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By Satenik Vantsian in Gyumri and Karine Simonian in Vanadzor
Armenia marked on Sunday the 20th anniversary of a catastrophic earthquake that killed about 25,000 people and devastated much of its two northern regions that have still not been completely rebuilt.

President Serzh Sarkisian reiterated his administration’s pledge to finish the protracted reconstruction by 2013 as he led official commercial ceremonies in Gyumri, the country’s second largest city hit hard by the disaster. This and other ceremonies were attended by former government officials and construction and rescue workers from the across the former Soviet Union who had helped the small South Caucasus republic cope with its devastating consequences.

Armenians also received messages of sympathy from the presidents of Russia and the United States on the occasion. “On this solemn anniversary we are reminded of the strong bonds between America and Armenia and the resilience of the Armenian people,” President George W. Bush said in his written address. “They rose from this tragedy and have reclaimed a bright future of hope and opportunity.”

Sarkisian opened a new memorial to the earthquake’s victims in Gyumri’s central square after attending a special church service presided over by Catholicos Garegin II, head of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The mass, broadcast live by national television, involved a minute of silence observed at 11:41 a.m -- the exact time the quake struck on December 7, 1988.

Unveiling the monument, Sarkisian thanked the international community for its large-scale assistance that began pouring into then Soviet Armenia just hours after the calamity. "Twenty years ago, all peoples rallied to our side, despite the Cold War, ideological differences and different political views," Sarkisian said. "From the first days, our people felt like the whole world was with us."

Nikolay Ryzhkov, a former Soviet prime minister who personally coordinated the rescue and reconstruction efforts, also delivered a speech, reading out a message from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. "We bow our heads before the memory of the thousands of victims of this natural disaster,” Medvedev said. “We remember with deep respect and gratitude today the courage of the rescuers who answered the call for help."

That help was badly needed by as many as 500,000 people whose homes, built in apparent violation of seismic safety standards, were destroyed by two powerful tremors that rocked much of Armenia’s territory 20 years ago. The Ryzhkov-led Soviet government pledged to rebuild them in two years. Dozens of construction companies from across the Soviet Union were assigned to the earthquake zone in the following months.

However, the massive reconstruction effort fizzled out with the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union. Independent Armenia’s successive governments were too cash-strapped to complete it. The reconstruction gained fresh momentum in the early 2000s when thousands of new houses and apartments were built in the economically depressed area with the financial assistance of U.S.-Armenian billionaire Kirk Kerkorian. Nonetheless, as many as 7,000 families in the quake-hit Shirak and Lori regions still lack permanent housing, huddling in metal and wooden shacks devoid of basic amenities.

“We still live in a shack, and there are no jobs here,” one elderly woman told RFE/RL as she stood outside the Gyumri cathedral along with several dozen other local residents hoping to hand letters to Sarkisian. “They [government officials] visit nice streets here and think that Gyumri is 100 percent rebuilt,” she complained. “Let them go into the nearby neighborhoods, talk to people.”

“We feel neglected, humiliated,” said another woman. “My son works in Russia and doesn’t want to return home. Why? Because he hates our shack.”

“Within a few years we will manage to overcome all consequences of the disaster,” Sarkisian said in his speech. “When I say completely I mean that there will be no families left homeless as a result of the earthquake and the improving life will return to normal.” “We have promised this and we will deliver,” he added.

Parliament speaker Hovik Abrahamian reaffirmed this pledge as he led commemoration ceremonies in Lori’s capital Vanadzor attended by Georgia’s last Communist-era leader, Jumber Patiashvili, and builders and rescuers from Russia and Ukraine who had worked in the earthquake zone in 1988-1990. “The government’s three-year program envisages 71 billion drams ($230 million) worth of construction [in the earthquake zone,]” Abrahamian said.

According to Urban Development Minister Vartan Vartanian, large-scale construction in the area will start next year and end by 2013. “All the preparatory work has already been done,” he told RFE/RL in Vanadzor. “Most of the [construction] tenders have already been held, and construction work will get underway in 2009.”

Former President Robert Kocharian similarly pledged to rebuild the disaster zone during his ten-year tenure. Incidentally, Kocharian also attended the Gyumri ceremonies with Sarkisian and Garegin. Unlike the current president, he stopped to talk to local residents and hear their grievances. Some of them complained that they are still homeless 20 years after the tragedy.

“I am not in office anymore but will do all can, as second president, to help [Gyumri,]” Kocharian told journalists afterward. “There is a new president, a new government that are also determined to continue the job.”

(Photolur photo)
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