Friday, 21 September

No Playing Inside: House On the Verge of Collapsing On Its 12 Occupants

Grisha Balasanyan

Everyone in the Artzvaqar neighborhood in Gavar, the capital of Armenia’s Gegharkounik Province), knows 42-year-old Garineh Hovhannisyan.

Garineh and her sister Hasmik are the town’s only well diggers. She never complained about getting paid 2,000 AMD ($4) for every 1 meter she digs.

Nevertheless, the back-breaking work landed the sisters in the hospital for surgery. They’ve since stopped digging for a living.

Hasmik is now the town’s only woman public services employee; a street sweeper. She rents a place to live. Leaving early in the morning and getting back late at night from work, Hasmik has a tough time getting to her job.

The roof creaks and sags

Garineh’s house

The neighbors also know Garineh as the woman living in the house that’s ‘falling down’.

If its collapses, which can occur at any minute, Garineh and Hasmik, and ten other family members will be trapped under the rubble. Neighbors are wary of visiting, calling the house a ‘living cemetery’. You can hear the ceiling beams creak. The entire roof is hanging by a thread.

Built in 1962, the 72 square meter house has walls constructed of roughhewn stone and earth mortar. The roof has moved, leading to the collapse of one of the walls. Two years ago, a portion of the roof fell. Snow and rain fall directly on the beds underneath.

In 2014, the house was evaluated as dangerous and unfit for human habitation.

Garineh and grandson Alex

“Some officials came, looked around, and said that we would get a new place. That’s the last I heard from them. I’ve lost all hope about getting a new house. I wish the ceiling would collapse and kill us all. That would be the end of it. I just pray to god that none of us remains alive to mourn for the rest of us. The authorities should be ashamed that they are putting these children at risk of dying,” Garineh says.

Besides Garineh, her kids, and her two small grandchildren, Hasmik and her two boys – Levon and Vladimir – also live in the house. The boys’ fathers died when they were young.

Working as beggars

The families somehow get by on the 31,000 AMD pension of Zarik Hovhannisyan, Garineh’s mother, and 54,000 AMD in social assistance. That’s 12 people living on $172 per month.

Garineh says none of them can afford to get sick.

Zarik Hovhannisyan and granddaughter Hermineh

A few years ago a protuberance started to grow on Zarik’s left cheek. It’s since turned into a seeping open wound. The 80-year-old woman is in pain but needs money to get proper medical attention.

To make some needed cash, 23-year-old Levon works as a beggar during the summer. Going to the Gavar town market, he takes up a position outside the store and pleads with passersby for a few coins. This nets him 1,000-2,000 drams a day. It’s all spent on food.

Garineh says Levon also makes money doing more ‘respectable’ work hauling sacks of cement at local construction sites. He also chops wood for others.

Vladimir, Levon’s older brother, went abroad looking for work. Two years ago he travelled to Russia but was deported by the authorities. He can’t enter Russia for the next five years.

“They say our assistance will be cut if we find a job. But we want to work. Unfortunately, the wages they offer are less than the assistance we get. So sit quietly and don’t rock the boat,” says Garineh.

The living room

There are days when the family has nothing to eat. The assistance and pension combined soon runs out. The day we arrived, the children only had fried potatoes to eat. The family owes a local store 150,000 AMD and the shopkeeper refuses to give them anything more on credit.

Garineh’s grandson Alex

Winters are brutal in Gavar, situated high in the Geghama mountains. Garineh says she wrote several times to the regional government office asking for help, at least for getting wood for fuel. No additional assistance has materialized. The family scavenges for wood to burn. Neighbors provide some as well.

“In 2104, the regional government allocated 20,000 drams. I wrote them this year. They answered that my petition was sent to the Gavar Municipality. There, they told me to collect wood from the public services yard and burn it. It’s all wet wood,” says Garineh.

Boarding School, a “Refuge”

Garineh’s two minor children, 13-year-old Never and 11-year-old Hermineh attend Gavar’s #1 Special Needs School. They return home once a week. The two kids are the most relaxed out of all those living in the dilapidated house. They sit quietly by the wood stove for hours, intently gazing at what transpires around them.

Garineh says that Never and Hermineh are the luckiest of them all – staying warm and being fed at the school.

“The kids are ashamed to go to a regular school. The other kids harass them for living like gypsies in such an old house. I thank the director of the boarding school for feeding them and giving them clothes. I also get clothes from World Vision for the other kids. A few days ago I got some rubber galoshes for them to wear in the house,” says Garineh.

Hermineh, 11 years-old

Garineh has but one wish – any house with a solid roof. “I don’t care if it’s a dog pound, just as long as it’s a normal building. So long as I know that water doesn’t cascade down on us. I want the kids to be safe inside so I can go outside and make some money. The children only bathe once every few months. We don’t have the facilities. My mother only bathes in the summer. It’s too risky other times. She might get sick,” Garineh says.

Oh, there’s one other thing that Garineh tells me which sums up the whole story.

The children aren’t allowed to play inside. Any jumping or running around might bring the entire roof down.

Photos: Narek Aleksanyan

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