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Sara Anjargolian

Gyumri Rising: Portrait of a City, 25 Years After the Earthquake

I went to Gyumri to seek out what the city might be like 25 years after the earthquake.

On December 7, 1988, I was a childgrowing up in a nondescript suburban street in Los Angeles. “We have to collect all our wool clothesand take them to the church,” Mom said, “ there has been an earthquake in Armenia.”

Here now, 25 years later, the spirit of the 25,000 who perished is still palpable, still present. Yet, at the same time, woven into the aftermath of the quake, another story seems to be evolving.

I start at the market. Two fellow journalists and I walk through Gyumri’s main market. It exists on a narrow street that has been affectionately nicknamed “Lachin” – referring to the fact that tradespeople took over the sliver of street similar to the passageway which connects Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.

The wood burning heaters there catch my eye as does the weather beaten face of the man who made them. Grigor Melkonian learned the craft from his father, who learnt it from his father. Now 60, Grigor has been a tinsmith for 40 years. The secret of being a quality tinsmith he says is getting the sizes and forms to perfectly balance with one another. Gyumri was once full of master craftsman like Grigor although their numbers have thinned over the years.

A few stalls down is Goharik Sargsyan – she has been a bread baker for 10 years. The orange heat of the tonir seems to be permanently tattooed on her face. It doesn’t phase her as she fearlessly slaps, slaps, and slaps again the dough prepared by her fellow bakers. “What were you before you were a bread maker” we asked? “What was I? I was just a pretty bride that’s all.”

Mrs. Goharik’s reference to being a pretty bride and one appearing before us was strangely serendipitous. Down the street from the market, a couple about to be wed, stopped at the main square for a photo op and then drove away in a hummer limousine.

While walking back to the hotel later in the day, a shaft of light caught my eye – it was an old Soviet era barber shop. Alone elderly lady was inside, hunched over a mop and bucket. We walked in and introduced ourselves … could she tell us a little bit about the barber shop? Unannounced guests didn’t seem the phase her. She continued mopping the floors efficiently, “Ask whatever you want” she said. Svetlana, Svetik for short, is 66 years old. “I look older don’t I?” We don’t answer but we both think she looks over 80. “Were you here during the earthquake? “Of course I was. I lost my son, my husband and my sister” she says this very matter of factly and continues to mop.

The mood at the barber shop is the polar opposite the next morning. A dozen men in perfectly pressed white coats working on another dozen men … close snipped hair does and shaving the old-fashioned way … some taking a cigarette break while warming their hands around the lone heater in the room. I had heard that Gyumri-tzees are legendary for their wry sense of humor - and received a healthy dose at the barber shop, sometimes at my own expense. Although all kidding was put aside when it came to Khanan Aristakesyan – the most senior member of the barbershop staff. We learned that he had been cutting hair at this barber shop since 1956 - 57 years - the oldest barber in all of Gyumri.

A no-frills sign showed us the way to the khash festival. 60 year old Grigor Galsdyan, nicknamed “varbed Grigor,” has been cooking the festive winter meal for 35 years and could not count the number of times he has made khash. Today he and his staff are cooking for a group of 150 at an event organized on Facebook and humorously named “the first international khash festival.” No one pays for the meal, everyone drops as much as they can in a collection box dedicated to renovating the city’s botanical garden. 

I knew the most difficult part of visiting Gyumri would be seeing the scores of metal shipping containers – commonly called domiks in Russian - in which families are still living. The domiks were brought in as temporary shelter during the earthquake yet some 4500 families still live in them until today. New neighborhoods - like this one called “Mush” -have been built, and many families who lost homes during the earthquake have received apartments. Samvel Balasanyan, Gyumri’s mayor, said that according to the government’s numbers 430 families are still owed apartments since the earthquakeand all of themwill receive a home in 2014. Which means that approximately 4000 families will continue to live in domiksin shanty townneighborhoods in Gyumri. 

Levon Barseghyan and his wife Nina have been living in a domik for 25 years. Levon is blind and spends his days listening to the radio. Nina collects items at the nearby garbage dump to burn as fuel and to keep warm. They were offered a one-room apartment through the government program but declined it because by the time they were offered the apartment – their family had grown and they were too many people for a studio. They are not sure what will happen now.

