Welcome to Yerevan, capital of the Republic of Armenia. Welcome to Charlotte Cabaret. Welcome to hell. Christina leans forward so that her naked breasts are touching my face. She smiles. But even in the gloom of a dingy club it is possible to see that there is nothing behind it. Her eyes are glazed over.
“Do you want to go into the other room with me?” she asks, making sure there is more contact with my face to, surely, seal the deal.
I have browsed through the nicely printed menu that was left handily on my table, which details what services I can expect. I can take a girl to my hotel for the night for a mere $500. And Christina has whispered into my ear, while gyrating her body on mine, the fleshy extras that are on offer in-house. On this night, however, Christina will get more than she expected, which would have been to deliver a $50 blow job in a curtained-off backroom in seedy Charlotte Cabaret, or submitting all of herself to me for just $100.
Instead, with $200 paid up front now, and a promise of $200 more, no sex involved, Christina agrees to meet me for coffee the following morning. Just to talk.
She arrives at 11 looking blurry eyed. Her shift finished as Charlotte Cabaret closed at 6am. Eagerly tucking into a muffin and strong Turkish coffee, she is only too happy to explain her situation.
Being ‘bought’ from her impoverished family in Vank, a small town in
Nagorno-Karabakh, aged just 16. Introduced to heroin as part of the process of guaranteeing acquiescence. Quickly becoming an addict. And then, for six long years, being passed between disgusting men at disgusting clubs like Charlotte Cabaret.
She endured a brief stint in Greece. Yet, even in her drug-addled state, despite regular beatings from her owners, she disliked these foreign men, their unkindness and their penchant for rough, anal sex, even more than she hated her own countrymen. Eventually keeping her in Athens was more trouble than it was worth.
She was returned home. Kind of. Because Yerevan remains alien to her. The peaceful life of her small town seems a long way away now. Since Greece she has toiled in the Yerevan night for more than half a decade. She has lost count of the number of men she has serviced. She does not think she is going to hell. She says that she is in it already.
Despite the unrelenting demands upon her, Christina has grown into a pretty young lady. She is popular. Including earlier with the man who lived over the road from Charlotte Cabaret. She does not mention him by name, but as I leave that club in the morning hours we see his former residence, the well-lit Presidential Residence.
One can see the flashy neon lights of Charlotte Cabaret from the President’s official home. The previous incumbent used to welcome Christina and some of her colleagues occasionally. The present resident has not. Either way, both are aware of the club and its function. Yet they allow this place. And Omega.1 And the California. And all the city’s sex joints that continue to flourish.
As for Christina, she has earned a pittance, especially after deductions made for her drug use. For her efforts she is subject to regular beatings from her owners, and from violent, drunk customers who consider the few Drams they pay to be fair price for degrading her to the point of her becoming little more than meat.
She shows me the scars from her injuries.
She even pulls down the top of her jeans to show me the red cuts from her two abortions. These were required when she was sold for sex, specifically without a condom. Something which happens often. Some punters do not like to use latex. They like to feel flesh. For good measure, Christina’s meagre percentage from her earnings — she gets a quarter — were deducted for the cost of her abortions.
Welcome to Yerevan, capital of the Republic of Armenia. Welcome to Charlotte Cabaret. Welcome to hell.
It was while researching an entirely different subject that I stumbled upon Nagorno-Karabakh. Looking further into it, a long-standing ‘company’ contact, a former station chief post-Yugoslavian space and, in more contemporary times, still based in Eastern Europe, name-dropped and hinted at the scale of wrongdoing over kippers at the St. Pancras Renaissance in London.
His ire had been drawn by an inability, even for his own esteemed organisation, to break a particularly intractable problem. Nagorno-Karabakh was, of course, nothing new. A century of dispute over ownership, Soviet gerrymandering, Russian geopolitical meddling, a bloody war, genocide, occupation and, amid a not-so-frozen conflict, the emergence of a self-proclaimed pariah, the Republic of Artsakh.2
Indeed, so-called Artsakh is so toxic that even other illegal states have not recognised it, the diplomatic reciprocity that exists between other guerrilla regions being entirely absent. Armenia, which supports, sponsors and backs militarily the breakaway territory in its pursuit of a ‘Greater Armenia’ has, perhaps surprisingly, also declined to provide all diplomatic cover.
The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Somaliland, four “fine” examples of those fighting for the oxygen of international recognition, have all won more global support for their ambitions. After a quarter of a century of voicing claims of independence, the pariah Nagorno-Karabakh regime remains an unloved, illegitimate child.
