By Emil Danielyan in Gyumri
Manya Kyureghian has waited for this moment for 14 years, ever since a powerful earthquake destroyed her home in Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city still bearing the scars left by the calamity.
This elderly woman looks at the comforts of modern life with disbelief as she shows visitors a new two-bedroom apartment into which she and five other members of her family will soon move. It’s a world away from the squalor of a rusty metal shack just a dozen meters away where they have lived all this time, struggling with “cold and rats.”
“We are so grateful to Kirk Kerkorian and our leadership,” Kyureghian says, paying tribute to the U.S. billionaire of Armenian origin whose lavish assistance has thrown a lifeline to the once thriving city that has been a byword for gloom and misery in post-Soviet Armenia.
The December 7, 1988 catastrophic earthquake in northwestern Armenia killed some 25,000 people and made hundreds of thousands of others homeless. Gyumri and surrounding areas accounted for the bulk of the death toll. For those who stayed alive the tragedy was prolonged by the cash-strapped Armenian government’s failure to promptly rebuild all demolished homes. The 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union (and massive aid from Moscow) meant that the reconstruction work continued at a snail’s pace.
It has gained momentum over the last two years, with millions of dollars in mainly Armenian Diaspora assistance poured into what is still called a “disaster zone.” Kerkorian’s Lincy Foundation is by far the single largest contributor, having set aside $43 million for that purpose. Much of that money has already been utilized, gradually changing the depressing landscape of the earthquake-hit regions.
President Robert Kocharian, who is now up for reelection, presents this as one of the main accomplishments of his five-year presidency. The reconstruction effort has progressed so much, Kocharian and his allies say, that it will be largely complete by the end of this year.
“Fortunately, the Gyumri residents’ prayers have reached God, and thanks to Robert Kocharian everything is being rebuilt here,” says the city’s staunchly pro-presidential mayor, Vartan Ghukasian.
However, the real picture does not look that rosy. Authorities there estimate that as many as 9,000 families -- at least a third of its population -- still live in temporary shelters. Called by locals “domiks,” these poorly lit and heated shacks are made of tin and wood. A typical homeless family, which may have as many as 10 members, lives in a makeshift apartment made up of two or three domiks.
The shelters, in turn, form whole shanty towns that surround Gyumri’s old center. Varuzhan Sargsian lives in one of those neighborhoods with his wife, son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. The family is scheduled to receive a new apartment in May, and Sargsian admits that things are improving “little by little” lately. But he is skeptical about the government’s pledge to finish the reconstruction before 2004.
“Even two years is not enough for doing that. It will take four or five years,” he reckons.
The extended family of another homeless pensioner, Khachik Lalayan, is facing a more uncertain future. “They’ve been promising to give us an apartment for 14 years,” he says. “I visited the mayor’s office yesterday and again got no positive response. I’m afraid I won’t get anything in my lifetime.”
According to the Gyumri municipality, about 2,700 local families were provided with new housing last year. That includes seven apartment buildings constructed with the Lincy funds. Mayor Ghukasian claims that the construction work will accelerate this year and that “only a thousand” households will remain in the domiks by the end of 2003.
Ghukasian bases his optimism on the success of a large-scale housing program funded by the U.S. government as part of its annual multimillion-dollar assistance to Armenia. Under that scheme, homeless families in the entire earthquake zone are granted an average of $2,500 each for buying apartments and houses and in any part of the country. Official figures show that in Gyumri alone the U.S. Agency for International Development underwrote some 850 apartment purchases in 2002. The city authorities hope that at least 2,000 more families will leave the temporary shelters with the USAID’s help this year.
But Gyumri residents complain that the value of a housing certificate is too low for buying a decent apartment. Pensioner Arevhat Mkrtchian said she and her son were able to buy one only after adding a hefty sum to the USAID allowance.
“They want me to buy $7,000 apartment with a $2,000 certificate,” said another woman. “How can I do that?”
Having normal housing is not the only preoccupation of Gyumri residents. Equally acute is the problem of poverty and unemployment. Thousands of people have left for Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union in search of jobs over the past decade. Although the city is now more bustling than it was a few years ago, most of its Soviet-era large enterprises remain idle, and, like elsewhere in Armenia, many people still depend on regular cash remittances from their relatives working abroad.
The upswing in the construction sector has created hundreds of new jobs, especially in the Lincy-funded projects. However, local contractors of Kerkorian’s charity are widely accused of cheating their workers. Many men in Gyumri say they either received half of the promised $100 salaries or didn’t get paid at all for several months of work.
This is what led Manya Kyureghian’s husband Varuzhan to turn down job offers from different construction firms. His unemployed son also claims to have been cheated by private employers. An experienced construction specialist, Varuzhan Kyureghian says he will be better off with his current government salary of 20,000 drams ($35), even though it is nowhere near enough to support his family. The new, cozy apartment will ease, but not end, its hardship.