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Armenia: Hope, Gloom Coexist In Quake-Hit City

Residents of northwest Armenia are still reeling from the effects of a catastrophic 1988 earthquake that killed some 25,000 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless. The majority of the deaths occurred in the areas surrounding Gyumri, Armenia's second-largest city, where thousands of people still live in temporary shelters. The government says the protracted reconstruction of their homes will finally be completed this year, but those on the ground are not so optimistic.

Gyumri, Armenia; 6 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Manya Kyureghian has waited for this moment for 14 years, ever since a powerful earthquake destroyed her home in Gyumri, an Armenian city still bearing the scars of the calamity.

The elderly Kyureghian 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 the rusty metal shack in which they have lived since 1988, struggling with "cold and rats."

Kyureghian pays tribute to Kirk Kerkorian, a U.S. billionaire of Armenian origin whose lavish assistance has thrown a lifeline to this once-thriving city, which has become a byword for gloom and misery in post-Soviet Armenia. "We are very happy now. We are so grateful to Kirk Kerkorian, to our leadership, to everyone," she said.

On 7 December 1988, as many as 25,000 Armenians died in their homes, workplaces, and schools in a matter of minutes -- an enormous toll in a country of 3.5 million people. The material destruction caused by the earthquake was equally extensive, with more than 500,000 people losing their homes. Much of the local economic infrastructure was also left in ruins.

The human tragedy was prolonged by the cash-strapped Armenian government's failure to promptly rebuild all demolished homes. The 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union put an end to the massive aid sent by Moscow. Reconstruction work continued at a snail's pace.

It has gained momentum over the last two years, however, with millions of dollars in mainly Armenian diaspora assistance pouring in to what Armenians still call the "disaster zone."

Kerkorian's Lincy Foundation is by far the single largest contributor, having set aside $43 million for the effort. A large part of that money has already been used, gradually changing the depressing landscape of the earthquake-hit regions.

Armenian President Robert Kocharian, who is up for re-election, presents the rebuilding as one of the main accomplishments of his five-year presidency. The reconstruction has progressed so much, Kocharian and his allies say, that it will be largely finished by the end of this year.

The city's staunchly pro-presidential mayor, Vartan Ghukasian, claims the situation is "incomparable" to what it was several years ago. "Fortunately, the Gyumri residents' prayers have reached God, and thanks to Robert Kocharian, everything is being rebuilt here," he said.

The Yerevan government's predictions seem too optimistic, however. Local authorities estimate that as many as 9,000 families -- at least a third of Gyumri's population -- still live in temporary shelters. Called "domiks" by locals, 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 around 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 have been improving "little by little" lately. But he is skeptical about the government's pledge to finish reconstruction before 2004. "In my view, they won't finish things up this year. Even two years is not enough for doing that. It will take four or five years," he said.

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. I visited the mayor's office yesterday and again got no positive response. I'm afraid I won't get anything in my lifetime," Lalayan said.

According to the Gyumri municipality, about 2,700 local families were provided with new housing last year. That includes seven apartment buildings constructed with Lincy Foundation funds. Mayor Ghukasian claims that construction work will accelerate this year and that "only 1,000" households will remain in 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 earthquake zone are granted an average of $2,500 each to buy apartments or houses in any part of the country.

Official figures show that in Gyumri alone, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) 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 many complain that the value of a housing certificate is too low to buy a decent apartment.

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 relatives working abroad.

The upswing in the construction sector has created hundreds of new jobs, especially in the Lincy-funded projects. However, local contractors hired by 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. An experienced construction specialist, he said he will be better off with his current public-sector salary of 20,000 drams (about $35) even though it is nowhere near enough to meet his family's needs. "With this 20,000-dram salary, I can only pay utility charges. That means I have to steal to support my children and grandchildren," He said sarcastically. The new, cozy apartment will thus ease, but not end, the Kyureghians' hardship.