Impartiality is difficult to maintain when one is faced with such extraordinary maleficence. I tried. The process that led to Narco-Karabakh began with a visit to a safe-house, for an entirely different project. ‘Women at the Well’ takes its name from a gospel story in which Jesus meets a woman at a well who is living in an “irregular” relationship, and he refuses to judge her for it. From the outside ‘Women at the Well’ looks like just another anonymous hotel, situated in one of the banal side roads near a railway station in London. Instead this represents a facility that offers care to sex workers in King’s Cross, one of the British capital’s most notorious red light districts.
As we spent time there, a pattern emerged from among the grim tales of suffering. They were not unusual stories in themselves. What was strange were the connectives that linked so many. The nation of Armenia and the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. These small areas of the former Soviet Caucasus provide an unusually high proportion of working girls. Even higher among those who spoke of the horrors that they had faced.
We discovered so many teenage prostitutes who had found themselves spirited to a foreign city, far from home, bought and sold, drug-addled and left to rot as they earned money for their owners. They hailed from the Caucasus and had been sold, kidnapped, and tricked into brutal modern day sexual slavery.
Over the course of this project, its narrative widened considerably. Throughout this 18 months we have delved into human trafficking, money laundering, the illegal arms industry, gold smuggling and global corruption. Investigating these crimes has taken me, among others, to major capitals like Madrid, Moscow, Doha, Beirut, Paris, Washington, Sofia, Baku, Istanbul, Kabul and Tbilisi. We visited Yerevan and Stepanakert on multiple occasions. I spent weeks in Nagorno-Karabakh, posing as an off-the-grid tourist in order to obtain access to remote areas that one may not otherwise be allowed to visit. During that time we were often under threat of discovery, not least the time we were observing Afghan heroin being spirited across the Nagorno-Karabakh-Iranian border, under the watchful eye of the Revolutionary Guard.
Organisations as diverse as the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, Amnesty International, Transparency International, Human Rights Watch Arms Project, Foundation for Environmental Education, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, were among the organisations whose expertise fed into our research.
Dozens of individual sources came forward with vital information. Some interviews were on record. Others were conducted under the prerogative of ‘deep background’. That is to say that many of those talking with me, first hand participants and witnesses to these events, continue to be in a position where their cooperation represented either personal danger to themselves, or was contrary to the parameters of their employment, or status. As often as possible the information I received from them was cross-sourced and/or triangulated.
In several cases, at the request of those whose personal narratives actually featured in the book, I have protected identities by altering their names. Narco- Karabakh plunges into a murky world of international crime organisations and kleptocracy. In several cases, adapting names has been necessary to prevent those who have had the misfortune to have their lives wrapped in these events, having their deaths wrapped in them also.
For the purposes of clarity, throughout this tome I refer to the internationally- accepted name of Nagorno-Karabakh and use the unrecognised moniker of Artsakh only where editorially appropriate. Conversely, I will refer to the largest town in Nagorno-Karabakh as Stepanakert. This is not the official name of the town. It was founded as Khankendi and reverted to this historical title when Azerbaijan regained its independence. However, over the last quarter century, the name Stepanakert has seen wide usage and is therefore utilised here.