Desert Nights: An Interview with Ara Manoogian

Ara Manoogian is an American-Armenian living and working in the self-declared Republic of Nagorno Karabagh. He is the gran’son of Shahan Natalie–a famous Armenian writer and activist–and works for the foundation established in his grandfather’s name.

Through the Shahan Natalie Foundation–Inc. he has conducted a number of high-profile investigations into corruption and human rights related issues in both Armenia and Nagorno Karabagh.

His most recent was conducted in collaboration with Edik Baghdasarian–Editor-in-Chief of Hetq Online–who investigated the trafficking of women and children from Armenia to the United Arab Emirates.

ONNIK KRIKORIAN: You’ve recently returned from your third and final trip to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) where you were involved in an investigation into the problem of trafficking from Armenia. When did this investigation start?

ARA MANOOGIAN: Edik Baghdasarian and I started this investigation at the beginning of 2004 although we had discussed this problem on many occasions prior to that. From reading many reports from international organizations in Armenia–we knew that there was a problem and so–at the beginning of 2004–we decided to examine the situation on the ground to determine whether those reports were accurate.

On our first trip to Dubai in February or March 2004–we very quickly discovered where the Armenian girls were although we spoke with only one girl at first. When we noticed the sad look on her face–we considered that she was a possible victim. She reminded me very much of girls from Nagorno Karabagh and as it turned out–she was a refugee from Azerbaijan.

She was twenty or twenty-one years old and was divorced from her childhood sweetheart who left for Russia because of the harsh economic condition in the country leaving her alone to bring up her daughter. Because she had been unable to find employment that would pay her a decent living wage–and as she was a very beautiful girl–she said there were only a few options available to her.

She could either work in a store in Armenia for 30,000 drams (about $60) a month and be expected to sleep with her boss or she could go "elsewhere" to work. In a sense then–she was in Dubai voluntarily and we discovered that she partially knew what she was getting herself into. However–she did admit that she wasn’t expecting Dubai and other Arab countries to be so rough and dangerous–especially for girls.

OK: Do you consider that she was a victim in the sense that as a single mother unable to support her family in Armenia’she had no choice but to find this type of work abroad?

AM: Yes–that’s what she felt. Incidentally–on our third trip we tried to find her again but her phone had been disconnected.

OK: Were most of the girls at least partially deceived into working abroad as prostitutes?

AM: I would say that a large number of girls from Armenia are tricked into coming by being offered an opportunity to find employment outside Armenia. Speaking to these girls–most seemed very naive and uneducated. Many came from broken homes.

However–we also visited a hotel in Dubai called the St. George that accommodated a couple of hundred Armenian girls–most of whom appeared to have come to Dubai voluntarily. Even there–however–we found a few girls that had been tricked into coming by friends already working in Dubai.

Because we knew that we had to get inside this ring to collect information–we also managed to discover which girls were truly the victims of trafficking and which were not. As a result–those that had been tricked wanted to expose those responsible for their situation.

OK: That sounds a little risky. I would imagine that those responsible for trafficking are not people you want to mess with. All you needed was one girl to tell her trafficker what you were doing…

AM: We think that there was one girl like that and on my last week I was followed everywhere so yes–that risk did exist. However–the girls we trusted were quite reliable for the most part and nothing serious happened.

OK: How old were the girls?

AM: We heard that there were fourteen year olds in Dubai but the youngest I personally saw was sixteen. The oldest was about twenty-seven or twenty-eight years old.

OK: How did these girls manage to enter a country such as the United Arab Emirates which has very strict rules of entry–especially for young women and girls traveling alone?

AM: From what we were told and from what we saw in the form of documen’s–the girls were first taken to Russia where false passports are prepared. Usually–the first names of the girls are kept the same–and sometimes even their surnames–but their date of birth is changed to make them over thirty. However–because they still appear to be–and actually are–younger it appears that the authorities in the UAE are therefore involved. These girls are not even questioned about their passports when they enter the country.

