Armenia: Quake Victims Bitter at Empty Promises

Twenty years after disaster, many in north of country remain homeless.

Armenia: Quake Victims Bitter at Empty Promises

Twenty years after disaster, many in north of country remain homeless.

People made homeless by the Spitak earthquake, which devastated towns and villages across northern Armenia exactly two decades ago, say they no longer believe government promises to clear up the mess.

Some 25,000 people died when the 6.9 magnitude earthquake struck the then-Soviet republic on December 7, 1988, destroying 21 towns and 341 villages. Around 6,000 people are without homes in towns scarred by ruined houses and hastily built shacks.

Last year, Serzh Sargsian, then prime minister and now president, promised the government would finally fix the damage by 2013.

But some people in the town of Vanadzor, which was one of the worst affected, did not celebrate. Such promises have been frequent over the 20 years since their homes were destroyed.

“In these 20 years, if they’d wanted to, all traces of the earthquake could have been taken away. Now it’s hard to believe that this will all end by 2013,” said Suren Grigorian, a 72-year-old.

His 64-year-old neighbour Suren Aghababian was even more cynical.

“Why couldn’t they do this in less time? They should have spent less money on their cars, their bodyguards and their houses, and restored the damaged area instead,” he said.

The two men could easily remember the events of 1988, when the Soviet government vowed to sort the wreckage in just two years. But the scale of the disaster, which destroyed almost all the housing in the Lori and Shirak regions, defeated their attempts.

Redevelopment efforts got off to a promising start.

“Every day, 360 railway wagons full of building materials arrived,” remembered Levon Aslanian, now an adviser to the governor of the Lori region.

However, after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Armenian economy could no longer support the reconstruction, especially after Azerbaijan and Turkey imposed an economic blockade when the war started in Nagorno-Karabakh.

“It is easy now to criticise everyone and everything for the fact that two years expanded to fill 20,” said Aslanian.

He said that the authorities have done much to replace the 15,000 apartments and 7,000 houses lost in the Lori region, and the 22,500 homes destroyed in neighbouring Shirak.

According to official figures, buildings containing 26,000 apartments have been built in the two regions. Separately, almost 18,500 certificates giving people the right to buy accommodation have been handed out.

More houses will now be built, the government has said, with certificates being awarded to people who, like the Saribekian family, remain homeless.

Alvard Saribekian’s shack is in a temporary settlement on the site of the Vanadzor Chemical Factory. Most of the people who lived there have now received housing, and her family is one of the few still waiting its turn.

Saribekian lived with her five children in a two-room apartment when the earthquake hit. After her building was rendered unsafe, residents were sent to the Russian town of Kharkov for a while. When they returned to Armenia, their block had been demolished.

“There was nowhere to live. We were given this little shack in 1995, and we still live here,” she said. Although her family has added two small rooms, it is still cramped for her, her mother and her daughter who all live together. The daughter’s three sons are all in the army, otherwise they too would be there.

President Sargsian has expressed confidence that the country has the resources to house families like hers in the next five years, and has even suggested three years could prove sufficient. But at the current rate of building – which stands at 70 homes a year – that looks optimistic.

In Vanadzor, 26-year-old Haykuhi Harutiunian said that building was behind schedule.

“In these conditions, they won’t achieve anything by 2013,” she said.

To date, the government has concentrated on helping people in towns, leaving villages largely untouched. In the villages of the Lori region, more than 1,800 families still live in shacks and temporary structures, while in the Shirak region the situation is even worse.

“Construction is definitely proceeding slowly, but we hope that the new government will be able to speed up the rate,” said Edic Hovsepian, an adviser to the region’s governor.

Naira Bulghadarian is a correspondent from the Vanadzor newspaper Civil Initiative and the online weekly Armenianow.

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