By Emil Danielyan in Gyumri
A gaping void above rubble cuts across the drab façade, and one of the two wings is little more than a ruin. A suffocating stench of urine and excrement fills the dark, drafty and eerily silent corridors. It’s a scene that should shock any stranger.
And yet this crumbling building in Gyumri is home to about 60 people living in fear and squalor -- a symbol of government neglect in Armenia’s second city still reeling from the catastrophic earthquake of 1988. Its residents scratch out a modest living with scant hope for a brighter future.
“We are scared, but what can we do?” This is their most common explanation for their continuing existence in 12 square-meter rooms that may collapse at any moment. A danger that does not seem to bother much local authorities.
Svetlana Barseghian huddles in one of those rooms with her husband and two grown-up children. “After the last collapse [of building masonry] about two months ago we flinch at every bang, every clatter,” she says. “Officials from the municipality, the marzpetaran (regional administration) came here recently, looked around and said, ‘People, get out of here’. But where should the people go?”
Indeed, thousands of people in Gyumri still live in temporary shelters -- metal shacks called “domiks” by the locals -- despite recent years’ flurry of reconstruction work mainly funded by foreign donors, notably the Lincy Foundation of Armenian-American billionaire Kirk Kerkorian. But unlike them, most of those confined to the collapsing building are not included in government lists entitling them to free housing.
The four-story building, badly damaged by the quake, used to be a workers’ dormitory belonging to the city’s now defunct textile factory. Like many other Armenian industries, it thrived before the fall of Communism to such an extent that it needed to bring in guest workforce from other parts of the Soviet Union. Hundreds of young women arrived from Russia and other Soviet republics in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Some of them have stayed on. The so-called “factory girls” are now middle-aged women, mostly single mothers living off meager state benefits. As the spokeswoman for Gyumri Mayor Vartan Ghukasian puts it bluntly, “They had not lost homes in Gyumri and are not considered homeless.”
Natalia Khodakova, who came to Gyumri from Russia’s Tatarstan region in 1980, says she would return home with her daughter if she had money. “I have lived here for 24 years. Why don’t they give me a home?” she screams, bursting into tears. “I don’t work now. What should I do?”
There are also ethnic Armenians among these second-class citizens. Gayane, for example, did lose a home in the earthquake which she shared with her brother, his wife and two children. They received a new one-room apartment a few years ago. But it was too small to accommodate two families and Gayane had to settle in the dormitory with her 12-year-old son. “They say ‘You have already got an apartment, so live there’,” she says.
“We are all single mothers, and that’s why they don’t care about us,” her elderly neighbor, Shoghik Muradian, joins the conversation.
Like the other residents, Muradian, her two children and two grandchildren have to endure the inconvenience of a single tiny room lacking basic amenities such as running water and even a toilette. She tells a visitor to walk faster as they pass the middle of the building’s narrow corridor that faces the huge crack. That is the most dangerous place. For behind the eroding wall is empty space where four rooms lay on top of each other before the collapse began about two years ago.
The Muradian family had a chance to get a more decent place to live under an earthquake-zone housing program funded by the United States Agency for International Development. The USAID has underwritten hundreds of new apartment purchases by homeless families. The Muradians received a housing certificate worth $4,284 as part of the scheme. The problem, Shoghik Muradian says, is that they are not allowed to buy an apartment with a total area of less than 72 square meters. Real property of that size is more expensive in Gyumri, she says.
Roza Rambulova, originally from Kazakhstan, moved to a safer room from the edge of the building which is also falling down. She has four children. “People living here have a pilot’s heart and spirit,” their Armenian father says with the trademark sarcasm of Gyumri people. “Walls keep falling down, but the government doesn’t give a damn.”
It does, according to Mikael Vartanian, the deputy governor of the broader Shirak region who also heads a commission dealing with decrepit local buildings. Vartanian claimed that the dormitory residents have been offered other temporary housing but refused to move there in the hope of clinching new apartments from the state. However, the residents insist they have never been offered anything better than what they have.
“People are trying to take advantage of the existing situation,” Vartanian said. “But I personally am in favor of including them in the housing lists.”
The Gyumri municipality is opposed to this on the grounds that the building belongs to the new, private owner of the textile factory. But the latter seems in no mood to solve the problem.
In the meantime, the building is being slowly but steadily reduced to ruins, putting its dwellers' life at growing risk. The Armenian government’s Department on Emergency Situations has included it in the list of nationwide high-risk buildings that are subject to demolition. But no urgent government action is on the cards.
When Svetlana Barseghian’s husband moved to Gyumri from Tbilisi, Georgia with his family in 1989 he was promised a new apartment in return for participating in the city’s massive reconstruction launched by the Soviet government. The whole earthquake zone was supposed to be rebuilt in two years. The break-up of the empire spelled an end to the ambitious plan, however.
Now, Sevtlana says, they would even settle for a domik: “If they give us a normal domik now, we would be happy because it’s impossible to live here anymore.”