OK: What you’re saying is that nobody bothers to question these young girls traveling on passports indicating that they are–in some cases–twice as old as they actually are when entering the UAE?

AM: Actually–the passports they’re traveling on are the old red [Soviet] passports which–I think–are not recognized anywhere else in the world apart from in the UAE.

OK: Presumably–the same is true when the girls leave Russia?

AM: From what these girls told us–they actually have two passports. They leave Russia on their Armenian passport but then–when they board their flight–they hide it in one of their shoes and enter the UAE on their Russian passport.

OK: When they arrive in Dubai–do they still retain their passports?

AM: No. The trafficker takes all of their documen’s when they arrive and gives them a Xerox of their fake passport and visa which is sufficient for them to travel around and stay in hotels.

OK: What happens then? After working for the traffickers–can they eventually buy back their passports?

AM: Yes–they can buy back their freedom. The way this works is that the trafficker decides their "debt" which varies between $6-12,000. I’m not sure how the debt is determined but anyway–the girls work and give all their income to the trafficker who sends a minimum of $100 a month to their families in Armenia who presumably think that they are working in Russia–Greece–Spain or some other country. After the "debt" is "settled," their documen’s are then returned and the girls are given the option to continue to work in the UAE under the protection of the trafficker who takes a percentage of the money they earn.

OK: How many Armenian girls are working as prostitutes in the UAE?

AM: We can’t put a concrete figure on this but initial figures from various organizations estimate that there are approximately five hundred. However–I personally saw over two hundred girls in only four or five locations but others are known to be working in other places. Edik went to other locations that I didn’t–for example–and reported that there were also a large number of girls from Armenia there. Therefore–based on what we saw and from speaking to the girls themselves–I’d say that there are as many as two thousand Armenian girls working in the UAE. I would say that this is a realistic and believable figure.

OK: Is there enough evidence to take legal action against anyone involved in the trafficking of women and children from Armenia to the UAE?

AM: Yes–and we will be pursuing the matter once our film is ready. We would expect some arrests to be made later and maybe even prior to the completion of the film. Many of the articles we have already published are accompanied by pictures of people involved in trafficking and one woman wanted by Interpol is currently in jail in Armenia. However–she is only serving a light sentence.

OK: I remember this case from one of your articles. You suggest that this particular woman returned to Armenia knowing full well she would be imprisoned for a short period of time in order to clear her name off Interpol’s list.

AM: Yes–and if the law worked–she would be facing additional charges.

OK: Is this the problem–then? Is the law not functioning correctly or are sentences for trafficking simply too light?

AM: The law contains provisions to hand down heavy sentences to traffickers but the legal system is not functioning correctly. I was present at the trial of five traffickers in Armenia last August and as far as I am concerned–Judge Ohanian and the prosecutor failed to do their jobs properly. These individuals should have received sentences of at least ten years but when Gulnara Shahinian–an expert on trafficking–presented the judge with details of Armenia’s international obligations to prosecute those guilty of trafficking–he instead insisted on prosecuting them with old Soviet laws that carried lighter sentences of only two years.

OK: Why do you think that was?

AM: The evidence we collected on three trips suggests that there are officials in Armenia and the UAE that are directly involved in trafficking. There is not a single doubt in my mind that they are directly involved.

OK: If that’s the case–and after talking about possible risks in Dubai–isn’t it potentially dangerous to expose those responsible for trafficking in Armenia?

AM: We’re in the homeland.

OK: That gives you protection?

AM: Yes. In fact–it gives me a great deal of protection because my family has conducted this kind of work for many–many years and my grandfather as well as the foundation established in his name is very well respected by the Minister of Defense and the military. As a result–I’m not concerned at all and anyway–I’m a true believer in fate. When someone’s time comes–that’s their time. I’m not a person who lives in fear and it is for that reason that I do what I do. It has to be done.

OK: Now that Hetq Online has examined the problem of trafficking from Armenia to the UAE–what do you think the Armenian Government’s response should be?

