night. He goes out for work after 2-3 a.m. and starts collecting bottles with a torch in his hand in the rubbish dumps of the buildings. Another time when he collects bottles is after the heat at about 6 p.m., when he is already drunk.
Being drunk helps him to not be ashamed of collecting in the daylight.
«It’s hard at night. Sometimes it happens you suddenly touch a dirty thing, sometimes I have skin allergy. But at daytime it’s different. You just take what you need and don’t touch other things.» Artur shows with two fingers how he takes a bottle without touching rubbish: «Eh, it’s a hard life.»
The vagrant worldview also divides people, who are not of their stratum, those who toss out the garbage, into bad and good, «there are good people and bad people. Good people are those, who put empty bottles aside and say, «let other people earn money,» and bad people are those, who break bottles, «neither for me nor for you.»
An old woman with the face of a Russian enters the basement. «So here comes another billionaire,» Karen greets her, «Tania, do you want us to find a husband for you?»
«Eh, I’m too old for that,» she says smiling. Tania is a beggar, which is another profession of the vagrant society.
Tania is a Latvian. Sixteen years ago she came to Yerevan with her husband, who was sent on a business trip to work in a plant. Later her husband died and after working in different places and losing her work she became a vagrant. Her business died in summer as well, «people probably are busy with canning and preserving as they give little money,» she explains.
Yesterday in the evening after sitting for three hours at her permanent place of work next to Brabion flower store located on Sayat-Nova street she earned 2000 drams (about $3). She says that the best season is December, on the eve of the New Year, when during one month she earns $300.
She came to take from Artur the money she gave him for keeping so that she could buy vodka for her friend, «Natasha is in a hard condition. She is on the juice, we must save her.»
In one of the yards of Abovian street, on the corner of a playground is Natasha’s and Sasha’s apartment: a square territory surrounded with patches and with mattresses in the center. The sky is their ceiling. «I love Armenia very much but when it rains I say, ‘fucking Armenia’,» says hung-over Natasha sitting in another corner, in the «sitting-room» under a rusted bower, next to Sasha. It’s a year that they have been living there with their dog Sevuk, «and thanks God we haven’t been kicked out from here yet.»
Forty year old Natasha is from Belarus. She says she graduated from the Department of Journalism of the University and worked on TV. She came to Armenia in 1989. She left three children with her mother and sister in her homeland. Sasha is a musician from Saratov. He came to Yerevan with an Armenian woman, who left him and he found himself on the streets. «These hand will never play again,» says Sasha showing his hands.
«Before I was raped a lot but now nobody rapes me as Sasha is with me,» says Natasha gently touching Sasha’s cheek. Sasha nods: «That story is over.»
Natasha’s lips are swollen but she doesn’t worry about it, as it is her dear Sasha who beat her. Sasha’s one ear lacks its lobe. Once Natasha asked money for drinking and he refused to give her any, she attacked him and bit off his lobe. Sasha picked it up and tried to fix it back to his ear but he didn’t manage to do that so he threw it way and didn’t even visit a doctor. Why does he need a lobe?
«We love each other and we love Sevuk too and we love Tania. I can say with my whole heart I’m happy. I’m happy that I’ve got friends, magazines that I read,» says Natasha. She describes her life as a title of her favorite writer Hemingway’s book, «A Moveable Feast».
She recalls that there was a time when she tried to commit suicide twice when she was alone and helpless but now she doesn’t want to die; now she wants to live. And it is thanks to Sasha, whom she met three years ago: «He took me away from death.»
Natasha has had three surgeries. Her friends say that her health is in terrible condition. «Before my womb always bled but now it stopped bleeding. I’ve got no blood any more. Alcohol is instead the blood,» she says.
She has been drinking for several weeks and can’t go to work. The work is collecting bottles. During the work they often find costly things such as a Sharp tape-recorder, Ibsen’s collection published in 1899, illustrated book of Armenian architecture that they sold for 4,000 drams.
Natasha regards themselves as the truest vagrants as they are 4,000 kilometers away from their homeland, and the wheel of fortune made them homeless. And locals, according to them, became vagrants as a result of their own fault by overdrinking and being thrown away from their houses.
