By Astghik BedevianOver a thousand families living in a wooded neighborhood on the northern outskirts of Yerevan are facing eviction from their homes which the municipal and law-enforcement authorities say were built illegally in Soviet times.
The prosecutor’s office in Yerevan, backed by the municipal administration, claims that the hillside section of the Nork-Marash district is a government-protected forest that must have no population and buildings. But local residents say the authorities are in fact intent on clearing new space for expensive housing.
The unfolding dispute underscores the controversial nature of land allocations carried out by the municipality in recent years. The municipality is already dogged by serious questions about the fairness and integrity of the ongoing redevelopment in the city center which has been accompanied by forcible evictions of its longtime residents.
More than two dozen families in the Nork-Marash neighborhood covering 400 hectares of land have already received court injunctions ordering them to vacate their property without any compensation. The family of Seda Mikaelian was the first to be summoned to a local court last May.
“I am asking our government not to force us to commit a crime,” the middle-aged woman warned on Monday. “If they come to tear down my house I will personally smash their heads. So would do my children.”
The court rulings are based on demands of city prosecutors who cite the need to “protect the forest.” The residents affected by the harsh measure cite a September 13 statement by Armenia’s state forestry agency informing the court that ownership of the land is still being ascertained by various government bodies.
“But the court did not take that letter into consideration,” said one of them, Armen Abrahamian. “The prosecutors are putting strong pressure on the judges.”
Smbat Hovannisian and his extended family have already been forced out of their house by special police units. Their 2,000-square-meter plot of land is now occupied by a gasoline station. “They made several attempts to force us out but we defended ourselves,” he said. “But one day red berets came over with bulldozers and razed everything to the ground. From what we have heard, that was done at the prime minister’s orders.”
The residents’ ownership of their houses, mostly built in the 1970s, has never been formally recognized by the state, meaning that each of them can be evicted at any moment. Their most recent attempt to legalize their property ended in failure two years ago. The locals claim that only the owners of expensive houses built in the area in recent years secured official ownership certificates.
The Armenian government is already under fire over its handling of massive construction projects going on in downtown in Yerevan where old and decrepit houses are giving way to expensive office and apartment buildings. Many local residents are unhappy with the amount of financial compensation paid by the state, alleging high-level government corruption. Some have been evicted by force, a practice condemned by Armenia’s human rights ombudsman.
Yerevan Mayor Yervand Zakharian dismissed the criticism earlier this month, insisting that the protesters make up a small minority of the displaced residents.