by Viorica Vladica, Special from ArmeniaNow.com
In 1997, the mayor of Gyumri told a journalist that by 2000, his city would "look like Disneyland".
Nearly 15 years since it was crushed, however, the capital of disaster is far from anything that resembles Disney's "happiest place on Earth".
Even the most patriotic or optimistic Armenian would recognize the oppressive air of what was once the third city in the Caucasus, but became the lost glory of Armenia.
Approaching from Yerevan, the city is entered on a road that normally would fit four lanes. But as the city itself has lost its direction, so too, traffic finds its way on whatever side of the road offers fewer holes and hazards. Visitors know they have reached the city, when they pass a massive graveyard on their left side, expanded by death with so many tombstones dating to December 7, 1988.
It took Japan less than a decade to rebuild its massive country following World War II. A decade and a half after the earthquake, Armenia's second largest city still looks like a bombing zone.
Yes, there are new buildings, including a relatively-lavish hotel. There are new schools, new apartment buildings. But they have been raised amid skeletal ruins that are the daily reminders of horror, when the earth convulsed and in a moment the Shirak province needed 25,000 new graves.
Ruins stand indecisively, as if held by the need to memorialize grief or in resistance to their surrounding entropy. And among them, communities of "domiks" (the Russian word for tiny houses) still are Gyumri's monument to inertia.
The "domiks" are the water tanks and shipping crates that were meant as "temporary" shelter but that now house teenagers growing up with the legacy of disaster.
Whether it is the "lack of political will" as some in Yerevan see it, or "the will of God" as Gyumri residents themselves say, the wounds of the 6.9 magnitude earthquake are far from healing.
We asked the Ministry of Finance, the Gyumri Mayor's Office and Members of Parliament how much money has been spent on earthquake recovery. None had an answer and at the Ministry of Finance no one could say whether the figure was millions or billions.
In any case, money from the State budget and from multiple charitable foundations (Lincy Foundation has contributed $45 million in housing projects and Huntsman Foundation spent about $50 million for the entire earthquake zone) are the major sources for Gyumri's new construction.
Since 1990, about 8,000 families have received apartments, leaving, according to the mayor's office, about 7,000 families still living in those "domiks".
A city that once employed 70,000, today employs 3,000 (excluding civil servants).
In 1988 there were 35 factories in Gyumri. Today there are three, operating at about 10 percent of their capacity.
Tatoul Manasserian, a professor of economics recently elected to Parliament, blames "the absence of political will and the lack of organization.
"I don't believe when they say they don't have money. Diaspora helps a lot and numerous projects aimed at Gyumri still operate, but the State should be the one to manage the development."
Manasserian wrote the Law on Gyumri, a document approved by the Parliament in 2002, which gives Gyumri a privileged status for economic development. One of the reasons for economic stagnation, he says, is that local businessmen as well as potential investors are not aware of these privileges.
The law, in effect, makes Gyumri a free trade zone. It allows businessmen, for example, to be excluded from property taxes.
But companies such as Analitpribor are far from being familiar with what's going on in the capital's politics. Producing instruments for shipbuilding, power engineering, oil processing and military industry, Analitpribor Joint-Stock company is one of the few remnants of Gyumri pre-earthquake manufacturing strengths that struggles still today.
The plant secured a monopolizing position in the former Soviet Union but after the earthquake, more than 70 percent of its buildings stopped operating. Soon after the Soviet collapse, it lost its market and worked at only five percent of its capacity.
Georgy Avetisyan, director of Analitpribor, says that his plant has received little attention, either before privatization or after. Attracting investments, he says, is nearly impossible.
"We had some investors looking for opportunities at our factory but all they did was to say 'sorry' and left," he says. "People are afraid to risk their own capital here."
Avetisyan is one of many who admit that central authorities do not inform him or other businessmen about what their privileges are and how they could operate further.
"Nobody tells us what the market needs today," he complains, "and unfortunately we cannot afford to hire expensive marketing experts." (During Soviet times Analitpribor employed 600. Today it has 100 employees, whose average salary is about $30 monthly.)
Of course the freedom of a market economy comes with self-reliance. But as Manasserian reckons, it is Government's responsibility in a transition society to help businessmen promote sales and production, not only in the capital, but especially in the regions.
"The government cannot ignore the problem," Manasserian says, insisting that the State should establish assistance programs for companies such as Analitpribor.