Two weeks later . . .
Natasha and Sasha are sober and with packages full of plastic bottles they visit Karen’s basement. Sevuk waits outside. They haven’t been drinking for two weeks and they are working. The period of sobriety started when they were flooded out of their apartment. One of the residents complained and police took them together with Tania out of the city and left them there. They found a new place not far away from the previous one for spending nights. They stopped drinking and began working. «Now we sometimes drink beer and wine. We don’t drink vodka any more,» says Natasha. The hardest week after giving up drinking is the first one. Different parts of the body start aching but the pain has gone the next week.
Head of the Subdivision of Public Order of Yerevan Police City Department Sergey Hovhannisyan says that upon complaints of residents police took away two Russian women and one man from a yard of a building and set them free at Sovetashen rubbish dump. They didn’t do anything wrong or bad but some of the residents didn’t wish to have vagrants in their yard. Again upon complaints of residents another five people, one woman and four men, were taken out of a hatch and then the hatch was sealed.
Artur again is sitting near the basement under the shade of the tree and reading a book. But this time his scalp is covered with wounds and bruises. Policemen beat him, «one of them told me, ‘Look at him! What a fruit he is!’ I replied and they began beating me.» For staying away from the police he always changes his place of living. And at nights when he goes to work he says that he doesn’t take money with him as night patrol of the police will take the money if they see him.
Vagrant freedom is limited by police and young people, who often laugh at them and beat them. Karen says that one of his vagrant visitors yesterday was beaten by some young people.
«They are people with free souls but they are very scared. They are always in fear not to be caught or mocked. Drinking is their only relief. They don’t go to theatres, they don’t go to cinemas, they have no TV so what should they do? They have to drink,» says Karen, who became a specialist of vagrants.
Under previous criminal legislation, which is not valid since August 1, vagrancy was regarded as a criminal offence and after paying penalties two times people were imprisoned on a third offense.
Seventy two vagrants in 2002 and 92 vagrants in 2003 were detained by the police and taken to isolation wards. They were set free after they had been photographed and their fingerprints had been taken. Police applied to the Prosecutor’s Office with the request of instituting criminal proceedings against those who were arrested for the second time, but they were refused.
«They don’t want to catch us so much as I smell bad. If they put us into their cars we will dirty their seats. If they detain us, ok, let it be so, I don’t care, as I sleep on the streets and in this case at least I will sleep inside a building,» says Artur, who was detained three times.
The paragraph on vagrancy is cancelled in the new legislation and vagrancy is now legal but vagrants don’t know about that and they will be scared of police for a long time.
Vagrants hate winter more than they hate police and mockers.
«This winter was extremely terrible, you were at home and don’t know about it,» says Artur. «About 50 vagrants I know died. Many of them were my friends.» About ten vagrants bringing bottles to Karen also died. Drinking was the only way of defending yourself from winter and the main cause of deaths was sleeping on the streets while being drunk.
In that way died Nelson, former gymnast, and Gagik, former physicist, sleeping next to each other as close friends, They are buried as other vagrants in the deserted graves of Nubarashen cemetery, where only metal plates with a number are placed on the graves of deceased vagrants. Physicist Gagik is 1110. People, who have no relatives, residents of elderly homes and unidentified bodies, which mainly belong to vagrants are buried in that cemetery. Names of deceased vagrants are written down in the register book of the cemetery. According to that book, 74 vagrants were buried during the winter. The cemetery for homeless and vagrants was opened in 1997. The last number of that cemetery is 1263.
«Now we have no work to do,» says supervisor of the cemetery Sargis Karagulyan. «It’s hot outside and vagrants don’t die. It was terrible in winter. Sometimes it happened when we buried 10 bodies during one day. Workers were so tired that they couldn’t work.»
There are no organizations in Armenia to take care of vagrants. Press Secretary of the Ministry of Social Security says that vagrants are not in their sphere. The State does provide, however, for their burial — 1,130 drams (about $2), for each funeral.