Gyumri 1988-2013: 4,000 residents still in “temporary” shelter as city has shrunk

Twenty five years after the devastating earthquake of 1988 the 95 small and big ‘domik’ districts continue to exist in various parts of the city. The ‘domiks’ – wagon-like temporary tin houses placed for two-three years – have been there for two and a half decades giving shelter to 4,000 Gyumri residents left homeless after the greater part of the city was turned to dust. In this urban settlement with once unique cultural, architectural profile and active political life these districts are like open wounds, still bleeding, still hurting, reminding Gyumri and its people of their tragedy.

Haykush Zakaryan, 70, has purchased her new domik in Gyumri’s Barracks district. For forty years she has worked at Gyumri’s maternity hospital as chief nurse. The one bedroom domik cost her $2,000.

“Well, what can I do? I’d rather borrow money and buy this than keep paying a rent. How do I know if I’ll ever be given housing or not?” says Zakaryan, who lost her apartment, when the building collapsed.

The Manukyan family lives in Haykush’s neighborhood -- sons, daughters-in-law, grandchildren – all in a tiny shelter.

“I have built this domik myself, but this is not a way to live. We have spent 25 years living in a tin-house, when you know how severe winters are in Gyumri,” says head of the family Sokhak Manukyan.

Albert Margaryan, head of urban development departments at Shirak region’s local government, says 20,600 apartments were built in Guimri in 22 years. A year later 400 more families will be provided with housing.

“There are 433 homeless families in Gyumri, and more than a thousand of those who, for some reason, did not get listed,” says Margaryan.

Meanwhile, Asparez Journalism Club board chairman Levon Barseghyan claims there are, actually, 4,000 homeless families in Gyumri.

“As part of his election campaign in 1998 Armenia’s second president Robert Kocharyan promised to have the disaster zone fully recovered by 2001. In 2001 he made a similar promise for 2003. Due to Kirk Kerkorian’s Lincy Foundation some 2,400 apartments were built in 2003 and 2004 in Gyumri, as well as the other places. It was declared then that the disaster zone was recovered and this is now a development zone and we have no homeless,” says Barseghyan.

However, the development zone should have ruled out homelessness, tin-house districts, and high poverty and migration indexes. Gyumri’s population after the earthquake was 221,000 -234,000, while the October 2011 census showed 121,500 people residing in Gyumri. The actual number is even smaller. Gyumri’s schools had 52,000-56,000 students before the earthquake, now there are only 14,500.

“These two comparisons demonstrate immediately where and what Gyumri is,” says Barseghyan.

The average poverty index in Shirak in 2012 was the highest in the country (47.7 percent), meaning that by official data every other person in Gyumri is poor. The majority of socially vulnerable people here are the residents of domik districts with countless social-economic issues.

For a year now no new apartments have been built for the homeless in Gyumri.

According to Shirak Center NGO leader Vahan Tumasyan’s preliminary data, the housing project for those left without a shelter as a result of the natural calamity in Shirak province should have started in April this year and ended in September producing 420 apartments in Gyumri, 140 in Akhuryan and 50 more houses in rural communities. He has addressed many letters to the ministry of urban development, from where they were redirected to Glendale Hills in charge of the construction project.

Tumasyan says Glendale Hills have put into operation 2,812 apartments with numerous defects and shortcomings. He says the government should have deprived the company from the opportunity to further implement construction projects in the disaster zone.

“The government should have held a new tender, chosen a local construction company, hired local workforce, used our Artik tufa stone, while they have used construction material unfit for the Gyumri cold,” he says.

After the criticism voiced related to the slowing down of the construction tempo there, Glendale Hills company leader Eduard Melikyan explained that the delay was conditioned by re-planning to add more apartments.

Later urban development minister Samvel Tadevosyan visiting Gyumri’s construction sites with President Serzh Sargsyan stated that the housing program for the disaster zone resumed in September 2013 and 1,315 more apartments were planned to be built in 2013-2014. The application deadline was extended from November 2011 to December 2012. Because of the increase of applications re-planning is required, that is why the construction of new apartments is being delayed, he said. The total volume of state-funded construction in the disaster zone (including Gyumri and a number of settlements of Shirak and Lori provinces) will make 85 billion drams (about $210 million). As part of the project launched in 2008, 3,760 apartments have been built. By the end of this year and first quarter of 2014 another 1,315 are planned to be built. The project has been implemented since 1988 in the areas affected by the Spitak earthquake.

The current project contractor Glendale Hills is building 430 apartments in Gyumri, and 32 more in Akhuryan.
Tumasyan believes one thing can be assumed from state officials’ visits to the construction sites: “It is more of an imitation of ongoing construction in Gyumri, than actual: one bulldozer works, one vehicle, they have just started digging the ground and laying the foundations of those buildings. In Akhuryan construction seems to be proceeding better, brigades seem to be working.”

He blames all of the presidents of independent Armenia with their respective administrations for the fact that there still are homeless people in Gyumri.

“The housing issue could have been solved quite efficiently and a long time ago, the rest – blockade, war – is pure demagogy. What about everything they stole that was meant for the recovery of the disaster zone? Look at how many millions are allotted to asphalting the streets in Yerevan. Have you ever seen them do it for Gyumri? This means that Gyumri is foreign to them, they do not see anything beyond Yerevan . . . “

Editor’s Note:/ In this series ArmeniaNow visits Armenia’s “second city”, Gyumri, where on December 7, 1988 earthquake destroyed the city while taking the lives of 25,000 and left thousands homeless from the epicenter in Spitak, to Gyumri, Stepanavan and Vanadzor. The fallout from the quake revealed the crumbling condition of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and signaled the beginning of new relations between Armenia and its broad Diaspora. In the immediate years to come, the earthquake would be seen as the starting point of struggle as Armenia dealt with recovery, while also engaging in war with Azerbaijan, a blockade by Turkey, and energy crisis. Orphaned from the USSR, and left to the mercies of foreigners – mostly Westerners who had for nearly seven decades been shut out of contact – Armenia was shaken on every front as it dealt with destruction, displacement and war during historically cold winters and as the country was in recovery while also facing the challenge to reshape itself into a democracy. No crisis had been as severe since the Armenian Genocide some 70 years earlier. The Shirak province of Armenia is no longer a “disaster zone”, but life there is surely still in recovery. Approaching the 25th anniversary of that seminal day, residents relive their stories and reflect on the years since . . .