Savoyan was once a verdant district in a bustling metropolis, known for its thriving arts scene and political activity. Today, the neighborhood is filled with stray dogs and ramshackle tin houses— known as domiks. The weary expressions of its residents provide a window into the hardships borne by them since an earthquake shattered Gyumri 25 years ago.
Armenia's second largest city is dotted with dozens of domik districts. The makeshift aluminum shelters were intended to house the survivors for two to three years, but many of them are still in use. In the midst of dogged development efforts, these districts are like open wounds, reminding the city of its tragedy.
On that dark day in 1988, Chichak and her family took refuge in a Soviet-era cafe, where they have remained ever since. "My home was completely destroyed by the quake," said the 76-year-old.
Chichak lives with her 26-year-old daughter, Armine, her son-in-law and two grandchildren. The monthly family income, including benefits and pensions, is 66,000 drams ($155)—below the poverty line.
"I envy those who died in the quake; they lived well, with no shortage of anything, while we have suffered for 25 years," said Chichak.
The elderly woman remembers her four-decade career at a yarn-manufacturing factory: "For 40 years I worked at Lukashin, and now I have to live like a beggar...I never imagined I'd be living like this."
Davit Galstyan, who managed a beauty salon during the Soviet years, cannot hold back his tears when he recalls that fateful day on December 7.
"The ground moved in waves, and you couldn't stand on it. Nine-story buildings collapsed right in front of my eyes. We had moved into our new apartment less than 10 days before. Twenty-three people from our building were buried under the ruins," said Galstyan, now 60.
He remembers racing to his children's school to make sure they were safe. They had survived, but his spouse had not: "I found my wife's body on the 11th day [after the quake] and buried her under the cover of night, so that our children would not see."
In another part of town, three generations of the Manukyan family live in a tiny shelter in the Barracks district.
"I built this domik myself. We have spent 25 years living in a tin-house, and you know how severe winters are in Gyumri," said Sokhak Manukyan.
Albert Margaryan, head of the Shirak Province Urban Development Department, says 20,600 apartments have been built for Gyumri survivors over the past 22 years.
According to official counts, 433 families remain homeless; the city aims to provide them with shelter in 2014. Margaryan estimates, however, that over 1,000 more families may still be homeless, but unregistered.
Siranuysh Martirosyan waited years to receive a government-funded apartment.
The 70-year-old recalls the morning of the quake: "There was a dusting of snow and the weather was mild, and just like that, the city collapsed in seconds, then it turned foggy."
"The square was flooded with coffins. Corpses were lying in the streets. I stood frozen amidst all that, unable to move," Martirosyan said.
She carried on, working at the Leninakan Hotel for over four decades. Last year, Martirosyan breathed a sigh of relief when she was allocated an apartment. She had waited 25 years.
Where Are The People?
Through the mid-nineteen eighties, Gyumri was a major industrial center. Diverse sectors ranged from glass working to machine building, from food products to shoemaking. Some 40,000 workers were employed at 50 production facilities. The local textile plant alone employed 6,000 people from across the Soviet Union, rotating on three shifts per day.
It was a time when small businesses thrived. Master Khanan, who has worked for 58 years as a hairdresser, remembers the good times with nostalgia. He recalls when his massive barbershop might see dozens of customers pass through its doors in a single hour. His chair was always full, and he served five customers an hour at minimum. Today, that number has shrunk to five customers in an entire day.
"Where are all the people? Where has our nation gone? Why did they leave their nests?" he said with pain.
"The earthquake ruined Gyumri in its way, and what followed has broken and devastated it in another," he added.
Gyumri's population at the time of the earthquake was estimated at some 230,000 people. But while tens of thousands died in the quake, many more have since left the economically-depressed city. The late 1980s to the mid-1990s were marked by the war for Nagomo Karabakh, the closure of the Azeri and Turkish borders and a crippling energy crisis.
Dr. Felix Grigoryan, the chief obstetrician-gynecologist of Shirak province, says that the sharp population drop can be partly attributed to the city's low birthrate since the earthquake. The population plunged in the years following the natural disaster and never truly recovered.