Anahit Sahradyan isn’t at all surprised when we knock on her door. She knows why we’ve come, to see who could possibly live in a domik in such bad shape. Her makeshift hut is one of the worst in the district. For the past 18 years this domik has been Mrs. Anahit’s home - her daughter Nara, and a three year-old grandchild also live there. The family has been registered as homeless and is 1,258th on the waiting list for a new apartment. “I haven’t lost hope,” she says, “I will get my new apartment. God will give me a place to live.”

Seda Der-Grigoryan also lost her home in the earthquake and is still waiting to receive an apartment. Her son and daughter are both in Russiabut she refuses to leave Gyumri.

Seda did not want to be photographed but allowed me to photograph the items she saved from her collapsed home.

I had heard that Gyumri’s previous mayor Vardan Ghukasyan had built an ostentatious hotel in the center of the city called “Hotel Alexandrapol.” It felt more like a cross between the palace at Versaille and a Versace runway show. At least the cappuccino was good.

That night the Gyumri-based Bambir band was to perform a memorial concert dedicated to the earthquake at the 700-seat theater in central Gyumri. Lead singer Gagik Barseghyan, nicknamed Jag, sat alone on stage during sound check wrapped in a blanket and heating himself near an old wood burning stove – a scene all too familiar for the 300,000 homeless who spent the winter of 1988 living the identical scene. 

Blacksmith Garik Baboyan’s workshop is tucked away under a leafless weeping willow tree. He is the 7th generation in a long line of blacksmiths. He makes a small fire to heat the metal and once it is red hot, he is able to bend and shape it with ease. The walls of his workshop are like a massive rolodex scribbled with phone numbers and names of customers and friends. Garik is content as he is able to make a good living and support his family with his work. As we are about to leave, Garik pauses at the clothes locker, opens it and points inside. “See that hat there – it was my grandfather’s hat. It has been there since the day he hung it with his own hands. After he passed away, I decided to leave it just like that.”

An artist of a different sort, 22-year-old Artak Pilosyan’s work focuses on the human form – although he has a very difficult time finding willing models in Gyumri. He was born three years after the earthquake and remembers going to school inside a domik. Artak tells us about a series of paintings he did related to the earthquake. “The paintings depicted what I imagined the new Gyumri of the future would be like. The buildings were built with a new architectural style constructed from the domik. My generation is the aftermath generation … we bear the event’s aftershocks in our life and work.”

Along with being known for its hand made artisanal products, Gyumri had also once been a bustling manufacturing town with over 50 factories including the manufacturing of shoes, glass textiles and machinery. Not many of those factories are left although the Lentex factory did provide a ray of hope. Established by local Gyumri resident Garen Komtzyan and his wife in 2003 - the factory specializes in socks and hosiery, and supplies their product to retail stores both inside and outside Armenia. Approximately 180 people are employed at the factory, the majority of whom are women.

Just outside the factory, I met another woman, her name was Peproneh. She had come to collect the discarded boxes from the factory to burn at home to keep warm. She piled cardboard, spools, thread, anything that would fit onto the small carriage turned makeshift wheelbarrow she intended to use to carry the items home. I began to walk with her and every few meters the pile would fall apart. It became too painful to watch, I slung my camera over my shoulder and started to put the fallen items back on the carriage and held them there. Two kilometers later we arrive at Peproneh’s home, or rather, a garage she had turned into her home. It turns out that Peproneh’s family lost their home during the earthquake and received a new apartment – this was where they kept their car. Over the years her husband passed away and her son was diagnosed with cancer. Unable to pay the hospital bills, she sold the apartment to pay for her son’s cancer treatment. Her son ends up dying and she is then forced to live on her own in the only dwelling she still owns – the family garage – which is now molded overand leaks incessantly.

I wanted to stay longer with Peproneh and hear more of her story, but my fellow journalist reminded me that we need to return to Yerevan and that the last bus back would leave in an hour. Peproneh’s was the last story.

Gyumriis a place of a million stories rooted in one single event. In the markets and around coffee tables, at the bakery and at the barbershop, inside the fanciest hotel or huddled in the most dilapidated shack - the story permeates everything - you stumble upon it, your trip over it, you can’t help it. And each story, simultaneously joyful and painful, seems to be squeezed together in the same space, you can no longer tell where one ends and the other begins. And when you leave it is with a feeling of heavy responsibility, that it is now up to you to pass it along, the best way you know how.

For more of Anjargolian's work visit www.SaraAnjargolian.com

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