Thirty years after the devastating earthquake in Armenia, its epicenter and surrounding cities and towns still remain a vivid reminder of that fateful December 7 in 1988. The festering wound that is still known as the Earthquake Zone—or disaster zone as its commonly known—has become a national disgrace because so many families are still displaced, and so many have left the area due to the slow churning wheels to rebuild the area.
Yet in the last 30 years, Yerevan has developed into a bustling metropolis with cafes and shops lining most of its main streets and boulevards and construction booming at such a rate that one might think there is a shortage in housing, office space or luxury hotels.
Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city, and its surrounding villages and towns are suffering from a housing shortage. Hundreds of families have now spend an entire generation living in domiks—the makeshift, and what were supposed to be temporary homes made out of metal, in which survivors of the quake took refuge.
At the same time, Gyumri is being touted as Armenia’s Silicon Valley, where innovation and a new generation is supposed to elevate Armenia to a bright future. Yet a few feet from the downtown Gyumri, the domiks line the streets, with their inhabitants resigned to a life of poverty and near homelessness.
The irony of the situation is that the earthquake became a window through which the Diaspora gained a foothold to Soviet Armenia. Every community around the world mobilized to assist and provide for their brethren in earthquake-stricken Armenia. The international community, similarly, rose up to meet the challenge and from far away corners of the world assistance was brought in to salvage the Armenian people from this mage disaster that claimed more than 25,000 lives.
If we survey recent disasters of the same magnitude, we will see that as soon as the cleanup of the devastation ends, the government and people of those countries systematically focus on rebuilding and getting life back to “normal.” However, when Armenia became independent, the entire country was hit by economic woes and all of its citizens faced with extreme poverty. However, that didn’t stop the country’s successive leaders from looting Armenia’s national wealth and making themselves beyond wealthy and filthy rich.
The amount of money that has poured into Armenia in the past 30 years could have rebuilt the Earthquake Zone many times over. Yet it was more important to conceive and execute Northern Avenue in Yerevan, one of the wealthier districts of the capital. Or, build sprawling malls that cater to the more affluent of citizens, with the lay person not being able to afford the goods that are being peddled there. Last year, a proposal for a $65 million amusement park in the center of Yerevan was approved, with many in government circles hailing it as a much-needed tourist attraction.
As the oligarchy grew richer, the prospects of rebuilding the Earthquake Zone became more unlikely.
Interestingly, since the popular movement this past spring that toppled the criminal regime of Serzh Sarkisian, not much has been said about rebuilding the Earthquake Zone. Instead, the new leaders have continued the pledges of more investment and prosperity under their rule, none of which directly aimed at helping those still displaced by the earthquake. Similarly, none of the 11 parties or alliances vying for office in the December 9 parliamentary election has made the rebuilding of the Earthquake Zone a campaign priority. A word here a pledge there while campaigning in the Shirak and Lori provinces, but nothing more.
Aside from being Armenia’s second largest city or a perceived incubator for innovation by the new generation, Gyumri and the surrounding towns and villages that were the epicenter of the earthquake 30 years ago have a strategic importance to Armenia’s national security as they border Turkey to the west and Georgia to the north.
We are hopeful that the new government that will be formed after Sunday’s elections will prioritize the rebuilding of the Earthquake Zone and will, once and for all, live up to its pledges of socio-economic justice and prosperity for all Armenians and not just those living in Yerevan.