By Satenik Vantsian in Gyumri
President Robert Kocharian led on Thursday low-key official commemorations of the 18th anniversary of a powerful earthquake that killed some 25,000 people and devastated much of northwestern Armenia.
The main official ceremony took place in the country’s second largest city of Gyumri where thousands of people continue to huddle in temporary shelters despite considerable reconstruction carried out in recent years. Kocharian and local government officials observed a minute of silence by a memorial to earthquake victims before an open-air liturgy was served by representatives of the local diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Kocharian was confronted after the religious service by scores of local women with a litany of grievances, most of them relating to their wretched housing conditions. His bodyguards were at pains to hold back the crowd.
“I have supported a disabled child for 18 years, it’s impossible to continue like this,” a middle-aged pleaded with Kocharian.
“Mr. Kocharian, please help us solve the problem of our hostel,” screamed another woman who claimed to be facing eviction from a ramshackle building that houses dozens of impoverished families.
Kocharian promised to address the complaints as he left the square to inspect the new building of the Gyumri mayor’s office which is currently under construction. He also pointed to the scale of mostly Diaspora-funded construction work that has been carried out in the town and the broader earthquake zone since the late 1990s.
According to the local authorities, at least 2,000 Gyumri families still lack decent housing despite past government pledges to completely rebuild the area by 2002. Unofficial estimates of the number of such people are much higher.
The Armenian government did not finance construction of new homes in the earthquake zone this year and is unlikely to do so in 2007. It is due to spend instead 700 million drams ($1.9 million) on buying new apartments for over 300 Gyumri families.
Kocharian discussed the matter at a two-hour meeting with senior officials from the municipal and regional administrations. His planned news conference was cancelled for unknown reasons. The Armenian leader likewise avoided any contact with local reporters during his previous December 7 visit to Gyumri.