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Armenia / Georgia
Armenia / Georgia

LONG TIME COMING: TWO DECADES BRING SHIRAK BACK TO LIFE


by Gayane Abrahamyan

Twenty years ago December 7, the province of Shirak drew the world's attention to the littleknown Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia when news of horror spread in the wake of an earthquake that killed some 25,000 and left multiple times that number homeless.

With the significant anniversary of destruction at hand, the region—and particularly Armenia's second largest city, Gyumri—is still in recovery. Young adults starting new families have come of age in "the disaster zone," which in recent years came to be called the "recovery zone."

For those in the province who've borne the burden of a 20-year struggle, and have laid too many flowers on too many graves for too many years, there has been no need for any renaming. It has just been "home."

The province of Shirak, located in the northwest of Armenia, neighbors Georgia to the north and Turkey to the west. Gyumri, the provincial capital, is home to 147,000 of the region's 281,000 residents. The remaining population is scattered in 116 villages across the province's 2,681 square kilometers.

Two decades after the devastating earthquake, Gyumri finally has more the look of progress than the long-lingering shadow of destruction that for so many years was the city's frozen image. Once called the "black town" because of its architectural use of dark tuf (a peculiar kind of Armenian stone), Gyumri now has a pinkish tinge with old-style ornamental motifs maintained in a lighter shade of the popular Armenian stone.

Construction includes new private houses spread throughout, and the four-storied residential buildings financed by the Lincy Fund and called "Lincy Buildings" for that reason.

In 1988 Soviet authorities promised to rebuild Gyumri in two years. Before the empire collapsed, Soviet builders constructed 5,628 apartments in three years. Since then, the pace has been about 1,000 per year.

In Gyumri the earthquake destroyed a dozen factories, 45 schools, 32 medical institutions and left about 23,000 families homeless. Gyumri once resembled a refugee camp, with tents or temporary metal containers—often nothing more than railroad shipping crates—where thousands of residents found shelter for more than a decade.

Reconstruction in Gyumri was made possible by dozens of major agencies. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) was among outside leaders in relief. Through its Urban Institute, it provided financing for construction of 4,000 apartments. Leading Diaspora organizations worked side by side with the World Bank and Red Cross to rebuild Gyumri, aided by allocations from Armenia's state budget. Six thousand houses were constructed while there was still a Soviet Union. Lincy (Kirk Kerkorian's Armenian charity) built 2,531. Various humanitarian projects, including Norway Council, financed smaller-scale projects.

Still, though, "luck" is defined in Gyumri as whether a displaced family gets a home of its own—acquired through a lottery system supposedly based on need, but often susceptible to delivery according to bribery.

Ofelia Parvanian, 70, was lucky in 2006. She received a nice and safe apartment in the Lincy Buildings after spending 18 years in a tiny metal house—the infamous "domigs" that resemble tool sheds more than homes.

"I couldn't believe my eyes the first day when I got the keys. It seemed to me I couldn't stand the happiness," Ofelia says, enraptured with a grand view of the town, Charles Aznavour Square and the monument to the favored singer before her eyes as she stands in her sun-washed balcony.

A bright apartment is still a dream for the remaining 4,080 families in Gyumri, who have spent 20 years in houses that have not become homes. Their delivery of "luck" needs three more years, if authorities are true to their promise.

"The problem of homelessness in the disaster zone will finally be solved by 2013," promised Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian in Gyumri on June 12.

A new ambitious government housing program will cost about 90 billion drams ($300 million dollars).

"We affirm the state takes the full responsibility to provide apartments to about 7,000 families [in all zones hit by the quake]," Sarkisian said. "We will build about 3,000 apartments in Gyumri to fully solve the homelessness problem here. We need to build districts comfortable for life."

Many locals living in "temporary" houses say they have heard scores of such promises but are still in old, damp houses where rodents are frequent guests.

In 2001, the head of disaster zone issues at the Ministry of Urban Planning Vladimir Sardarian said: "The construction of health-care institutions and schools in the disaster zone will be finished by the end of 2001. The housing program is planned to be finished in 2003." The promise, though, lasted hardly longer than his words and seven years later remains unrealized.