What was new to me, however, was my American friend’s sense of frustration. His latest appointment had placed him, geographically speaking, at the centre of a problem that was now his. Europe’s eastern boundaries, porous at the best of times, had seen a surge in nefarious activity. He knew from where much of this emanated – the international community’s dark secret. Its bastard.
Located at a useful juncture between Asia and Europe, especially as it does, sitting between the heroin heartlands of Afghanistan and lucrative opiate- consuming markets of the West, Nagorno-Karabakh represents a grey area.
The United Nations Security Council adopted four resolutions regarding Nagorno-Karabakh confirming the occupation of Azerbaijan territories. Resolutions 822, 853, 874 and 884 call for the withdrawal of Armenian troops from Kelbajar, Agdam, Fizuli, Jabrayil, Qubadli and Zangilan.
The United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution on March 14th, 2008, reaffirming the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and underlining the inalienable right of the Azerbaijani population to return.
Controlled by Armenia, yet somewhat beyond international oversight and law enforcement as, in legal terms, it is occupied and belongs to Azerbaijan, this territory has fallen through the cracks.
Over the last two decades, these stunningly beautiful lands have steadily emerged as ground zero for a growing segment of global crime. For Afghan and Pakistani drug barons, Chinese and African human traffickers and slick Western arms dealers, Nagorno-Karabakh has become an operating base of choice, a clearing house for dastardly global crime.
Since that fateful encounter in London, my friend and I have delved into the murky world of transnational crime and learned an unedifying truth.
Visits to Stepanakert and Yerevan have been sandwiched between trips to Pakistan, Sudan, Turkey, Spain, Britain, Bulgaria, Georgia, Djibouti, Eritrea and others. We have interviewed senior representatives of Western law enforcement and had meetings with government officials from nations as diverse as Sri Lanka, the Czech Republic and Azerbaijan. A clear picture began to emerge.
The era of nation-centric crime is over, Westphalian states swept away by global crime syndicates that care nothing for traditional nation boundaries and with little care for the legal, military or socio-economic considerations of legitimate countries.
They work without boundaries, in a parallel universe where delivery of narcotics and arms, and people trafficking, is governed through their own accommodations, without recourse of state authority and operating fully outside the context of global agreements and law. Neither do they recognise national borders, except within the context of freedom to operate.
Nagorno-Karabakh and its ‘frozen conflict’ may seem remote, but when viewed through that post-Westphalian prism it is possible to see the territory as, perhaps, the most valuable real estate in the world, an operating base from where the world’s criminal elite have been given a free pass.
Crime groups have discovered the unparalleled freedoms that are provided by a remote territory on Europe’s doorstep, one lacking connectivity into global law and order, a corrupt political class, and cover provided by Stepanakert’s godfathers in Yerevan.
Narco-Karabakh traces the rise and rise of an international crime hub. Beyond that, however, it sheds light upon a corrosive cancer of opiate abuse, conflict and sex-trafficking that Nagorno-Karabakh is helping to spread across the world.
Even amid her exhaustion and her drug taking, Christina found her emotions as she spoke to me in that quiet café in downtown Yerevan.
But she sobbed not for herself. Her life, she explained, was over now. She longed not to return home to her village in Nagorno-Karabakh. Her family, the ones that cruelly sold her into this life, would not now accept her, because of the life she had led and the things she had done. She was used up. Worthless.
She cried for all the new girls who were around her now at Charlotte Cabaret. Many would find themselves spirited to London, or Madrid, or Paris, or Bonn. When there they would be sexually abused into oblivion by the same ilk of men who had defiled Christina in so many innumerable ways.
Others would be provided to politicians and officials, their bodies part of the price that the mafia and its pimping operation pay for the authorities looking the other way to what goes on. Along with cash payments. Of course.
After six long years Christina knows too well the inhumanity that awaited the new girls around her, and the almost indescribable life of pain and degradation that lay ahead.
Yet she could not bring herself to warn them. Resisting their fate would lead to the same endless bouts of beatings and threats that she had herself endured. Better to go along with it. Make the best of it.
On this pleasant autumn day in Yerevan, we sat outside a café and sipped at bitter-sweet Turkish coffees. A gentle breeze tickled her attractive blonde curls. The trees were giving up their leaves of many shades. It was almost romantic.
Yet as Christina unburdened herself of her story, almost impassively, as though looking from afar at the miserable life of a different being, I myself cried, even as I resolved to shed light on her story and those who are already following her.