By Hrach Melkumian and Nane Atshemian
Tens of thousands of people flocked to cemeteries in northern Armenia on Tuesday in an annual remembrance of their relatives and loved ones killed in the catastrophic earthquake that ravaged the area exactly 16 years ago.
The anniversary was also marked by official ceremonies in the main regional towns led by President Robert Kocharian. Opposition leader Stepan Demirchian, Kocharian’s main challenger in last year’s disputed presidential election, likewise laid flowers at memorials to some 25,000 victims of the natural disaster.
The two political foes accompanied by aides bumped into each other in Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city that accounted for much of the death toll. Each man pretended not seeing the other.
For thousands of ordinary residents of the northern Shirak and Lori provinces, the commemoration ended yet another year spent in poverty and without decent housing. The Armenian government promised to all but finish the protracted reconstruction of the earthquake zone with $45 million granted by U.S.-Armenian billionaire Kirk Kerkorian. The money allowed for the construction of 3,700 new apartments last year.
The problem has still not been solved, however. In Gyumri alone, there are at least 3,000 families huddling in temporary shelters that often lack basic amenities. Silva Mkhitarian, a single mother, has lived in one such shack since 1989 and sees no solution in sight. “I have an 11-year-old son. I make his sleep with his gloves on,” she said.
“They promised to give us a new home five or six years ago. But who takes their promises seriously?” Samvel Narimanian, another homeless resident, said, referring to government officials. “Our leaders keep fooling us.”
Another man, Gevorg Grigorian, argued that new homes alone would not end the misery. “They call it a development zone, but there is no development, no jobs,” he said.
The lack of employment opportunities clearly topped the list of grievances cited by people in the Lori capital Vanadzor that was not hit by the earthquake as hard as Gyumri. One elderly man there derided government reports about a decline in nationwide poverty. “Poverty is decreasing because old people like us are dying,” he said.
In Yerevan, meanwhile, the National Seismic Protection Service, a government agency set up after the December 1988 quake, again sought to reassure the public that Armenia is unlikely to face a similar calamity in the foreseeable future. “Seismic activity is normal and there is no cause for concern,” said the head of the service, Alvaro Antonian.
But Antonian also admitted that if another powerful quake were to jolt the mountainous country its consequences could be just as disastrous. “Unfortunately, our specialists have found ongoing constructions in Yerevan that visually do not meet standards for seismic safety,” he said. “We do react, but don’t have the levers and the authority to influence the construction.”