Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Armenia Quake Victims Still Homeless

Two decades on, president intervenes to speed up promised accommodation.
By Yeranuhi Soghoyan
Armenians still homeless from the huge earthquake of 1988 were appalled when they first heard that promises they would finally be housed last year were going to be broken. But then they saw the condition of the buildings intended for them, and were relieved.

According to officials and local people, some of the blocks were not properly built. Critics also said that there were insufficient quantities to house all those who needed homes.

Eventually, just a week before the New Year deadline for the residents to move in, President Serzh Sargsyan intervened and demanded an improvement in the standard of the flats’ interiors and facilities.

The head of Sargsyan’s administration, Karen Karapetyan, held a meeting on February 19 to check on construction progress, and spoke to all the regional governors as well as the director of Glendale Hills, a private building company criticised for its work.

Karapetyan stressed that the government would try to find ways to stop problems repeating themselves, including improved oversight of building work.

The earthquake, which struck Armenia on December 7, 1988, shattered houses across the whole north of the then-Soviet republic, destroying 17 per cent of all the living space in the country. In Leninakan – now called Gyumri – more than 20,000 flats were destroyed, along with 11,000 private houses and 120 administrative buildings.

More than half a million people were left homeless, of whom 7,000 still lack accommodation after more than two decades but the government has promised that all will have homes by 2013. Of the total, 4,200 are in Gyumri and whole chunks of the city are still made up of domiks - old shipping containers turned into temporary accommodation that has become permanent.

A key part of the rehousing scheme was the Mush-2 complex being built by Glendale Hills, but it was not finished by the end of the year as promised.

“To be honest, I would be scared to live in such a house. How solid can a building be that was built in the winter? A builder told us that the paint is coming off the walls, and they have to paint them again and again,” said Susanna Gevorgyan, one of the Gyumri residents waiting for a flat.

At the moment, the building site in the Mush-2 district has around 20 four-storey buildings, but some of them are still lacking windows and roofs. There was no road until the president announced he intended to visit late last year, when one was built in just ten days.

The deputy head of the state construction control agency of the construction ministry, Artashes Sargsyan, confirmed the houses had been built in a hurry.

“The builders were forced to heat the apartments with wood stoves round the clock so the plaster dried. There were cases when the laminate was put directly onto the wet walls. Now all these deficiencies are being corrected,” he said.

His agency has taken all the building projects under its own control to alleviate the problems that local people blame on Glendale Hills for employing inexperienced builders.

“I have a university degree, but I was unemployed,” said Albert Vahanyan, justifying why he took work at the building site despite having no experience.

“They just asked me if I can paint walls, and I said I could, and they gave me a job. There were lots of people like me, who don’t know anything about building, there. None of us knew that you can’t paint directly onto concrete.”

President Sargsyan was furious when he visited the Mush-2 district building site on December 23. He said all the problems caused by shoddy building work had to be sorted out, and the flats had to be provided with heating and other facilities.

A spokesman for Glendale Hills acknowledged mistakes had been made, and said it was possible IWPR’s informant had been hired without the correct checks having been made of his qualifications.

“As far as this one individual is concerned, maybe he was not a specialist. There were errors in the interior decoration so the company is paying to put them right. And as for those individuals who oversaw the interior decoration work in which mistakes were discovered, they have been moved to different jobs,” he said.

Sargsyan told officials to make sure the improvements were made by May 15, but the would-be residents are not too hopeful, saying they have learned not to put too much trust in government promises.

“Under the Soviet regime, the disaster area was supposed to be restored in two years, but everything got mixed up. One system replaced another, and it was impossible to move money from one to the other,” said Flora Sargsyan, who works for Armenian Caritas, a non-governmental organisation.

She was a schoolteacher at the time of the disaster, which killed at least 25,000 people, and now helps provide food and clothing to poor families.

“Children have been born in these domiks and have suffered from various diseases because they are living in dangerous and polluted accommodation, and the problem is not being solved. My neighbour, for example, was given a flat but was forced to return to the domik. Such cases are frequent. Getting a flat does not mean the problem is solved, since these people have nowhere to work,” Sargsyan said.

One domik resident, 67-year-old Eva, who asked that her surname not be used, has lived in her makeshift home for 21 years together with her son and daughter. When they moved into the domik, they considered it a step up from the temporary accommodation they had, but they have grown tired of it.

In September 2001, the government gave them a 3,000 US dollars certificate with which to buy a flat, but it was not enough, so they decided to repair the domik and make it more comfortable. The money allowed them to connect it to the gas, water and the sewerage systems and they have lived there ever since.

Residents of other regions have also failed to get their new homes. Some 182 residents of the village of Akhuryan in the Shirak region have been waiting for 20 years, and were initially angry that the delays in Gyumri would stop them getting new homes.

“We were dissatisfied at first when we heard that Glendale Hills would not start the houses for the homeless in Arkhuryan parallel with its work in Gyumri, and that the project would now only be started in May this year,” said Artsrun Igityan, the head of the local administration.

“However when we found out about the defects in the flats in the Mush-2 block, we were glad that they cancelled the project.”

Meanwhile, Vahan Tumasyan, head of the Shirak Centre non-governmental organisation, has appealed to the government to investigate the Mush-2 district buildings’ ability to withstand another earthquake. He said that, in meetings with construction workers, he was told that poor materials had been used, and called for an expert examination to put potential residents’ minds at risk.

Glendale Hills denied there was any risk to the buildings from earthquakes. ArmSeisShin, a prominent Armenian company that assesses earthquake risk, said in a statement to IWPR it had examined the buildings and concluded they were capable of withstanding an earthquake as strong as the one that caused the initial devastation.

“Worries about the buildings’ ability to withstand earthquakes have no foundation. This work was done impeccably. The building site will be open to journalists for a day at the end of February. They can come, film, take photographs, and see with their own eyes how the construction has been done,” the Glendale Hills spokesman said.

Yeranuhi Soghoyan is a correspondent from the Hetq newspaper. Ani Harutyunyan also contributed to this article.