Gyumri's mayor, Vardan Ghukasyan, who has been in office since 1999, also considers that the government should be more active. "What we need today is new jobs and it is the government's responsibility to create them."
The Mayor's Office was among the buildings destroyed in the earthquake and even it was not rebuilt.
"For years nobody was paying attention to Gyumri," the mayor says. "We're happy at least for the programs that we have now."
Annually, the State budget allocates about $2 million toward development of Gyumri (for programs that don't include housing). At last year's December 7 commemoration service, President Robert Kocharian promised to give apartments to the remaining 7,000. It is a promise Ghukasyan hopes will be kept.
A need for substitute
Providing adequate living space is an achievable aim. But granting these homeless with a place to live will not eliminate the collective post-earthquake depression. Economic hardship contributes to Gyumri's decay of morale.
There is hardly a person among Gyumri's 120,000 who did not lose a loved one in the quake. Recovering from the loss is even more difficult after 15 years as there is no sustainable alternative for material or psychological damage.
Karine Sahaghyan, an ethno-psychologist from Gyumri, wrote The Monument of 1,000 Dreams, a book on post-earthquake disorders. Her research was based on dreams people were having after the earthquake and her conclusion was that death, loss of dear ones and loss of fortunes still prevent people from resuming their pre-earthquake lives.
She herself lost her mother and brother and writing the book was a way to memorialize the dead and honor the survivors.
"It is difficult for these people to find a substitute for their loss because of the economic crisis," she says. "But the only solution for them to persist through hardship is to find something new."
Indeed, Karine found an exchange in her work.
But Karine's salvation from perpetual mourning is an exception. Countless others are still looking for relief from an ingrained grief that links them to a haunting past and a hopeless future.
Varia Eygayzarian, 68, has taken out her plates and dishes to sell them in the street under her apartment's balcony. Her 3,000 dram pension (less than $6) does not help her out at all. She lost her husband and her five children in the earthquake and can hardly be blamed for being discouraged.
"You want to hear the word hope? Well, there is no hope for me," she says. "I lost everything and in 15 years I haven't seen any support."
Some are even living with the fear that another earthquake might take place during their lifetime. Geologists say occasional earthquakes are a natural phenomenon in the extensive seismic zone of Shirak. Such scientific data is little comfort in Gyumri.
Azatui Valesyan, 45, an earthquake survivor who lost her husband and daughter, received her apartment in a building constructed by Russians. Because it is built out of concrete, her place is always humid and cold. As a result, she suffers from rheumatoid arthritis. But she doesn't want to get another apartment because she says that, in case of another earthquake, her place will be stable and won't collapse.
Managing the loss
Economic losses after the earthquake were put at $14.2 billion. And according to the economist/deputy Manasserian, by losing Gyumri, Armenia lost 40 percent of its industrial capacity. There is little direction to go but forward. And some in Gyumri believe that development has to start with each individual.
"Everything can be restored, all we need is desire," says Artush Mkrtchyan, a businessman who is chairman of the (non governmental organization) Foundation of Gyumri Development. Part of the organization's mandate is to participate in programs for the development of "non-capital" cities throughout the Caucasus, with Gyumri as their targeted city.
Mkrtchyan believes progress must rely on a viable infrastructure—that Gyumri's priority should be to build roads, hotels, restaurants and renovate museums and monuments. In that belief, Mkrtchyan bought an art gallery and pulled together a collection of 1,500 exhibits of sculpture, graphic arts and painting. Art students are given free space for exhibiting their work in his gallery.
A former advisor to the Ministry of Finance and Economy, Mkrtchyan thinks pragmatically, but is also a dreamer:
"I want to make Gyumri a Strasbourg of the Caucasus," he says. "And I know I can achieve it by making thorough plans."
Mkrtchyan hopes to realize that dream through implementing the goals of the Foundation of Gyumri Development: establishing diplomatic ties with provincial cities in the whole Caucasus region and improving the image of Gyumri.
Through grants, Mkrtchyan has raised funding for developing a data base of all the monuments of Gyumri. Collecting the information is a first step toward raising money for the restoration of historical buildings and monuments.
According to Paruir Zakharian, director of the Museum of National Architecture and Urban Life, there were 1,500 architectural monuments in Gyumri, and 10 percent were destroyed by the earthquake.
Rebuilding monuments while a generation grows up in shipping crates may seem a frivolous fancy. But there are many in Gyumri who believe that the city's soul is buried in that graveyard gateway and any effort to restore its spirit takes a step forward from a debilitating past.