By Artem Chernamorian in Gyumri, Hrach Melkumian and Shakeh Avoyan
Top government officials promised a full reconstruction of destroyed homes on Friday as Armenia commemorated the 13th anniversary of a devastating earthquake that left its northwestern regions in ruins. Scores of local residents, many of them still waiting for their homes to be rebuilt, visited graves of their relatives and loved ones who were among more than 25,000 people killed by the disaster.
Photo: Children playing outside their makeshift house in Spitak
“I hope that two years later we will have forgotten the consequences left by the earthquake,” Prime Minister Andranik Markarian said in the northern city of Vanadzor, hit hard by the 1988 disaster.
As Markarian spoke at an official remembrance of the earthquake victims, President Robert Kocharian laid a wreath at an earthquake memorial 50 kilometers to the west, in the country’s second-largest city of Gyumri that had suffered even heavier damages. The prolonged rebuilding of infrastructures and housing there was the main theme of his ensued meeting with provincial leaders.
The Armenian minister for urban development, David Lokian, pledged on Wednesday that the Shirak and Lori provinces, which bore the brunt of the disaster, will be completely rebuilt before the end of next year. Markarian, however, said that the restoration of housing estates may take two years.
More than 14,000 families living in the area still huddle in makeshift shelters that lack basic conveniences. Made of metal and wood, they have become a common feature in the Gyumri and Vanadzor landscapes – a deep scar left by the tragedy.
Many locals, disillusioned with broken government promises, are skeptical about the latest government assurances. “They have been making promises for 13 years, but I still have no home and job,” said one a woman in Spitak, a town that had been razed to the ground on December 7, 1988.
Much of Spitak has been rebuilt ever since and work on several new buildings in the town center is underway. But in the nearby village of Jrashen 80 percent of houses still await reconstruction.
Elsewhere in Lori, two newly built schools and an apartment building were officially inaugurated by premier Markarian on Friday.
Most of the ongoing construction work is taking place in Gyumri where more than 400 families have received new apartments this year. But even there people say change is too slow in coming. “There have been some improvements in recent years, but the plight of people is really bad,” said one city resident.
The shortfall of budget revenues in the second half of this year meant that seven apartment blocks in Gyumri, heavily damaged by the 1988 tremors, have not been repaired as was planned by the government program on the earthquake zone.
Still, the city authorities believe that the program will be implemented on schedule. “I am sure that the president will keep his word,” Gyumri Mayor Vartan Ghukasian told RFE/RL.
Ghukasian and many Gyumri residents say that huge unemployment is now the key problem facing the region whose industrial capacities were severely damaged by the earthquake measuring between six and seven points on Richter scale.
Meanwhile, Armenia’s seismologists claim that they are now equipped and skilled enough to foresee an earthquake of such magnitude. “Today we are prepared for such an earthquake,” the chief of the National Seismic Protection Service, Sergei Balasanian, told a news conference on Thursday.
Situated in a seismically active part of the world, Armenia has for centuries been rocked by powerful earthquakes. Balasanian said his service currently registers 10 to 15 underground tremors a day, twice less than in the 1990s. The fall in the number of tremors (they averaged one hundred in 1988 and the previous years) testifies to the potentially dangerous “accumulation of tectonic energy,” he said.