"Let's hope everything will be true this time," says Narine Kurghinian, who has tolerated 20 years in a temporary house. "Much has been done in the last five-six years, that's true. Schools have been built, but there are still (thousands) living in these rotten houses and it is very hard to inspire them with hope."

Vardan Ghukasian, mayor of Gyumri since 1999, also says housing is the problem in most urgent need of solution in the town.

"You can't find a family that hasn't suffered some sort of illness while living in temporary houses. Housing, along with the creation of new jobs, is the primary objective we pursue," says Ghukasian, although stressing that spiritual issues should not be forgotten when solving social problems.

Conserving culture

Once a hearth of culture, Gyumri is now restorimg its renown with newly built monuments and cultural centers, and with Armenia's largest group sculpture devoted to the 20th anniversary of the quake to be mounted in the central square of the town.

The sculpture of ancient warriors of Armenian lore, Vardanants, has been designed to stand between the Holy All-Savior (still under repair from earthquake damage) with its reconstruction works planned to be finished this year and the Saint Astvatsatsin Cathedral (which remained opened after suffering earthquake damage only to its towers). The sculpture, nine meters in height, includes the figures of Vardan Mamikonian, Catholicos Hovsep, Ghevond Yerets (Leondius the Cleric), Arshavir Kamsarakan (Prince of Shirak), (queen) Sahakanuysh, and Catholicos Sahak Partev.

"Vardanants is the symbol of loyalty to our Christian faith and language. Such a sculpture was needed to link the two churches and to remind how we, Armenians, have had much tougher times, but every time have overcome together," says mayor Ghukasian.

The new look of the town with its rebuilt churches and museums has become possible owing to donations of Diaspora Armenians.
The old Gyumri, then Alexandropol (until it became Leninakan in 1924), considered the second most beautiful and wealthy town of the Caucasus after Tbilisi in the 19th century, has preserved part of its former beauty. The central part of Gyumri, the old Kumayri, is the only location in Armenia that has been kept as a comprehensively and truly Armenian historic town of the late 19th century.

This part of the town is also called an open-air museum, where there are more than 1,600 historic buildings, elaborate mansions of the local rich of the 19th century, and five churches (three Armenian, one Russian, one Greek).

Varpetats Street is one of the most popular in the old town, where there are just a few steps between the museums of great Armenian writers Avetik Isahakian (renovated 2007) and Hovhannes Shiraz (rebuilt 2007) and the Mher Mkrtchian museum (built 2006) a bit further on, built or renovated with the means of the Gyumri municipality and the state budget. On the parallel street there is the museum dedicated to the Aslamazian sisters, who were painters, fully rebuilt within the Lincy program for reconstruction of cultural centers.

The charming buildings across the narrow street with ornamented windows, cornices, and columned gates have withstood the disastrous 1926 and 1988 earthquakes and even the renovations of the town.

The 19th-century architecture is believed to reflect the best period of Gyumri, and it is being preserved through the efforts of a daughter of Mississippi.

"I aim to evaluate, support and protect the power and wealth of Armenia's unique culture with this program by documenting the architecture of the Kumayri historic area," says Mississippi State University professor of architecture Jane Britt Greenwood. "I catalogue and work only with the residential stock of the 1840-1920 Alexandropol period. We try to identify the date of the construction, evaluate the architectural style, details and solutions. Greeks, Romans, Russians and Turks have left their traces on this people and this country, but despite it all, the identity of the original culture of Armenia is particularly manifest in the unique architecture of historic buildings."

Last year Greenwood launched a project funded by Earthwatch, to document Gyumri's historically significant architecture. Under her leadership, groups of specialists measure, map and restore the design projects and the plans of the buildings.

Preservation of Old Gyumri is getting help, too, from Armenian Monuments Awareness Project (AMAP), which earlier this year put up "information ports" to guide visitors on a walking tour of Kumayri houses and places of historic interest.

Rick Ney, a Texan who was the first non-Armenian American to create tourist information about Armenia (www.tacentral.com), founded the project along with John Hughes, editor of ArmeniaNow internet journal (and a contributor to this magazine).

