Scavenging off Yerevan’s Garbage Dumps

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Achapniak Municipal Landfill, Yerevan, Armenia © Onnik Krikorian 2004

The stench was terrible and a kind so rotten it lingered with you for days after. Your nostrils absorbed it and it was reluctant to budge. It was a kind of smell that I wasn’t to experience again until photographing inside Armenia’s psychiatric institutions. True, they were somehow different, but equally as nauseating. It was the stench of hopelessness.

Achapniak Municipal Landfill, Yerevan, Armenia © Onnik Krikorian 2004

The first visits with Hetq’s Edik Baghdararian were difficult. As you can imagine, families relegated to scavenging off a garbage dump aren’t particularly eager to be photographed.

There was smoke in the garbage dump. This part of the city emits smoke round the clock. This is Yerevan ‘s second largest garbage dump, after Nubarashen. It’s located in the Achapniak district, in the vicinity of the Fourth Village . This is a place where what we all throw out is transported by garbage trucks. There is something from each of us here. Some part of our life, our memory, has been transported here and is rotting or burning.

There was a group of people poking around in the garbage. We walked up to them – they were teen-aged boys and a woman. Faces and hands blackened, they were waiting for a newly arrived truck to unload. The worn-out truck was squealing, unable to lift the body, and the boys began to lift it themselves. With their help, the truck dumped its load. The boys fell on the garbage at once. They grabbed half-empty bags of bottles, old shoes, plastic things, leftover food.

“You see, dear boy, I don’t want my neighbors and relatives to know that I get my daily bread here. My son is grown-up now, it’s shameful. I used to have a job, I worked at a factory. And now if I don’t come here, we’ll starve, what can I do?” said fifty-year-old S.T. She was startled when photographer Onnik Krikorian began taking pictures at some distance from us. “Oh, don’t take my picture,” she kept saying. I tried to tell her that we wouldn’t take her picture, but she didn’t believe us, and she left.

Actually, for the record, I don’t take photographs clandestinely or without permission — except in the case of policemen violating the rights of others or discredited politicians in public spaces spewing out populist rhetoric to a disgruntled citizenry — but her concern was natural. But we had one objective in mind — to depict a reality at the time mainly hidden away by much of the media and simply ignored by many others. And that meant forming a relationships with the people we came to report on and only if they allowed us to.

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Achapniak Municipal Landfill, Yerevan, Armenia © Onnik Krikorian 2004

We documented as many stories as we could in order to raise necessary questions about then President Kocharian’s claims that all was well in Armenia and that economic growth had benefited the population. Naturally, he wasn’t going to to talk about high levels of corruption or how it had stimulated an economic growth that benefited just a select few. Not that many of those scavenging didn’t know that already. In fact, they knew very well indeed.

18-year-old Shiraz was here from the village of Sasunik with his 16-year-old brother Shahen. “We collect everything-bottles, cellophane, shoes. Then we give it all to various people; there are people here who salvage the waste. We get 1,000 drams each. If we don’t come here, we won’t be able to help our family.” One of Shiraz ‘s eyes is damaged and he hopes that one day he will collect enough money for an operation to replace it with a prosthetic eye.

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Achapniak Municipal Landfill, Yerevan, Armenia © Onnik Krikorian 2004

And in addition to those eking out a way to simply survive, there were others with no choice but to live on the periphery of the landfill.

“I’m upset with everybody. Why should we have to live like this? We’re already in the garbage dump, there’s nowhere left to go. This is the end of the world,” says fifteen-year-old Hamest. Hamest was a straight-A student up to fifth grade, but she hasn’t been to school for two years now – she doesn’t have the shoes or the clothes. She lives with her family on a vacant lot abandoned by a motor depot in the Achapniak district, near the Fourth Village . As we reported earlier, there are five families living on this lot.

“I am from Spitak. Our house collapsed during the 1988 earthquake, one of my children died. Ten years ago my husband left to work in Russia , I haven’t heard from him since. In Spitak, we used to separate the iron reinforcement from the concrete blocks of collapsed buildings and salvage it. It was hard work. Then the concrete blocks ran out and I moved to Yerevan with my kids”, Hamest’s mother, Alisa Arakelyan, recalls. She has had three operations on the hernia she developed carrying the heavy loads.

Today Alisa and her children collect bottles, old shoes, and plastic at the nearby garbage dump. They live off what they can salvage. Hamest is the oldest of four children. Christine, 11, went to school up to fourth grade. Ashot, 9, only went for a few months, just managing to learn the alphabet.

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Achapniak Municipal Landfill, Yerevan, Armenia © Onnik Krikorian 2004

Actually, all in all, it was pretty depressing.

Gagik Hakobyan’s family lives in a vacant lot abandoned by a motor depot in the Achapniak district, near the garbage dump. As we have reported, five families live here. Four members of this family live in a dirt-floored, 16-square-meter shack. There are a couple of car-batteries in a corner of the room, with cables running to the ceiling, where a small light bulb is hanging. That is how they light up the room and turn on the radio. “My husband brought the batteries from the garbage dump, he works there. He goes there at seven a.m. and returns late at night. We live with the help of the garbage dump; what can we do? He brings empty bottles, I wash them and we turn them in for 10 drams a piece,” says Sima Khachatryan, Hakobyan’s wife, as she washes the bottles.

She washes some 150 bottles a day, to get 1,500 drams (less than $3). They heat the cabin by burning old plastic bags and shoes from the garbage dump. Seven-year-old Armine helps her mother – she arranges the bottles. In a corner of the room are the dolls that her father brings from the dump. Armine washes them thoroughly and plays dolls with her friends. She will go to school this year. “I don’t know how I am going to manage, yet; my daughter doesn’t have a birth certificate. She was born seven years ago in Aparan, my husband is from there. My mother-in-law died at that time and we didn’t have any money. When I was leaving the hospital, they asked for 15,000 drams. My husband said we didn’t have that amount and could pay 5,000 drams. They said: no, pay 10,000. But we only had 5,000 drams. So they took the child’s birth certificate and the 5,000 drams with it. […]  “If you can, help us get the birth certificate. Otherwise we won’t be able to send our daughter to school.” Armine is not registered at the polyclinic, either, because of the birth certificate. She has never had any vaccinations or checkups.

I daren’t even think about what their situation might be today. Better, probably, but not enough to take them out of the poverty trap that many Armenians have fallen into. Unfortunately, in the South Caucasus, there are too many stories like this to tell.

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Achapniak Municipal Landfill, Yerevan, Armenia © Onnik Krikorian 2004

2 Comments Add Yours

  1. Nancy Agabian

    Responding to your last comments: Can you go back there to see how their lives have improved or not?

    Reply
  2. Onnik James Krikorian

    It would certainly be worth doing so. The Japanese were meant to implement some projects on Yerevan’s landfills and it would be interesting to see what happened and if there was any social component too:

    http://archive.hetq.am/eng/ecology/0706-waste.html

    In fact, pretty much all of the subjects in Armenia I covered in the 2000s I’d like to return to for a recap. Just been especially busy this half of the year and have no time. I’d also like to go back to Kharberd and Armenia’s psychiatric institutions.

    Maybe in 2014. Let’s see.

    Reply

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