By Artem Chernamorian in Gyumri and Anush Dashtents in Vanadzor
Armenia marked on Saturday the 14th anniversary of a catastrophic earthquake which killed over 25,000 people and caused enormous material damage to its northwestern regions still reeling from the massive disaster. Senior government officials led low-key ceremonies in memory of the dead, renewing their pledge to complete the protracted reconstruction of the area next year.
Gyumri, Armenia’s second-largest city which accounted for most of the death toll, was again the focal point of the annual commemorations, with President Robert Kocharian and other top officials laying flowers at a vast municipal cemetery that had sprung up shortly after the earthquake. They also attended the belated opening of Gyumri’s first earthquake memorial by the provincial authorities
“Every demolished building here is, in effect, a memorial,” said Felix Pirumian, governor of Shirak province, alluding to the fact that much of the city remains in ruins 14 years after the disaster.
The ceremonies were also attended by several leaders of the Armenian opposition who will be challenging Kocharian in the February presidential elections. The economically depressed earthquake zone will feature large in their expected attacks on the Kocharian administration.
For his part, the incumbent president, whose visits to the area are becoming more frequent, stresses that the reconstruction process has gained momentum under his rule, pointing to thousands of homes rebuilt in Shirak and neighboring Lori provinces over the past four years.
In Gyumri alone, official figures show that more than 1,300 apartments have been constructed this year, most of them with funds provided by the Lincy Foundation of Armenian-American financier Kirk Kerkorian. Still, Gyumri remains dotted with thousands of drab metal shacks where an estimated 14,000 city residents continue to live.
The picture is similar in Lori, the epicenter of the earthquake. Authorities there say that more than 500 houses and apartments will have been constructed from the beginning of this years through the first quarter of 2003. Only about 850 new homes were built during the four previous years.
The provincial capital Vanadzor still has about 700 temporary shelters. Municipal authorities claim that many of them are either empty or used by their owners for other purposes. They say those who live there can rent apartments with government money. But residents complain that the funding is not sufficient and sustained.
According to Lori’s deputy governor Aram Kocharian, the restoration of the nearby town of Spitak, which was wiped out by the 1988 quake, will be completed next year. He also said that all of the region’s 70 secondary schools destroyed or seriously damaged by the tremors have already been rebuilt.
The rebuilding of local economies appears to be a much more difficult task. While many housing problems in Shirak and Lori have been addressed in recent years, little has been done to create new jobs in the regions that have the highest unemployment rates in Armenia. Lori’s Kocharian warned that many local residents currently employed by the construction sector could be left without work after the completion of the reconstruction process unless the government in Yerevan steps in to prop up other sectors.