The project is funded by USAID, the Italian Consulate, and by a major donation from VivaCell communications company through its Corporate Responsibility Program. Armenia's Ministry of Culture is assisting the project through historical research and installation of the signs—which are in Armenian, Russian, French, English and Italian. AMAP also plans to install audio tours so that tourists can walk the Gyumri streets while guided by headset recordings.

"Gyumri was one of our first targeted sites (other information installations have been done in Garni, Geghard, Khor Virap and Noravank), because we recognize the city's historic value and hope to prevent the destruction of its cultural landmarks even as Gyumri modernizes and reconstructs," says Ney.

Ney, who helped run a kerosene distribution project for Gyumri in the early '90s, evaluates reconstruction of the "second city" from the viewpoint of nearly 20 years' experience.

"Gyumri has a chance now, as long as the citizens take charge and make a go of it. For so long they have been addicted to handouts, but now I sense something else, a bit of the independent spunk they are so famous for. That was the focus of our presentation this year, 'Gyumri Veratsnund (Gyumri Reborn)'—to find that spirit that made Gyumri so strong and will make it strong again."

Gyumri historian Vladimir Simonian agrees with the Texan's viewpoint on preservation, and points south to the capital as an example of what to not do.

"They dismantled all the old buildings in Yerevan, cleared away the whole history. But we are ready to spill our blood for every stone, to pass them on to next generations," says Simonian.

Mayor Ghukasian says he is very watchful over the many construction sites, claiming that if a building does not conform to the general architectural image of the town, he bans the works.

"It's very hard because private investors need to be encouraged to build something in Gyumri, but one should be very strict over them, so that Gyumri does not lose its look," says Ghukasian.

During the difficult years, when problems created by social and economic crisis overlapped all others, a crucially important cultural center—the State Academy of Fine Arts—opened its doors in Gyumri in 1992.

Conductor Loris Tjeknavorian organized a pilgrimage from Yerevan to Gyumri to collect the money needed for the reconstruction of the building. The pilgrimage turned into a mass event and the first step in reviving spiritual and cultural life.

The full-scale major reconstruction and reconstruction of the columned building of the academy was made possible by AGBU and later with some assistance from the Hayastan All-Armenian Fund. Since 1997, the premise has hosted branches of the State Conservatory, State Academy of Fine Arts and the Theatric Institute, having more than 500 students.

"The Academy became a kind of oasis then and was both an educational and spiritual center. Artists would gather here to forget the horrific routine and social hardships and fully go into arts," says the director of the branch of the fine arts academy and its founder Hambartsum Ghukasian.

The reconstruction of the town's Drama Theater and Hoktember Cinema in 2005 gave new momentum. The cinema, built in 1925, that had stood in ruins and unused for 17 years, has once again become a popular dating place for young people.

It was a long time coming, but since 2005, none of Gyumri's 38 schools are held in the metal, make-shift sites of the "recovery years." School Number 33 was the last to move into contemporary housing in 2005, through the Swiss CASA foundation's donation of $2 million.

Pupils of the modern and comfortable school still recall the small classrooms of the former school and laugh comparing the two.

"The atmosphere was so oppressive one couldn't even think of doing lessons. You need to love your school to study, and now the school is so nice many of us don't want to go home," says Minas Muradian, a 9th grade student.

A swimming pool built by the Hayastan All-Armenian Fund was a special present for the residents of Gyumri, after all four pools in the town were ruined by the quake. Thirty children at a time can be trained in the pool.

Left over Hardship

Gyumri indeed has a new life, but the traces of the earthquake have not fully disappeared. After 20 years the skeletons of old ruined buildings and houses meet the eye like ghosts by the side of new ones and the temporary housing districts stick out like patches on a new gown.

One of those partially destroyed buildings in the center of the town belonged to the dormitory of the garment factory with part of it damaged by the quake and the central part remaining intact.

On an autumn afternoon it is sunny and warm in the street, but cold and damp in the dormitory, like in winter. Twelve families live in the building with dilapidated stairways, dark corridors and no toilets.

Gayane Taroyan, 72, calls the dormitory "purgatory" and darkly jokes that "Hell will be an ordinary place for us after this."

