- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
 April 4, 2003 

Refugees Again: Privatization of hotel forces Armenians from Azerbaijan into worse conditions

Noyem Aghajanova was the last to resistEvery night after 10 p.m. refugees of Sebastia hotel lock their doors, hoping to protect themselves against men who come and would force them from their homes. A group of men representing Parliament Member Paruir Karapetyan, come routinely residents say.

Karapetyan a businessman as well as MP, has privatized the hotel and says the refugees must accept his conditions and get out.

"They come every night and scare us. Everybody is angry," says social worker of Mission Armenia non-governmental organization Tania Dashyan (the organization carries out a project aimed at rendering social and medical assistance to refugees). "They tell us to go to those apartments (being offered by the owner) otherwise they will start talking in a different way,"

One year ago the Government of Armenia adopted a decision to sell the five-storied, 180-room building for $25,000 to Sebastia Ltd., which is owned by Karapetyan although other names appear in official documents. According to the decision, the owner has to provide refugees residing in the hotel with adequate accommodation or financial compensation. But the apartments, which used to be classrooms of a music school on the ground floor of a multi-storied building are more like jail cells than residences. The building itself has been classified as unsafe for occupancy according to municipal code.

"I ask them, would you come to live here," says resident Sergey Poghosov, whose oddly spinning eyes seemed to be his last way of searching for security. "We have no protection, neither from the Refugee Department or the United Nations. Two lawyers came as if they wanted to help us. They did nothing. Everything is in their hands. They do whatever they want to."

Poghosov went blind seven years ago as a result of diabetes. His wife Liza says that diabetes aggravated and Sergey became blind as a result of constant nervous condition.

"Three times a day Paruir's driver comes and asks when we are going to agree to leave. Sometimes he knocks on the door at midnight, sometimes at eight in the morning," Liza says. "Sergey couldn't take that any more and we agreed. We've been waiting for an apartment for 14 years and as a result we were forced out there."

Liza and Sergey, who left their furniture and apartment in Baku 14 years ago and became refugees, lost their hope of getting an apartment when they went against their will to one of the small places being provided.

"I was a reputable person in Baku," says Sergey, an electrical engineer by profession who specialized in TV repair. Now he cannot work because of blindness. "Azeries used to call me Sergey Georgievich (a Russian manner of respect). And Armenians call us fake Armenians and Turks. Even dogs live better than we. I was thinking and suffering a lot, that's why I went blind. He (Karapetyan) is a deputy but never met with us."

During negotiations refugees never met with Karapetyan, but were told that he was very busy with the Presidential Elections. At the negotiations he was represented by his driver and some men whose jobs the residents say was to scare them.

One of the refugees of Sebastia hotel was placed in a geriatric home and a woman was placed in a home for the insane. Only one family has voluntarily accepted a new apartment as they were provided with two rooms. Others under the threat accepted conditions and requirements of the owner and got $3,000 compensation. Others, 14 families, that had no hopes of residing somewhere, signed a contract approved by a notary and got apartments in another building that were donated to them.

Noyem Aghajanova, a mother of two, was the last to resist, holding out for $3,000 compensation rather than an apartment.

"The only more or less acceptable apartment was given to Elza (the family that voluntarily accepted conditions). Either they will provide us with apartment or with money," she says. "They offer $3,000. But if I take it, where can I go with that money (a one-room apartment in the same territory costs approximately $5,000)?"

Rooms that were given to singles are six square meters, 2.5 steps, where one bed and a small table can hardly be placed. Families with many members were provided with bigger rooms. A toilet-bowl deeply stuck in the ground and wash stand with the only tap of the room had hardly been placed in a narrow toilet, where there is no place for taking bath. There are no vents or kitchens.

According to documents signed by Minister of State-Owned Property David Vardanyan the places offered meet necessary conditions.

However, head of the Department of Refugees and Migration Gagik Yeganyan drew a different conclusion offering, "either to review construction defects or to present another hostel for inhabiting." Neither has happened.

Refugees have been sending complaints to different state departments starting from the President, with no result. The last hope was the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Representatives of that office made a visit, but no action has been taken.

"I think refugees' demands have been met. It often happens when refugees are offered worse conditions than these," says UN lawyer Armineh Stepanyan.

So there was no written conclusion from UN and last hopes of refugees didn't come true and day in day out night threats become more alarming.

"If there were threats then why did they go to a notary and sign contracts," asks director of Sebastia hotel Artur Ayunts. "Nobody forced them. They voluntarily went to notary."

Union of Young Lawyers non-governmental organization, which is financed by UN for rendering legal assistance to refugees also considers that everything has been done in accordance with the law.

"Everybody has signed contracts approved by a notary. And nobody showed us facts on threats and pressures," says member of the organization Babken Sahradyan, one of the lawyers who visited Sergey.

According to the law, nobody can force out any refugee from his or her temporary home against their will. However, they have no relatives or support in Armenia and cannot resist to the threats that have been lasting for two months.

According to contract, after getting apartments refugees must pay 31,000 drams (about $53) a month to the State. Failure to pay gives the State a right to confiscate privatized property.

"I'm a blind man. My wife doesn't work and she doesn't get pension," says Sergey. "I have to be hungry and don't spend my pension for five months so that I could pay that fee."

Ayunts says it is a good thing for the refugees that they are being offered an optional living place.

"We could present them apartments not as a property. And how they are going to pay to cadastre it is their problem," he says.

So the State project of "providing refugees, residing in temporary hostels, with apartments" for the refugees living in Sebastia hotel for 10-14 years, ends in these cells.

"We are concerned. Not only about Sebastia but about refugees residing in other privatized buildings as well as we have numerous complaints from them," says specialist of the public information of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Emil Sahakyan. "As already there is a precedent, we will try to do everything so that such an incident couldn't be repeated. Now we have developed a document, in which we offer the government an order of providing refugees living in privatized buildings with apartments."

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