AM: The Armenian Government’s response should be to denounce this as not being culturally cohesive and as being wrong. However–the Government has known about this problem for a number of years and I’m still unable to comprehend why it has not yet issued any additional statement on the matter.

Regardless–the Armenian Government–as well as the Church and the Diaspora–needs to take a strong position on this problem. What we have discovered–and what we have published up until now–is irrefutable. The evidence is there and it’s unreasonable for people to go into denial.

OK: However–do you think that it’s considered culturally taboo to talk about such issues?

AM: Absolutely–and what I’ve noticed from my own internet blog where quite a few of the articles have been republished is that few readers want to publicly comment on the findings of our investigation. Of course–I’ve received some private emails which have been very positive and there have also been some financial commitmen’s from readers for future investigative work but only on the provision that these donations are made anonymously. Otherwise–it would appear that many Armenia’s in the Diaspora–and even here in Armenia–are in shock.

OK: It’s also interesting to point out that one of those responsible for funding this investigation is a prominent Diasporan who also prefers to remain anonymous. It’s good that they supported this project–of course–but very interesting to note that they don’t want their name to be known. Ironically–however–you would have thought that it is precisely these people that should be acknowledged and appreciated.

AM: There were also some donations from a number of other individuals that wanted to remain anonymous. However–a number of others who said that they understood the importance of this work declined. Presumably this was because they were afraid of the possible fallout.

OK: There’s also a sizeable Armenian Community in the UAE. Were they willing and able to assist in your investigation–albeit anonymously?

AM: No. You have to understand that unless you are born in the UAE–almost everyone is on a residency visa and because the Government is directly involved with trafficking–the Armenia’s living and working there chose not to be involved in any shape–form or fashion even though I’m sure that many would have liked to have been. Because we understood that situation we pretty much left the Armenian community alone.

OK: What about the Diaspora in the United States and Europe. They don’t face any risk so what do you think they should do?

AM: I’ve received emails from Armenia’s in the Diaspora who say that they found this investigation very "interesting." Unfortunately–the problem of trafficking is not "interesting." It’s very sad and shouldn’t be looked upon as just another human interest story. It is instead an issue that affects all of us regardless of whether these girls went to the UAE voluntarily or not. The reason why this phenomenon exists today is economic and therefore–it is resolvable. However–it will take commitment but until then–Armenia is in a situation that I would describe as being out of control.

OK: Do you think that the Diaspora should speak out about such issues?

AM: Absolutely. The Diaspora–or at least those who have a sense of belonging–has a responsibility to do so. Unfortunately–the Armenian Government does not understand the concept of civil service or the fact that they are civil servants. This has to change and Armenia’s in the Diaspora can assert a certain amount of pressure on the Government to do so. However–so far they’re not.

Instead–there’s a certain mentality that’s probably very damaging for this nation. It’s the idea of something being "amot (shameful)." I’ve heard this over and over again and the notion that it’s shameful to talk about problems such as trafficking. It’s much easier to ignore the problem but–in my opinion–there’s nothing shameful in talking about such problems if the situation can be changed as a result. The Armenian Diaspora can play a role in that and perhaps I’m evidence of that.

OK: However–you’re just one person out of six million.

AM: Yes–I’m one of six million but my voice has been heard time and time again and I’ve achieved results. If properly coordinated–I believe that other individuals and organizations can also have a positive impact in determining the future of our nation. In my opinion–it’s time for the Diaspora to wake up. When people remain silent–they can only contribute to perpetuating such problems.

OK: Of course–some people–especially in the Diaspora–might instead criticize you for concentrating only on the negative aspects of life in Armenia. How would you respond to those that accuse you of dirtying the country’s image abroad?

AM: I would say that unless we address the problems that threaten the future of this nation–there can be no moving forward. However–I’d also add that I think of myself as an optimist and believe that Armenia has a promising future if these problems are resolved. —

Edik Baghdasarian and Ara Manoogian’s investigation into the trafficking of women and children from Armenia can be read online at Ara Manoogian’s blog from Armenia and Nagorno Karabagh–Martuni or Bust–can be read online at


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