Last March 27, 48 Soviet Armenians gathered at the airport here to board a plane to Moscow, yet another trek in their two-year-long pursuit of exit visas from the Soviet Union.
As members of the group recounted the events recently, they were met on the tarmac by about 100 policemen, who put 19 of the group in a paddy wagon and ordered the rest back to the city.
The group was released the next day, after their relatives held a vigil through the night, and on April 10, in an unusual gesture, the head of the Soviet Visa Office and Foreigners Registration came from Moscow to meet with the group, they said.
"He told us, 'You're not leaving. You have to accept that and be quiet,' " recalled one member of the group. "We told him no, that it was our right."
Now numbering 69, the group of Armenian "refusedniks" formed more than two years ago when, after seeing one another day after day in the Armenian visa office, they decided to pool resources in their quest for documents to travel to the United States.
Despite appeals to all levels of government, they have received nothing in writing, neither a refusal nor permission to go. "The law says after six months, we should have an answer," said one member, pulling out a Soviet constitution. "There is the law, but it has not happened to us."
In a recent interview, members of the group said they had been told several times that they first must renounce their Soviet citizenship. Again citing the law, they said they refused unless they were given written guarantees of exit visas.
Since 1980, when Soviet Armenian emigration to the United States peaked at 6,109, the numbers have been falling each year, down to 197 in 1983; according to the U.S. consulate here, a number of those are people whom Armenians in emigration have come back to marry.
Most members of the Yerevan group have relatives in the United States, which puts their requests in the category of family reunification, the one reason for emigration recognized by Soviet authorities.
Their relatives have been back to visit, and they have been told they can go to the United States -- but only as tourists.
But Ripsik Kirametchian, 40, her husband and two children want to go to live, to join Kirametchian's parents and two brothers who left in 1977. For the Kirametchian family, it was the second move in 30 years; they had come to Soviet Armenia in 1947 from Beirut, part of the wave of Armenians from the Middle East who responded to calls of repatriation.
Being with their families is a key reason for pressing their case, the group said. "What if my father gets sick?" asked one. "I want to be with him. If I lived anywhere else, I could go. From here, no."
Unlike many Jewish refusedniks, the Armenians said their jobs had not suffered as a result of their applications to leave. But the pursuit of a visa has become a consuming process.
"Just two days ago, we told the visa office that if they don't give us an answer, we are not going to sit by quietly," said one. And if they don't succeed? "It's not the end of the road," said another. "We have to plan for the future."