Recently, Armenia celebrated 25 years of independence. What is it worth when thousands of earthquake victims still live in containers?
Three generations, one container: Sita Zakarjan (right), daughter Gayaneh (left) and the youngest granddaughter Photo: Tigran Petrosyan
The toilet paper vendor at the Gyumri bus station knows the way to the containers. "Don’t you want to buy paper?" he calls after them. "Why don’t you take my flour!" crows a young man with a big belly. There are sacks in front of his store, bulging with wheat and spelt flour. He also has sugar and salt.
Behind all these stores and stalls, the container village begins. The Zakarjan family lives in one of the containers. They survived the earthquake that shook northern Armenia in December 1988. At the epicenter was Gyumri, which was then called Leninakan, named after the revolutionary leader Lenin. At 67, Sita Zakarjan is the oldest person here and thus the head of the family since her husband died six years ago. Her two daughters, her son, his wife and three grandchildren live in the container with her – a total of eight people. "But you have to add the rats," Sita says dryly, pointing to the cardboard walls that are supposed to insulate the container and that have long since been gnawed by rats.
With a population of about 120,000, Gyumri is Armenia’s second-largest city. According to old custom, however, the inhabitants still call themselves "Leninakans" after the old Soviet designation. Their Armenian is a local, very distinctive dialect, roughly like Bavarian in Germany.
After the earthquake, Gyumri was largely rebuilt. The British George Byron School, the residential district of Austria, the Berlin Polyclinic and Charles Aznavour Square are all signs that plenty of international aid flowed into Gyumri. But in between, Soviet ruins catch the eye – and the container village. Again and again, the Armenian government promises that the containers will soon be replaced by new housing. "When the hell?" curses Sita. Be patient! – That’s the only answer she’s heard from officials in 28 years. Sita has high blood pressure. She doesn’t move enough, the doctors say. But how can she move in this shantytown? She only likes her sofa next to the small window where the sun shines in.
It was December 7, 1988, when a violent 6.9-magnitude quake shook the country. At least 25,000 people died. A few days earlier, Sita begins to tell, she packed her things and left for Tbilisi with the two small children to visit relatives. How she had missed the Georgian capital, where she was born. "That’s where my childhood home is." Her husband stayed behind in Gyumri with their three older children.
Shock hit her bones when she heard the first news from Armenia. Immediately, she said, she set out on the return journey with the two children. She passed through destroyed towns and villages. And the closer she got to Gjumri, the less hope she had of embracing anyone alive. Guilt rose up. Had she abandoned her three children? Or, on the contrary, had she at least saved the lives of the two little ones? The joy was indescribable when she saw her husband in front of the ruins of her house, with her three children beside him. Sita’s eyes get moist when she tells us this.
The government promises that the containers will be replaced with new housing. "When the hell?" curses Sita Zakarjan.
Slowly, however, joy gave way to the realization that the survivors face an uncertain future. Quickly, the containers were set up. Sita would not have thought it possible that this life would not come to an end even after 28 years. About 4,000 families are still waiting in the containers for the promised apartments.
When Sita shows the container, she doesn’t even need to stand up, it’s so cramped. The main room is full of beds. Here in the kitchen part is the sofa that she loves so much. At least the bathroom has a separate entrance. And where is the bathroom? Gayaneh, Sita’s daughter, smiles at this question, then pulls a folder out of the cabinet. Here she has archived all the tickets she received for free use of the bathroom and hair salon. An aid project from the Citizen’s Office.
Gayaneh tells us that she is 48 years old and unmarried. Here in Gyumri, she is considered "unhappy" because of this. Gayaneh herself seems to see it that way by now. "I’m not young anymore, and I’m not attractive," she says. "They don’t even take me as a cleaning lady." She has trouble finding a job, she says.
On Sept. 21, Armenia celebrated the 25th anniversary of its independence with pomp. "I don’t care that much," bursts out Gayeneh when asked about it. "I don’t need a stupid parade or fireworks to be proud of my country." A job in a factory like in Soviet times, that would be a reason to celebrate. Back then, Gyumri was one of the most important industrial cities in Armenia.
The Zakarjans have experienced a lot, they have survived a lot. The only thing they are always afraid of is winter. They now have to worry about firewood again – another battle with the officials. Annoying and often futile, just like with the flies here in the container. The pests buzz around and land on your face far too often. You have to wave your hands incessantly. Guests lose patience after ten minutes. The Zakarjans, however, seem to be immune to this plague. And they have a talent for catching flies. Unrivaled in this is young Arpi. She jumps on a chair, unrolls a flypaper and hangs it on the ceiling next to the light bulb. The first flies quickly stick to the sweet glue.
At 22, Arpi is Sita’s oldest granddaughter. She belongs to the container generation. Unlike her grandmother Sita and her aunt Gayaneh, she knows nothing other than life in this shack. But Arpi has studied and hopes to work soon. She wants to become a military instructor at the Gyumri Pedagogical Institute and train students militarily, in keeping with the old Soviet tradition. There is a two-year compulsory military service only for men over the age of 18, but not for women. Therefore, men are more likely to teach the subject. But Arpi wants to assert herself against the male-dominated society that still characterizes Armenia today. Will she succeed?
Arpi’s blond hair
Arpi doesn’t answer, but wants to show something on the computer. Besides the refrigerator, it is the only object of value here; both are gifts. She clicks on an image file. The photo slowly builds up and shows Arpi in uniform – and with blond hair! The young woman beams. Because Armenian women tend to have black hair, she dyed her hair blond, she says. She has already had success in the virtual world. "The blonde in uniform" has an enormous number of "likes" on social networks. In real life, she has significantly fewer chances. She applied for the job four months ago. The answer is still pending.
"I guess you have to win an Olympic medal to get out of this hell," Arpi says now. "Exactly!" agrees Gayaneh. "That’s only too true!" now Sita also says. In a container next door lived weightlifter Gor Minasjan. He won silver at the Rio Olympics. After that, he got a four-room apartment. "Shit! The broth!" suddenly exclaims Gayaneh, running to the stove and pulling aside a pot. She is cooking potato soup for her nephew, who has had his tonsils removed and is in the hospital.
Suddenly a man enters, clean-shaven, his hair cut short, his shirt freshly ironed. A man like that doesn’t belong in the container. It turns out that he is a distant relative who has come to pick up Gayaneh and Arpi to visit the sick nephew. His stern look means that the women should hurry up instead of chatting. He politely inquires about Sita’s health and takes a seat next to the computer desk.
"Is there a worse government than Armenia’s?" he starts talking and becomes more explicit. The president’s family, the prime minister, the heads of customs and police, and all the corrupt businessmen who sit in parliament – they are responsible for the wretched situation in the country, he says. "They build themselves mansions, open restaurants, all the while the citizens are getting moldy in these shacks." He looks around this oversized cardboard box and mutters, "And that’s called independence." – "Come on, off to the hospital," Sita finishes.
The three leave the container, Gayaneh carries the soup pot, wrapped in cloths, under her arm. Sita has dropped into the sofa, the tapestry behind her. She looks out. After the conversations, it is suddenly very quiet. A breeze moves the wallpaper remnant on the wall only very gently.