The USSR gave Taroyan an apartment nine years before the quake, after she'd lived for 30 years in the dormitory. Then the earthquake destroyed her apartment, so she went back to the dormitory.

"I did not manage to enjoy my apartment. This dormitory is my fate. I will die here, you know," says the old woman, saying she cherishes no hope to get another apartment. "I won't live to 2013, let them build for others. The young will at least live in proper conditions."

Life is better, but not all is well in Gyumri, where "progress" is measured against a time when coffins were stacked on sidewalks and "gravedigger" looked good on a resume.

"Men and, more recently, women leave for the Russian Federation, European countries and United States to provide for their families. I am confident if they had money to get airplane tickets they would definitely take their families with them. Many of them work abroad for years, but don't manage to save money for an apartment," says Sirvard Zakarian, 43, who has been unemployed for 14 years.

Gyumri, an industrial center in the Soviet times with 50 large enterprises providing about 40,000 jobs, has only 100 small and medium enterprises today that have jobs for just 3,000.

While most rebuilding is focused on Gyumri, the Shirak province itself has seen development, including seven new enterprises opened last year, producing about $51 million worth of goods (led by dairy, beer and garments).

The largest achievement in industry last year was the launching of the construction of a sugar factory in Akhurian planned for production in 2009. The plant is expected to provide about 200 jobs.

With realization of growth, though, comes nearly as many disappointments.

In 2006, plans were announced to launch Armenia's first technopark in Gyumri, planned to create business incubators and help find investment opportunities for small and medium enterprises. It hasn't happened, although the 2008 state budget allocated $266,000 for that purpose.

Forward-looking investors see Gyumri as a developing opportunity. In recent years namebrand distributors such as Samsung and Zigzag (electronics) have opened shops there. But the needs of so many unemployed are not met by a few retail outlets employing 10 or so at a time.

According to the Gyumri Municipality, private business investment has amounted to about $117 million "in recent years," mainly representing businessmen who are from Gyumri but now live in other Armenian cities, or abroad.

And while Gyumri struggles to fight unemployment, it offers little opportunity for the newly employable.

"I am an economist. I graduated university with high grades," says Edgar Khachatrian, 24. "There was no hope to find work in Gyumri. As a rule, businesspeople hire their acquaintances. Salaries here are not sufficient either. But work can be found in the capital, there is even an opportunity of choice; that is why so many young professionals from the provinces move to Yerevan."

Official records list 12,000 unemployed in the entire Shirak province. Residents know that "official" numbers are unreliable. That number represents only those who have applied to stateassisted job centers for work. By applying, they qualify for about $36 a month for up to a year.

The second largest town of the republic also comes first in poverty rate in a province where the number of needy is 46.2 percent. Experts say the high rate of poverty is conditioned by the lack of a single large enterprise in a town that once used to be an industrial center. Almost 70 percent of Gyumri residents were factory workers during Soviet times. Families that had the means left Gyumri after the earthquake, leaving a mostly low-income remnant whose meager savings (if any at all) were insufficient for the impending years of jobless hardship.

There are 22,223 families in Shirak included in the state program of family poverty allowances and one-time financial support. The number of pensioners in the province in January-June 2008 was 49,463.

"Although pensions are increased almost every year and can't be compared to what was given 10 years ago, the 20-25,000 drams ($60-75) are very little for someone whose only income is the pension," says pensioner Gohar Sahakyan. "It hardly covers food and utility expenses."

In 2007 a liter of vegetable oil cost less than two dollars; now it costs nearly three dollars. Bread that last year cost about 30 cents now costs about 40. The price of a kilo of butter rose by more than two dollars.

"After all these increases in prices, neither salary growth nor pension increases can make us happy," says Zemfira Alexanian, 65. Non-pensioners feel the impact of a growing cost of living, though less dramatically.

Shirak province mathematics teacher Rima Asatrian says her salary has grown by 50 percent over the past five years. On average, teachers throughout Armenia make from $120-210 a month.

Of course it is not enough. But it is more than before. And in a region known for unspeakable tragedy, any evidence of growth it is at least a sign of hope.

Gyumri reporter Ani Hakobyan contributed information for this article.

Originally published in the November 2008 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. Archived content may appear distorted on your screen. end character

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