"Gyumri had 25,000 human casualties, and the majority of them were children. On the day of the quake, the brand new wing of Gyumri's maternity hospital was reduced to a pile of stones," he said. Fifty-one of Grigoryan's colleagues died under the rubble, as did 48 mothers and infants, he says. Only a few mothers managed to escape, holding their babies in their arms.
Despite the devastating consequences of the natural disaster, life took its course. While many people were searching for their missing family members and mourning the dead, new lives were born by nightfall on December 7.
"That day, 12 babies were born in Gyumri," recalled the 65-year-old obstetrician. According to a recent census, Gyumri's population hovers around 121,500 people.
Members of the generation born in the late 1980s now have children of their own, many whom will leave their hometown to seek opportunity abroad. Still others remain behind, determined to revive the spirit of their city.
One of them is painter Sargis Hovhannisyan, who founded the 5th Floor cultural group with several colleagues in 2007. From its humble gallery and workspace in Gyumri, the collective has since participated in numerous regional and international partnerships and exhibitions.
Of the original group, three are now living abroad. "I resent the thought that one day I could be leaving, too," said Hovhannisyan. For now, art is his anchor to the city.
Rebirth In Art
In the wake of destruction and loss, art has blossomed in Gyumri. A key part of this is the Gyumri State Academy of the Arts, which is comprised of branches of the Yerevan State Conservatory, the State Institute of Theatre and Cinema and Yerevan State Academy of Fine Arts.
The Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) played a vital role in the founding of the academy, investing over half a million dollars in 1994, when the city was still reeling from the earthquake.
Ashot Ghazaryan, then Director of AGBU Yerevan, recalls the enthusiasm: "People would pass by the construction site and were excited that one day their children would have a place to study, though they still lived in domiks."
Today, the academy has some 400 students and, since 2008, has hosted the annual Gyumri Renaissance Music Festival, which attracts young musicians from some 40 countries.
The week-long Renaissance Festival has breathed new life into Gyumri. AGBU, through its support, has played an important role in the city's "renaissance." The festival, a major event in Gyumri, is widely anticipated by the population and attracts thousands of visitors to the city. Festival participation grows from year to year, attracting master musicians, who, in turn, offer courses to students in Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh.
Artur Mkrtchyan, director of Gyumri's central library and modern art museum, says that culture has grown even stronger in the year following the natural disaster.
Only one year after the earthquake, he recounts, came a bold move: the opening of a fine arts museum, featuring—of all things—a modern art exhibition.
"The city was in ruins with people in mourning, visiting the graves of their lost loved ones. Living in temporary shelters, they were hungry and cold with no electricity, or future," he said
"Suddenly, in an illuminated hall, they saw pieces of art— and contemporary art at that," he recalled. With electricity almost non-existent, the museum relied on a power generator for lighting. The bold exhibit, Mkrtchyan said, "proved that life was not over."
A mere five months after the earthquake, Gyumri hosted renowned Russian violinist Vladimir Spivakov.
Coffins were still scattered through the city; many people had not yet found missing family members, recalls Hasmik Kirakosyan, advisor to the Shirak governor. City authorities worried that no one would have the heart to attend the concert.
"Then, there they were—women covered with black shawls, men in black coats, dusty, slowly coming and coming, returning from cemeteries," Kirakosyan said.
Tears streamed down Spivakov's face. "What kind of people are these?" he said. "They come from cemeteries to a concert hall!" The crowd erupted in applause when he concluded his performance.
In November 2013, before the anniversary of the quake, Spivakov returned to Gyumri. This time, the circumstances were different—the city had been named the 2013 Cultural Capital of the Commonwealth of Independent States, and he was leading the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Russia in one of the many celebratory events that were scheduled throughout the year. Armenian artists proudly showcased their work at photo exhibits, master classes, symposiums, and arts, food, literary and sculpture festivals across the city.
But like his colleagues, and the audience that sat before him at the Cultural Capital concert, Spivakov could not help recalling the pain he witnessed 25 years before.