Staunton, December 9 – Refugees always face enormous problems, but the Armenians leaving Qarabagh following the recent fighting are in many cases confronted with a problem few outsiders have thought about: they are returning to portions of that country that have still not recovered from the 1988 Spitak earthquake.
They thus are seeking housing and jobs in places where many of those who have been living there for a long time do not have adequate places to live or employment. And that reality means that the returnees are likely to pose a more serious problem political as well as practical for a long time to come.
Irina Tumakova, a journalist for Novaya gazeta, visited one of the Armenian cities hardest hit in 1988 and now experiencing an influx of refugees from areas in Azerbaijan where Baku’s forces have restored their control (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2020/12/10/88303-gyumri-gorod-bezdomnyh).
Her report, which clearly touches only a tiny part of both the problems continuing from the earthquake and the new ones the influx of refugees is creating, is heartrending.
Gyumri, she writes, was the major urban center of Aleksandropol in tsarist times. In Soviet times, it was renamed Leninakan and became a major meat processing and manufacturing center, attracting workers from across the USSR and featuring modern for those times housing and public facilities.
That positive history came to an abrupt end on December 7, 1988, when the earthquake hit. That quake destroyed much of the what is now Gyumri, as well as 20 other cities and 300 settlements in Armenia. Some were completely destroyed while others were so damaged that people could not live in the housing that remained.
As a result of the earthquake, at least 25,000 people died, more than 100,000 were seriously wounded of whom 19,000 became invalids. Two hundred facto4ries and 600 kilometers of highways were destroyed, and, what defines the situation to this day, 514,000 people were left homeless.
In Gyumri, there wasn’t enough money to rebuilt the destroyed apartment blocks and people on their own erected shanties, which continue to exist and be referred to locally, Tumakova says, as “little houses.” There are still hundreds if not thousands of Armenians in that city alone living in places unfit for human habitation.
Now, the Moscow journalist says, the influx of refugees is adding to their number. There simply aren’t enough apartments or houses for them, and Yerevan does not have the money to provide for them. Consequently, people from Qarabagh are now living in “the little houses” in
Gyurmri and elsewhere in Armenia.
At present, there is no indication that the Armenian authorities will be able to rectify this situation anytime soon, thus ensuring that this refugee flow like so many others will be a cancer on the country’s political system and restricting the possibility many now hope for that Armenia will be able to move on.