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By Shakeh Avoyan and Anna Saghabalian
Emma Mkrtchian and her husband Mnatsakan have lost something which has helped them endure atrocious living conditions for nearly two decades. The 1988 catastrophic earthquake ravaged their home in Armenia’s second largest city of Gyumri and they hoped they will eventually get a new one when they moved to a temporary shelter lacking the basic amenities.

The past 17 years has been enough of time to kill that hope. The middle-aged couple and thousands of other Gyumri families are not even fed with government promises anymore.

“We have no hope,” says Emma. “We have lived in this shack for 17 years and will stay here until we die.”

Gyumri and other regions of northwestern Armenia have been commonly known as a “disaster zone” ever since the December 7, 1988 earthquake killed at least 25,000 local residents and left hundreds of thousands of others homeless. Pledges to provide them with new housing were made first by the Soviet Union’s and then independent Armenia’s governments.

President Robert Kocharian, who led the official commemoration of the earthquake anniversary on Wednesday, has pledged to turn the area into a “development zone,” mostly with funds donated by U.S.-Armenian billionaire Kirk Kerkorian. Kerkorian’s Lincy Foundation charity has spent $45 million for that purpose, with some 3,700 apartments and houses built in the earthquake zone from 2002-2003. The Armenian government has financed similar work, though on a much smaller-scale, from its own budget. In addition, the U.S. Agency for International Development has underwritten apartment purchases by thousands of local people.

However, all of that has clearly proved insufficient for completing the reconstruction. According to official figures, in Gyumri alone as many as 4,000 families still huddle in drab shacks made of metal and wood. The government in Yerevan may have planned a record-high $1 billion budget for next year, but it has not earmarked any funds for the earthquake zone.

Nor does the Lincy Foundation plan any further construction projects there. Its next, $60 million cash allotment to Armenia will be used for repairing Yerevan streets and secondary schools across the country.

Also, the Armenian government chose not to request any additional U.S. money for the earthquake zone under Washington’s Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) program. Yerevan is seeking $175 million in MCA funds for rebuilding country roads and the nationwide irrigation network.

Even Gyumri-born pro-government politicians are now pessimistic about the future of the shack dwellers. “To be honest, I have no hope,” Samvel Balasanian, one of the leaders of the governing Orinats Yerkir Party, told RFE/RL. “No funds are set aside in the 2006 budget.”

“The situation is really severe,” Balasanian said. “People have been living in shacks for 17 years. It’s impossible to live like that any longer.”

Yet the homeless people have no other choice but to continue to live in their slowly decaying shelters. Mnatsakan Mkrtchian said he has twice received a USAID housing certificates worth $3,000 but could not find an apparent meeting the USAID’s stringent requirements. “I even suggested that they buy me any apartment they want but it didn’t work,” he said.

“We have no expectations from the state,” said one of Mkrtchian’s female neighbors. “Why would we? It hasn’t done anything good for us.”

The gloomy mood was echoed on the streets of downtown Gyumri that now bear few traces of the 1988 calamity. “I’m grateful to Kocharian for giving me an apartment,” said one elderly man. “But what about other people? I want to cry about their plight all the time.”

“Homes alone are not enough,” said another man. “Unemployment is very, very high here. The government must take care of that.”

The situation is similar in some rural areas. Nalband, a village located at the epicenter of the quake, has hardly seen any construction since the Soviet collapse. As many as 270 families there still live in temporary shelters with increasingly rotten walls and roofs.

Larisa, a single mother, and her two teenage children share one of those shacks with a cow that provides milk and cheese to the desperately poor family. An old curtain is all that separates the animal from them. “God willing, we will have a decent home one day,” said Larisa.

Spitak, a nearby town what was also razed in 1988, looks largely rebuilt. But there too a large number of people still lack decent housing. “A lot has changed here,” one of them, a father of four, admitted.

But as his elder son cautioned, “The disaster zone has not disappeared because 50 percent of the people here still live in shacks.”

(RFE/RL photo: Emma and Mnatsakan Mkrtchian.)
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