GYUMRI (RFE/RL)–Officials on Monday downplayed the government’s failure to rebuild regions devastated by the 1988 earthquake, insisting that reconstruction is going according to plan as Armenia marked the 21st anniversary of the calamity that killed 25,000 people and left hundreds of thousands of others homeless.
As always, the main commemoration ceremony took place in the northern city of Gyumri which is still bearing traces of the tragedy. President Serzh Sarkisian and other top officials laid flowers at a memorial to quake victims erected in the city’s central square. Archbishop Mikael Ajapahanian of Gyumri and the surrounding Shirak region then held a prayer service in memory of the dead.
As he made his way to the memorial, Sarkisian was mobbed by hundreds of local residents anxious to hand him letters describing their socioeconomic grievances and pleading for assistance from the state. The president did not stop to talk to them, leaving it to his bodyguards to collect the letters.
“I’m a mother of many children,” one woman told RFE/RL. “I came here to ask the president to help us buy firewood for the winter.” Another woman, a single mother, similarly hoped that the government will “help me a little.”
After the ceremony Sarkisian visited to the nearby town of Akhurian to inspect the ongoing construction of a sugar plant. He also inaugurated a newly constructed gas distribution system in a local village.
Despite numerous government pledges and hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, Shirak and other parts of northern Armenian hit by the earthquake have still not been completely rebuilt. According to government data, more than 7,000 families, who lost their homes on December 7, 1998, still live in shacks and other temporary shelters.
The government has pledged to provide some 5,300 of them with new and adequate housing by 2013. It plans to spend $70 million of a $500 million anti-crisis loan disbursed by Russia in June for that purpose.
Deputy Prime Minister Armen Gevorgian, who oversees the reconstruction effort, downplayed the delay, saying that the first batch of new apartments will be ready by the end of this month. “I don’t think that one should cast doubt on the implementation of the project because construction is in progress,” he told journalists. “The construction of 1,050 apartments will be finished this year as planned.”
“Next year, we will complete the construction of another 1,980 apartments in Gyumri. I urge everyone not to doubt that the project is being implemented and will be completed,” said Gevorgian.