Twenty-five years ago, a massive earthquake turned northern Armenia upside down. Many survivors who still call the area home have had a tough time putting the trauma behind them.
Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city, bore much of the damage on December 7, 1988, when a 7.0-Richter-scale earthquake struck the region, with the epicenter in Spitak, 52 kilometers to the northeast. The quake grabbed headlines worldwide and killed at least 25,000 people in the region. Thousands more were maimed and hundreds of thousands left homeless.
“The earthquake in Gyumri continues,” said City Council member Levon Barseghian. “For 25 years, we are living over and over again what happened within 41 seconds.”
A stagnant economy, combined with failed governmental promises, has hindered the ability of many to rebuild their lives. The city has lost nearly half of its population since 1988. Labor migration is the main reason why, locals say.
Today, Gyumri includes new buildings and residential districts, along with a Russian military base. Yet, the Shirak Region, of which Gyumri is the capital, has the country’s highest poverty rate at 46 percent, a rate that exceeds that in other regions by at least 11 percent, according to official statistics.
The lingering presence of semi-ruined housing helps make memories of the 1988 quake hard to forget. Communist authorities promised to restore Gyumri within two years; however, in the three years before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the government managed to build only 5,628 apartments. Various international and Armenian foundations have built 20,770 apartments since 1988, according to official data. The Armenian government also has made attempts. In 2009, the state launched a new program, which allotted 80 billion drams (some $200 million) to the construction of more than 2,000 apartments; 433 more will be ready next year, officials say.
Frustration with the slow pace of rebuilding runs bitter and strong in Gyumri. Not long after President Serzh Sargsyan first came into power in 2008, Prime Minister Tigran Sarksian pledged that housing for homeless families in the earthquake-affected zone “will finally be resolved by 2013.”
“Where is that … solution?” mockingly asked 43-year-old Rita Babaian, a mother of three who lives in one of the remaining shanties, known as domiks. Babaian claims that, during one of his campaign stops for the 2013 presidential vote, President Sargsyan responded to her question that the work would take “just a little longer.” “A little longer - until when? A new apartment comes, or death?” Babaian said.
The domic shanties, ad hoc housing seemingly assembled from scrap metal and other scavenged materials, remain the starkest symbol of the quake’s legacy. Wrapped in cocoons of smoke from wood-burning stoves, Gyumri’s numerous shantytowns are estimated to house about 3.7 percent of the city’s 121,500 inhabitants. One shanty dweller, 60-year-old Rita Grigorian, says she was promised a new, permanent place to live, but that promise has gone unfulfilled for 25 years and counting. “We have lost hope,” said Grigorian, curled up in bed from the cold and damp of the temporary, 10-square-meter metal shelter in which she lives alone. “When they gave these temporary houses, they told us to get along with them for two years.”
Grigorian knows her number for a new residence by heart -- N1112, which was supposed to come up for a new flat in 2011. The government puts such delays down to technical difficulties. “There are currently 433 homeless people on our lists [for housing] who have documents [certifying them as earthquake victims], but there are 3,500 more not on waiting lists,” said Albert Margarian, who heads the regional urban development department that is overseeing the reconstruction. “Many among them have just returned to Armenia [from work abroad] and missed the registration deadlines, many others have missing documents. Their housing issue will be solved in the future.”
While the housing muddle may not reflect well on the government, officials contend that they have learned the lessons of the 1988 quake. In rebuilding, new construction regulations should ensure that buildings in Gyumri, Spitak and the nearby town of Vanadzor can withstand quakes that reach a magnitude of nine on the Richter scale, claimed Sergei Nazaretian, an advisor to the director of the northern branch of the National Center of Seismic Protection. Eighty-eight residential buildings in Gyumri that survived the 1988 earthquake “are dangerous” and “urgently need fortification,” he added. The buildings house some 7,000 people, Nazaretian said, but no work has been done to strengthen their fortifications since 2007. Margarian attributed the delay to a lack of governmental funds.
Earthquake-safety techniques now are taught in schools, with training exercises held on each anniversary of the 1988 quake. Over the past two years, the Red Cross also has instructed some 15,000 schoolchildren and 60,000 residents of Gyumri and 14 nearby villages about emergency-response techniques and first-aid skills. In Gyumri’s shantytowns, though, residents tend to be dismissive of safety measures. “Unemployment and poverty are more terrifying” than another earthquake, said Babaian. “The earthquake comes and ends right away, while, this way, we are slowly dying.”
Gayane Abrahamyan is a freelance reporter and editor in Yerevan. Anahit Hayrapetyan is a freelance photojournalist based in Yerevan and Berlin.